MAX PLANCK TURNS BLUE

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Science  19 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5909, pp. 1763
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1763c

It seemed like a good idea at the time. For a special issue on China, MaxPlanckForschung—the quarterly magazine of Germany's Max Planck Society—asked a designer to find a nice Chinese poem for the cover image. The text, drawn from a photo database, turned out to be anything but. It included turns of phrase such as: “Beauties from the north who have a distinguished air of elegance and allure/Young housewives having figures that will turn you on. …

“You can find similar language on houses of prostitution all over Hong Kong,” says Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania who posted a translation on a linguistics blog.

CREDIT: MAX PLANCK SOCIETY

Reactions in China ranged from amusement to outrage. The Max Planck Society immediately apologized, saying in a statement that “it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.” Well, not exactly, says Mair. “It's impossible anyone who knows even 2 or 3 years of Chinese would be fooled,” he says. “The language is veiled, but it's not that veiled.” The journal is playing it safe now: The cover image online and in the forthcoming English edition will be graced with the title of a book by a 17th century Catholic priest.

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