An endless flawing stream of translation

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From Leopold Eisenlohr, writing about his neighborhood in West Philadelphia:

So, I walk on down to the corner store to pick up a couple things and the woman behind the counter is reading (aloud, but quietly) a book that is in Chinese, in vertical columns, and clearly made to be a handsome volume. We step away from her book so she can get me something (a beer) from behind the counter and I ask her (in English), whatcha reading? and she answers: the Bible. We then continue in Chinese and I ask about the translation, is it in old style Chinese, etc, getting more and more confused since by her answers it doesn't sound like the Bible at all. When we get back she shows it to me and it's actually a Buddhist scripture, the Liánghuáng bǎo chàn 梁皇寶懺 (Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of the Liang Dynasty)!

So what happened, I think, was that the Bible became an English equivalent for the word jīng 经, and she was using it as a general term for scripture, classic, sutra, etc. I had never heard that before — the conflation in English of bible and jing. I should include the fact that the woman's English is pretty poor.

Here's the text of the Liánghuáng bǎo chàn 梁皇寶懺 (Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of the Liang Dynasty) with convenient Pinyin phonetic annotation.

Leopold goes on to mention that this reminds him of another epic Chinese-English fail in his neighborhood: a local restaurant has the slogan chuānliúbùxī 川流不息, which they translate on their sign and on the menus as "endless flawing stream."  As Leopold puts it, this is "A good pithy encapsulation of the problem of sign translation failures: an endless flawing stream of machine mistranslation."

So I searched the web for "endless flawing stream".  Lo and behold, I find that a poet named Prior, in his "A Paraphrase on the Thirteenth Chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians", in the very first line, supposedly refers to a "flawing tongue" (p. 455 of A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain [1795], vol. 7).

Here I would like to interject that, in checking to see whether there were any justification for Prior to render the first verse of 1 Corinthians 13 as referring to a "flawing" (or "flowing", for that matter) tongue, I came upon the amazing BibleGateway website that enables one to check scores of different translations in dozens of different languages (including nine Chinese versions) at the click of a mouse.

My Google search for "endless flawing stream" (without quotation marks) actually yielded 115,000 ghits.  Of course, I did not check each of them out, but upon examining the citation of Prior's paraphrase of the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, it seemed to me that the word was actually "flowing", not "flawing", and that the "flawing" was an artifact of a faulty OCR reading of an old, unclear typography (I'm surprised that the OCR reading of these old texts is as good as it is).  Indeed, Matthew Prior's text originally read "flowing tongue", not "flawing tongue".

So far as I know, English "flow" was never written with an "a" for the vowel.  Here are earlier forms of the verb from the OED:

pa. tense and pa. pple. flowed /fləʊd/ . Forms: inf.OE flówan, ME flohen, ME flowen, (ME flouwen), Orm. flowenn, south. vlowen, ME floȝe, flowyn, ME–16 flowe, ME– flow. pa. tenseOE fléow, pl. fleowon, ME fleaw, flew, south. vleau; weak forms: ME fléowede, Orm. flowedd, ME floȝed, flowede, 15 flowd, 15– flowed. pa. pple.OE flówen, ME–16 flowen, 16–17 flown; 15– flowed.

A quick glance at a few dozen of the instances of "flawing" tagged by my Google search where one would expect "flowing" revealed that they were all from early editions, so I would suppose that all of these false "flawing" readings were the result of faulty OCR transcriptions of what was really "flowing".

This reminds me of our recent discussions of "Hsigo, the imaginary flying monkeys of Chinese mythology", where "Hsigo" appears to be an artifact of faulty OCR.

Pondering all of this a bit more deeply, however, I realized that the same sorts of errors occurred before machines were doing the reading.  In other words, human beings can also make mistakes in the reading and transmission of texts, in which case we refer to them as scribal errors, lapsus calami, and so forth.

Come to think of it, mistakes are liable to occur whenever information of any sort is being passed on.  In genetics, these are referred to as "mutations".

Sometimes errors that occur in transmission are innocuous, but sometimes they can be disastrous or fatal.  A lot of the effort in textual studies is to spot and weed out the mistakes that inevitably creep in during filiation from one generation to another.  In nature, mutants often do not survive because they are dysfunctional.

When all is said and done, machines (like minds) will occasionally make mistakes, and then we have to live with the consequences.  A good thing is that we also have machines to help us identify and correct errors.  The cybernetics of any successful system is such that the number of corrections is greater than the number of errors.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    Search google books for "buddhist bible" or "taoist bible" or "confucian bible" or "hindu bible" and you will turn up a reasonable number of hits from the 19th through 21st centuries. Sometimes "Bible" is in quotation marks, expressly indicating that it's a metaphor/analogy; sometimes not. There seems to be disagreement in the early English-language sources as to whether "Hindoo Bible" meant the Rig Veda or the Bhagavad Gita. "Buddhist Bible" seems to have been used in the title of various anthologies of translated Buddhist scriptures intended for an Anglophone audience.

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    Various texts, mostly Confucian Classics (especially the Yi jing and Four Books), were referred to in older English material as "the Bible of the Chinese" or "the Bible of China."

  3. Adam Smith said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    "Sometimes errors that occur in transmission are innocuous, but sometimes they can be disastrous or fatal." And when they are subject to positive selection (increased replication) by their environment, they are called adaptations. The Hsigo allele seems to be flourishing in an ecosystem rich with Wikipedians and language mavens.

  4. Leopold said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    Referring to an important book as "the bible of x" or some other form like "the Brewmaster's Bible" is common, but that's to imply a comparison to the importance in a tradition of a certain thing, seemingly the same type of construction as "the Cadillac of x."
    What was striking about the woman's choice of words is that the word bible is divorced from its traditional importance as the holy book of certain abrahamic religions. "The Bible" was used to mean "a sacred text."

  5. Kimchikraut said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

    My own interpretation of 川流不息 is "Non-stop Sichuan food". The name sticks in the mind as this line appears in 千字文.

  6. Lacey Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    Our creative flow
    Pouring and stirring,
    stewing in the melting pot.
    To share a bowl
    of soulful flavor
    For each of us to savor.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    From Elizabeth Wayland Barber:

    I just finished consulting 7 art books on the subject of a painting by Nicholas Poussin. FIVE of them called the painting "Bacchanal before a Term of Pan." What the hell is a "Term" of Pan? One punted and called it "Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan." Only one got it right: "Bacchanal before a Herm of Pan." (A "herm", as I knew from my undergrad art classes, is a special kind of ancient Greek fertility statue, showing an incomplete male body (no legs, often no arms) with an erect penis.) What gets me is that 5 expensive books AND many entries on the internet all followed each other around copying an error without question.

  8. Levantine said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    'Term' is actually not incorrect in the title of Poussin's work. The OED gives the following definition:

    Archit. A statue or bust like those of the god Terminus, representing the upper part of the body, sometimes without the arms, and terminating below in a pillar or pedestal out of which it appears to spring; a terminal figure. Also the pillar or pedestal bearing such a figure.

  9. Levantine said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    The website of the National Gallery, London, where the painting is housed, uses 'A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term':

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    Levantine has raised a very interesting issue, and he is right to have done so. There is no doubt that the National Gallery in London, which houses the painting, refers to it as "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term", and that title receives 91,400 ghits, whereas "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Herm" gets only 1,610 ghits. Clearly, most people nowadays call Poussin's painting "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term". Still, the fact that some people refer to the painting as "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Herm", not to mention that "term" and "herm" are uncannily similar, makes me wonder how this situation came about.

    It is way past my bedtime, so I won't be able to put together a thorough and reasoned discourse on this subject. Instead, I will just provide some relevant materials in a rather desultory fashion so that, perhaps by tomorrow morning when I wake up, someone will have made better sense of it all.

    First of all, simple definitions:

    For "term", see def. #9 here:

    For "herm", see here:

    I am suspicious that "term" and "herm" are so similar in their sound, shape of pillar / pedestal / boundary stone indicated, function, etc. I think that one of them must have been inspired by, borrowed from, or mistaken for the other, which latter would have been the original. But this would have happened long ago, since both terms seem to have existed since antiquity.

    The deity depicted on a "herm", as Prof. Barber stated, is supposed to have an erect penis, but the god Terminus (after which the "term" is supposedly named) doesn't have an erect penis, at least not as depicted here:


    The name derives from Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries and boundary markers. If the bust is of Hermes as protector of boundaries in ancient Greek culture, with male genitals interrupting the plain base at the appropriate height, it may be called a herma or herm. The crime of Alcibiades and his drinking-mates, for which Socrates eventually indirectly paid with his life, was the desecration of herm figures through Athens in the dead of night.


    This description mentions "male genitals" for a herm, but does not call for an erect penis, as do many definitions of herm. I may return to this later, if I can keep my wits about me at this late hour.

    I'm intrigued by why Alcibiades and his drinking-mates desecrated the herms of Athens and for what reason Socrates indirectly paid for it with his life.

    Here's some more interesting background about herms from Encyclopedia Britannica:


    in Greek religion, sacred object of stone connected with the cult of Hermes, the fertility god. According to some scholars, Hermes’ name may be derived from the word herma (Greek: “stone,” or “rock,” such as a boundary or landmark). With the development of artistic taste and the conception of the gods as having human form, these objects tended to be replaced either by statues or by pillars that were generally square and tapering toward the bottom so as to suggest the human figure. These were usually surmounted by the bearded head of Hermes (hence the name) and had an erect phallus.


    Note that Hermes is supposed to be ithyphallic. Now, the god on the pillar in Poussin's painting is Pan or Priapus. His genitalia are showing, but — when I magnified that part of the photograph many times — it was evident that the god is NOT ithyphallic.

    The Wikipedia article on Hermes has some fascinating information about the etymology of his name, how it might be related to the Greek word for interpretation, and a possible connection with "hermeneutics":


    The earliest form of the name Hermes is the Mycenaean Greek *e-ma-a2 , written in Linear B syllabic script.[6] Most scholars derive "Hermes" from Greek herma[7] (a stone, roadside shrine or boundary marker), dedicated to Hermes as a god of travelers and boundaries; the etymology of herma itself is unknown. "Hermes" may be related to Greek hermeneus ("the interpreter"), reflecting Hermes's function as divine messenger.[8][9][10] Plato offers a Socratic folk-etymology for Hermes's name, deriving it from the divine messenger's reliance on eirein (the power of speech).[10] Scholarly speculation that "Hermes" derives from a more primitive form meaning "one cairn" is disputed.[9] The word "hermeneutics", the study and theory of interpretation, is derived from hermeneus. In Greek a lucky find is a hermaion.


    Finally, before I fall asleep at my computer, being a Philadelphian, I want to mention that the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts holds a painting by Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755) entitled "Bacchanalian Revel" (Poussin's masterpiece was painted in 1632-3).


    One of America’s earliest mythological, or “history” paintings, Bacchanalian Revel depicts Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. In this scene revelers drink and dance before a “herm”, or pillar crowned with the torso and head of an ancient god. Mythological creatures such as maenads and satyrs dance around Silenus, the ancient god of dance and drunkenness and a companion of Bacchus. On the right, a female nymph makes an attention-grabbing gesture: she points to none other than the young Bacchus, a stumbling, drunken child depicted with his traditional thyrsus, or staff. Gustavus Hesselius, a Swede who was among the first formally trained painters to immigrate to America in 1711, was also the first religious and mythological painter in America, along with America’s first pipe organ builder.


    Try as I may, I cannot discern an erect penis, nor even a limp one, on the god depicted on the pillar in Hesselius' painting, which is nonetheless here called a "herm".

    Whether or not Hesselius' "Bacchanalian Revel" was directly inspired by Poussin's "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term", it is unmistakably part of the same tradition. Yet the pillar in Hesselius' painting is called a "herm", whereas the National Gallery uses "term" in the title of the Poussin painting that they hold. I wonder, though, whether the Poussin painting always had the word "term" in its title. The National Gallery acquired the painting in 1826. What was it called before then? In what language? In French? Or in Italian (Poussin worked in Rome for many years and that is where he died)? Or perhaps in the language of some other country where the painting was held before coming to England. Of course, the main question is what Poussin himself called the painting?

    Poussin was fond of painting bacchanalian scenes, including at least two featuring children, both of which were done in 1626. In one there are two gods on a pillar with their backs to each other, but no phalli are visible. In the second "Children's bacchanal", there are two gods on separate pillars, and they do appear to be ithyphallic (sort of, in an ambiguous way).

    Incidentally, in this list, the Poussin painting which we've been discussing is called "Bacchanal before a herm".

  11. Levantine said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 1:51 am

    Thank you for your very interesting and thoroughly researched response, Prof. Mair. I think I'm right in saying that no 'mainstream' Old Master painting would ever show an erect penis, even if they do show up not infrequently in classical art.

  12. bloix said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    It is possible that the woman in the store said "the Bible" because she did not want to encourage a conversation. There are lots of Christians who are eager to proselytize total strangers and a woman stuck behind a counter is an easy mark for religious enthusiasts. It may be that before she knew that her interlocutor spoke Chinese and was respectful of her beliefs she was merely trying to get rid of him.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    From Ann Kuttner, a specialist on Greco-Roman art:

    A Greek or Roman would have called it a herm (bust or, as here, half body on plinth), and would have called what you see here a herm of Pan. Toning it down for (then) contemporary taste not to be ithyphallic is no bar to this….

    Never see in Roman art the so called `terminus' image, let alone one with a satyr-gods features: it is a concept, a god with no temples, not put up in statues or depicted in relief or graphic arts. One would have to look at the antiquarians of Poussin's day to see if they genuinely thought there were classical `terminal' images, and if Poussin and contemporaries called it `terme' or something like that.

    Myself, without period linguistic evidence to the contrary, I sincerely doubt Poussin thought Priapus or Pan herm image in the Dionysaic scenes he could see (Bacchanals) was anything but a Dionysiac statue of some kind, Roman style. As I said, you would want to check 16th-17th c, antiquarians to see if they cooked up such a thing. Trust me, incorrect labels of post-antique images of reception of Roman stuff are rife — this is where art historians get nice new articles about re-identifications, especially if they contact an actual Greco-Romanist: it does not matter how many hits incorrect title x gets on the web.

  14. Levantine said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    The OED's earliest citations for 'term' in the sense being discussed here date from the first half of the seventeenth century, so even if it doesn't reflect actual antique usage, the term (!) was around for a long time before Poussin's work is likely to have received its current title (many, if not most, Old Master paintings weren't named as we know them until the nineteenth century).

  15. Bill W said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    Off-topic, but since Prof. Mair himself raised the issue:

    "I'm intrigued by why Alcibiades and his drinking-mates desecrated the herms of Athens and for what reason Socrates indirectly paid for it with his life."

    No one really quite understands why a group of young Athenian aristocrats, apparently including Alcibiades, desecrated the herms on the eve of the Sicilian expedition in 415, in addition to conducting a mock ceremony making fun of the Elysinian mysteries, a cult of enormous significance that was taken very seriously in throughout Greece. (t's especially puzzling since Alcibiades was one of the proponents of the expedition.) But it seems to have been an act of nihilistic irreverence that had some sort of political significance and may somehow have been directed against the Athenian democracy by defacing the herms to which the city looked for protection. It outraged the public, although there is a question whether to some extent at least the outrage may have been manufactured by the political opponents of the perpetrators.

    Socrates' circle included many men, Alcibiades himself for one, from the aristocratic milieu that perpetrated the outrage–some of whom later participated in the reign of terror imposed by the Spartans after the Athenian defeat in 405. Socrates' association with this milieu probably accounts for some of the unpopularity that resulted in his trial and execution in 399, just 6 years later. And I believe many Athenians must have thought that Socrates' teachings questioning popular values, which were perceived as atheism, lay behind the desecration of the herms.

  16. Bill W said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Should be spelled "Eleusinian".

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    @Bill W

    I am extremely grateful to you for that explanation of the desecration of the herms of Athens and Socrates' association with those who carried it out.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    From Larry Silver, a specialist in painting and graphics of Northern Europe during the era of Renaissance and Reformation:

    Term and Terminus are at least familiar in the Renaissance; indeed, Erasmus adopted Terminus as his emblematic god, in the form of a term, along with the Latin line (Horace, Epistolae I, 16: 79) that "death is the ultimate boundary of all things" (Mors ultima linea rerum), as well as the motto, "I yield to none" (Concedo nulli).

    So, by the time of Poussin, the non-ithyphallic Terminus term might have been an option, but in all likelihood (since Poussin was deeply engaged with ancient Rome), the form is a herm.

  19. Levantine said,

    October 20, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    From what I can tell, a term shows the god's torso (,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg), whereas a herm usually does not ( The OED seems to support this distinction in its respective definitions of the two words (I pasted that for 'term' above; the one for 'herm' is as follows: 'A statue composed of a head, usually that of the god Hermes, placed on the top of a quadrangular pillar, of the proportions of the human body'). According to this understanding of the two words, it seems to me that the statue shown in Poussin's painting is indeed a term, regardless of what the ancients may have called it.

  20. Vince said,

    October 20, 2013 @ 4:42 am

    The present title of Poussin's painting certainly dates from after the London National Gallery bought it from Thomas Hamlet in 1826. The earliest record of the painting is in the catalogue of the Redon de Boisset sale in 1777 when it was titled 'Une Fete en l'honneur de Dieu Pan'. John Smith's "A Catalogue Raisonne of the Works of the most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters' in 1837 (if Google Books can be trusted) calls it 'A Bacchanalian Dance and Revel in Honour of Pan'.

    (I've never trusted the National Gallery's titles since I realised that they had mistranslated Seurat's 'Une baignade (Asnieres)' as 'Bathers at Asnieres'. I did point out to them that it was a painting about the place not the people, only to be told, "Yes, we know it's wrong, but we've been calling it that for 80 years and aren't going to change now." (Or words to that effect)

  21. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2013 @ 6:49 am


    Fantastic! Really grateful for that precise and helpful information!

    Many thanks to ALL who have contributed to this most interesting and edifying discussion.

  22. jeff said,

    October 20, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Back to the original topic –
    My mother-in-law, whose native language is Mandarin and who was raised during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, gave me pretty clear directions once to a restaurant by telling me which street it was on and the two cross streets it was between. She described it as "a big castle", and that the restaurant's name was "General". I thought that was kind of strange for a Japanese restaurant, and I drove past it without seeing it twice, but the third time I got it:
    The restaurant's name was "Shogun", and It was in the architectural style of a Japanese castle. She was just helpfully "Englishifying" it for me.

  23. Piyush said,

    October 20, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    The biggest instance of "flawed" translation that I am aware of is that of the trigonometric function called (in modern times) sine.

    The function originates as jyā (lit. chord, which is , up to a factor of 2, what the sine function really represents) in the work of the Indian astronomer Aryabhata, c. 500 CE. As Wikipedia notes, the Sanskrit word jīvā was also used as a synonym by Indian mathematicians. This was apparently transliterated as jībā in Arabic translations of Sanskrit mathematical texts. However, when Latin translations of these Arabic translations were made, the transliteration was apparently interpreted as the Arabic word "jayb" meaning "bay" , and as such was translated into Latin as sinus, from where it went to sine in English.

  24. hanmeng said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

    I made the mistake of looking up "herm" on Bing images. jībā indeed.

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