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This recently retracted article on the scientific journal PlosOne was retracted (amongst other reasons) due to concerns that the authors were adherents to the pseudoscientific theory of "intelligent design".

However, one blog post regarding the article makes the (unsupported) claim that the retraction is racist, and the scientifically unacceptable phrases are actually mistranslations due to the poor command of English by the authors.

So by now you probably know that PLOSONE retracted a paper about the mechanics of the hand for including phrases about "the mystery of the creator's design". Which sounds like an intelligent design argument sneaking into a scientific publication.

Except it wasn't. It was a poor translation of a Chinese idiom, which the author states would have been better translated as "nature".


Is there any idiom in Chinese that translates to any of the two following phrases used in English?

1: Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.

2: The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.

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Oh they even capitalized the word "creator"! I feel sorry for them because obviously the authors don't believe in creationism, and they didn't mean it. However, even in Chinese I would only expect the expression "mystery of the Creator’s invention" without religious connotations to exist on literary works like prose or verse. For a scientific paper, it sounds blatantly improper, to my engineering background ears. – Stan Mar 6 at 4:31
Have you seen Victor Mair's Language Log post about this incident? – sumelic Mar 6 at 6:44
@sumelic No, I did not, and I think it would be an excellent resource for an answer! – March Ho Mar 6 at 7:17
@Stan Still giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, it could well be that the editor/typesetters capitalized "Creator." The authors will have seen the page proofs, but I know when I get page proofs I often don't argue with small changes in spelling and grammar that I do not like but do not want to make a fuss about. – Colin McLarty Mar 6 at 14:07
@ColinMcLarty I agree with you and personally I believe they are innocent. My point was, no matter whether they meant it, it's a terrible writing style. Several years ago in the academic writing class, I was told, there's a rule that we shouldn't use any metaphor or simile or personification than an objective plain description in scientific papers before we became Isaac Newton or somebody; if there did exist some rhetorical expressions accepted by the society, then do the citation and deliver the responsibility. – Stan Mar 6 at 14:53
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The authors's claim seems likely true. Of course among the several authors and the editor who passed the article on, some may have had a different idea than others.

Victor Mair at was right to say "no matter what the authors may have meant if they were thinking of a Chinese term, or even if they weren't thinking of a particular Chinese term, paper was written in English for consumption by the international community of scientists, and ... conveys the wrong message for a scientific paper." Really the paper should not have been printed this way.

But historically there has been huge debate over how ancient, or classical, or later Chinese, ideas of 天 relate to western religious ideas. Does 天 mean God, or god, or heaven, or just sky as a metaphor for the grandest most stable aspect of existence? Even within the 论语/Analects some occurrences seem quite materialistic, so that it would mean overall nature, and others more anthropomorphic suggesting a God with personal intentions. Many other characters have similar ambiguity and there is every reason to suppose that through history different Chinese people have meant different things by this.

I have not found a source giving the original Chinese from this paper. But the website discusses this case and offers several idioms, which they claim would not seem religious to most Chinese people but would to many westerners:

相信很多母语为中文的朋友都会理解,“造物主” “神奇的造物主” “上帝之手”……当初赵忠祥在《动物世界》里不都是这么讲的吗?在我们眼里这样的表达和“大自然”无异,也并不会有任何宗教相关的意识和概念。但是当这些东西放到英文环境下,其含义往往会丰富起来。

At first I was not clear on the phrase 赵忠祥, but March Ho's comment led me to find it is the name of the narrator of a TV show 《动物世界》 (Animal World).

Certainly those idioms can be religious in Chinese. But "上帝" is also used for what some western physicists call the "God Particle"--the Higgs boson, and that is never understood religiously.

Mair goes on to say:

Even if they were unaware that "the Creator" — especially when capitalized, as it always is in the paper under consideration — generally refers to the Judeo-Christian God, at least Le Xiong must have been aware that the Latin suffix -or indicates one who performs a specified action. Thus "the Creator" (not "a creator") is a very different proposition from "creation".

But within the English language many creationists say just as indignantly that everyone should know the suffix "tion" in words like option, election, creation, indicates that someone has opted, or elected, or created something, so they insist "Creator" is not a different proposition from "creation." I am not willing to blame the authors for ignoring Latin etymology.

As to the article, yes it should not have appeared this way. As to what the authors meant, as Stan well says, the authors don't believe in creationism, and they didn't mean it.

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+1 for the Chinese-sourced research. To me, "赵忠祥" as used in the quote would clearly seem to be used in the context of a name, in the sense that the author is quoting from that person. But as a bilingual English/Chinese speaker (from Singapore), I disagree that these phrases, even in Chinese, lack a religious connotation, and if I remember correctly, these words ("造物主","上帝") did not enter common parlance until Christian missionaries arrived in China. – March Ho Mar 6 at 3:07
Apparently I am wrong regarding the Christian missionaries introducing the word, after some further research, it seems that the word has a completely different connotation in Classical Chinese. Perhaps they are referring to these elements instead of the Christian meaning. – March Ho Mar 6 at 3:20

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