Discover your honorable corpse

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Now playing at Pier 17 in New York, "Bodies… The Exhibition".

Visitors literate in Chinese were welcomed to the exhibit in a particularly ghoulish way:

Fāxiàn nín de shītǐ
"Discover your corpse."

That is a truly gruesome thought, and especially ironic for Chinese, since all of the bodies in the exhibition were obtained from police in the People's Republic of China.

Adding insult to injury is the use of the honorific form of "you", nín 您. It's as though they were saying "your honorable corpse" or the "corpse of your honor", "your honor's corpse". Perish the thought!

shītǐ 尸体 means "corpse; dead body; remains" — there's no other way around it. Considering the sensitive, controversial nature of the exhibition, such a gross misuse of the term "corpse" to refer to the "body" of Chinese visitors is psychologically ghastly and linguistically inexcusable.

At the very least they could have written

Fāxiàn nín de shēntǐ
"Discover your body."

In my estimation, it would be even better to use some such wording as the following:
Tànsuǒ nǐ de shēntǐ
"Explore your body."

Since the organizers failed so miserably with the Chinese, one wonders whether they have made any similar gaffes with the other languages visible on the sign.

[A tip of the hat to Rebecca Fu]


  1. Eric TF Bat said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    Ah, flashbacks… back in Year 12 French [1] the teacher got us writing poetry in our rudimentary French. One lass decided to write a raunchy poem about her lover's body, and used the word "cadavre", I think it was. Same mistake. The teacher very primly explained that this was not the correct choice.

    [1] Explanation for foreigners: Australia has kindergarten at age five, year 1-6 or 1-7 as primary school, then up to year 12 as high school, after which it's normal for people to either get a job or go to University for a three or four year undergrad degree. So Year 12 French is the French one studies, semi-optionally, in one's final year of conventional, more-or-less compulsory schooling.

  2. Gregory Dyke said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    I have the opposite anecdote, where a French dance instructor explained in his best English that you have to move "with your whole corpse". An unfortunate "false friend" of french "corps"

  3. Irina said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    The Dutch and (as far as I can tell) German are completely correct. "Ontdekken" has meant "discover" rather than "uncover" for a few hundred years now.

  4. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 6:58 am

    The French and Spanish are fine (although the V 2nd person will seem odd for many speakers of the latter language, especially those from Spain, where advertising regularly employs the T form 'tú'). And the Greek seems fine as well, although I can't tell whether it's idiomatic.

  5. Trimegistus said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Wait, the sign is too ghoulish? It's an exhibition of dissected bodies.

  6. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:12 am

    One lass decided to write a raunchy poem about her lover's body, and used the word "cadavre", I think it was.

    Maybe she was a fan of Andrew Marvell.

  7. bulbul said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    German and Dutch are OK, too (or I see Irina's got that covered). But Russian – Откроите ваше тело – is weird. First, it's misspelled – the verb should be откройте (inf. открыть). And second, there's the same problem as with Chinese: откройте would be fine when referring to Columbus and America or Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, but in this context, I don't know.

  8. Janne said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    Japanese uses 体 (karada) which is fine; it's the overarching, general term for body, live or dead, human or animal. 発見 (hakken) is also ok; it can mean both discover/explore and find (something that was lost). But the しなさい form of "do" is, well, not very well placed. It really is an order or commandment, often used from a superior to an inferior: "you there! Discover your body (or else)!"

    A better formulation might have been "体を発見しましょう" (karada wo hakken shimashou) – "Let's discover our bodies". That gets rid of "あなた" (anata) "you" as well, which is a little awkward, as if we are all going to explore your particular body (so if you would take off your clothes and stand in the center here…).

  9. Chad Nilep said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:49 am

    The Japanese (あなたの体を発見しなさい) is pretty much a calque of the English (Make a discovery [of] your body). It makes no real sense as a Japanese sentence, since unlike in English there is no tradition of inviting people to "discover" various things. It also seems a bit rude to me, since the verb is a bald imperative. My native-speaker informant says it's just weird. She agrees that she would consider it rude if someone said it to her, but on a museum sign she just finds it nonsensical.

  10. Lane said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    bulbul, since my Russian's not as good as yours, why isn't it "Откроите свое тело"? I thought if you were referring to your own thing, like "He loves his [own] son" "свой" was pretty much obligatory…

    It's funny how many of these equivalents there are: not only corps-corpse in French-English. The Dutch "lichaam" would inevitably remind a German-speaker of the cognate "Leiche", or corpse.

  11. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    @Lane: fantasy readers and RPGers will also be familiar with the English cognate lich.

    And, on the Romance side, German Körper, Spanish cuerpo and Italian/Portuguese corpo, all visible in the sign, are cognate with corpse/corps.

  12. arthur waldron said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    Or of the English lych as in lych gate. The sign has lots of problems. The exhibit, I suspect, even more.

  13. Sili said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    So you're saying it was a shitty choice of word?

    (Sorry …)

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    It took me 3.7 seconds to get that.

  15. Philip Newton said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    @Lane: or probably of the synonym "Leichnam", which is even closer in form to the Dutch word.

    (The old meaning is still preserved in "Fronleichnam", the fest of Corpus Christi, referring to the body, not specifically the corpse – though I imagine your average German speaker would not realise this, since that meaning has passed out of use completely. As has, for that matter, the "Fron" word for "lord", preserved only in compounds such as "Frondienst" = socage.)

  16. dw said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    It would be very amusing if one of the translations actually meant "take all your clothes off".

  17. DG said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    The Russian one does in fact mean "reveal your body", i.e. "take all your clothes off". It could possibly mean what they intended too, but it's a very awkward interpretation.

  18. bulbul said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 10:34 am


    why isn't it "Откроите свое тело" (em mine)
    That's how I'd put it (well, maybe with a different verb). One answer could be that this is due to poor translation. However, I've seen enough of this sort of thing in Russian as well as other Slavic languages that I don't think that bad translation can account for them all. There appears to be a tendency in Slavic languages to phase out the use of the reflexive pronoun and just use the possessive pronoun, especially in certain contexts/types of syntactic structures.
    I say 'appears to be' because I don't have (semi-)hard data for anything but Slovak where it appears to have started with the second person plural and then gradually spread. Second person singular, interestingly enough, seems to be relatively immune.

  19. Boris said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    I may have lost my intuition, but I think ваше is ok in the imperative. It's the repetition of you/your/etc that would be redundant. As for откройте, it's definitely wrong. узнайте seems better.

  20. Schlomo said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Well, I popped over to correct the Russian, but so many people have gotten there before me! I find it interesting that we all have slightly different ideas of how we would have said it, but we can all certainly agree that they used the wrong form of the verb – whether or not it's the right verb to begin with.

  21. Stephen said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    I think that свой is only really obligatory in the third person. Он открыл своё тело = he opened his own body. Он открыл его тело = He opened his (someone else's) body. With the first and second persons (я люблю свою/мою жену, узнайте о своём/вашем теле), I was taught that both are possible.

    Based on a search of the Russian National Corpus, "я люблю свою" seems to be more common than "я люблю мою", but the latter does have citations going back to 1838. It may be a question of emphasis.

  22. helena said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    i read somewhere that the bodies in the exhibit are the corpses of chinese prisoners who did not ever consent to having this done to them, which makes the chinese mistranslation particularly hilarious.

  23. DG said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    Bulbul: "ваше" is just fine, in fact better than "свое".

  24. Pavel Iosad said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    This being LL, I would not want to come with a definitive pronouncement on whether the reflexive or 2pl possessive is "better" in the Russian translation without any corpus figures (which I'm too lazy to dig out). My intuition does say the the 2sg is not incorrect, but is much worse stylistically and does very much smack of a calque. Personally, I would definitely say свое here. And the translation of the verb is tricky. Откройте is not perfect and quite calque-ish here (it smacks of the truly abysmal "откройте для себя" for "discover", much abused in advertising), but it's not immediately obvious what would be a better translation. I strongly suspect a truly idiomatic/catchy translation would need some different turn of phrase.

  25. F said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    No one has pointed out yet that "откроите" as written would mean "cut out [from something larger, e.g. a piece of cloth]."

  26. marie-lucie said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

    The French "Découvrez votre corps" means "Discover your body" in this context, but it could also mean "Take (some of) your clothes off" in another context. "Se découvrir" might mean 'discover oneself' in a psychological context, but in a more concrete context it means literally 'uncover one's body', i.e. 'remove some clothing', as in taking off a jacket when the weather turns warm, as opposed to "se couvrir" 'to put on extra clothing' in cold weather. There is a well-known rhyming saying "En avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil" 'In April, do not remove a single thread (of your clothing)' , since the weather is so changeable.

  27. Alain Turenne said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    @ Marie-Lucie: You are quite right… and yet, I had no second thought about "découvrez votre corps" until now.
    Maybe worth mentioning: "Découvrez-vous" (remove your hat).

  28. marie-lucie said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    Oui, Alain, I had not thought about this other meaning either until other commenters pointed out something similar in other languages. But it seems that French is different in that se (dé)couvrir normally refers to partial, not full, dressing or undressing.

  29. ShadowFox said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    I agree with most of the criticism of the Russian translation although there appears to be little offered in terms of correction. DG got it right over bulbul–the pronoun is correct. But only Boris offers an attempt to correct the problem: "узнайте ваше тело". This, however, poses another ghoulish problem–it proposes for the visitor to recognize his/her own body, perhaps among those on display… Hmm… that's a dilemma. I would suggest another (non-idiomatic) solution. The verb "познать" is more closer related to a self-reflection, understanding, learning. So I would suggest "познайте ваше тело", which might possibly be improved with the reflexive possessive "познайте свое тело". Of course, that would sound more like "Know your body!", but that's still better than the alternatives.

    One other related observation–it would be interesting to find out when the term for discovery "открытие" came into Russian. I would not be surprised if it was a calque from German or Dutch that has been in use–as Irina noted–for a few hundred years. The noun has only one meaning, however, unlike the corresponding verb that still means "uncover".

  30. Ivan said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    To take apart the Russian some more:

    "Кроить" (infinitive) is a verb that in its literal sense is solely related to tailoring; (It's also used metaphorically and humorously in connection with other types of "crafting", i.e. poetry.) it refers to either simply cutting a larger piece of garment material (cloth, leather, etc) into usable pieces, or cutting out pieces of that material according to the specific garment's pattern.

    The general meaning of the "от" prefix is something like "away from", and with its addition "откроить" has the meaning of cutting off a part of a larger piece of material.

    That's what the sign is telling you to do with your body.

    The intended verb, as noted by bulbul, is "открыть" (imperative "откройте"), but even that one's iffy – its most common meaning is "to open", which is a whole other can of worms in this context, and its meaning of "to discover" is mostly associated with places and secrets or scientific advances, not objects. (So Indiana Jones had "to discover" the location of the Holy Grail but "to find" ("найти") the Grail itself, and could do either with the Temple of Doom.)
    As Boris points out, "узнайте" is a slightly better fit, but its meaning of "learn, find out" or "recognize" also leaves much to be desired. Also, regarding DG's "reveal your body": this reading is a heavily poetical take on the "to open" meaning of "откройте" in this specific sentence, and definitely not regular usage – I believe "open your body [to the speaker/person X]" works similarly in English. ShadowFox's suggestion is the best one so far, I think.

    As for "ваше" vs. "своё"…hm. My first instinct as a native speaker says that in this specific case, with the plural/vous-form imperative, either one is acceptable but "ваше" is more formal.That's hardly a general rule, though. Only the reflexive, as bulbul says, would be used in second person singular (imperative included). The possessive would not be used in a PSA such as "Берегите своё здоровье" "Take care of your health" and that kind of imperative is generally phrased in the singular as "Береги своё здоровье" anyway (though "Берегите ваше здоровье" might work as a vous-address). And then you have nuances such as "Мы любим наших детей" vs. "Мы любим своих детей". A group of schoolteachers could say the former metaphorically about their students (We [as a group] love our children [as a group]), but the latter only about their actual children (We [members of a group] each love our own children).

  31. Arthur Melo said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    I was going to say they just put the English sentence into Google Translate and harvested the results in all other languages, but I decided to investigate further and see if it was really the case here. Let's see the results to some of the languages on the sign:

    Original: "Discover your body"

    French: Découvrez votre corps (sign) / Découvrez votre corps (GT)

    Spanish: Descubra su cuerpo (sign) / Descubre tu cuerpo (GT)

    Russian: Откройте ваше тело (sign) / Откройте ваше тело (GT)

    Chinese: 发现您的尸体 (sign) / 发现你的身体 (GT – Simplified Chinese)

    Japanese: あなたの体を発見しなさい (sign) / あなたの体を発見する (GT)

    Greek: Ανακαλύψτε το σώμα σας (sign) / Ανακαλύψτε το σώμα σας (GT)

    Well, half of the GT translations (French, Russian and Greek) were identical to those on the sign, and the Japanese version is quite similar. The Chinese version was actually better than the "corpsy" one on the sign, though Victor Mair would have done it differently himself.

    All in all, from all the comments, it seems to me that the organizers of the exhibition wanted to cut back on translation costs and may have either used the Google Translate or asked some people who supposedly thought themselves able to translate such a "simple" sentence.

  32. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    […] Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum tried to be nice about commas; Victor Mair discovered a troubling translation; Mark Liberman examined the problem of using too many “negatives in one proposition”; and Eric […]

  33. John Cowan said,

    August 18, 2011 @ 2:46 am

    Marie-Lucie, Alain: English used to have discover (intransitive) as an equivalent of uncover 'remove one's hat'; it could also mean 'unroof a building'.

  34. dustybeijing said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    Though the mistranslation of 身体 is clearly a bit of a problem, I see less of a problem with 您 – the character is invariably used on signs in China when welcoming people to places of business. It isn't necessarily necessary here, but if they had written 发现您的身体, would you translate it as "discover your honorable body" or simply "discover your body" ?

  35. RavynSkye said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    Don't know if its been brought up, but the Japanese is just… WEIRD.

    They use 'anata' which is a friendly moderately respectful form of 'you', but then they use a command verb, which just sounds… Well, if a cop tells you to 'STOP!' vs if your friend says, 'Whoa, hold on there' is the difference.

    Its almost kinda vaguely threatening…

    It also makes no sense in Japanese because they wouldn't say, 'Come discover this!' they'd more likely say, 'Come view and study this.' Sounds similar in English, but in Japanese its just not the same thing.

  36. Brett said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    @Phillip Newton

    actually, the word "Leichnam" is still very much in use in German. Try watching the infamous "Tatort"-series an you'll see. True, "Fron" only exists in the context of archaic expressions like "Fronleichnam" and "Frondienst", but the Verb "fröhnen" is still very much in use, too, despite its antiquated ring, and though it mainly means to "indulge", and only at second glance "to worship", it's still pretty close.

    Concerning the German version of "discover your body": The "Sie" in this type of general invitation is weird. Even in the 19th century these kinds of invitations to do something (one famous sentence from early 20th century comes to mind: "keep your race clean", a slogan of the nazis, which also uses "deine", not "ihre".) used "Dein". The point is that "[Verb] Sie Ihr [Object in posession] " needs one more word than "[Verb] dein [Object in posession]". The latter is shorter and thus sound more to the point and slogan-y.

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