George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.

Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.

His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704  he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”

This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.

Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?

He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to”  the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:

The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.

[...]

The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.

[...]

TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.


Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe

thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion

as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada

daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant

our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.


(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.

Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.

The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.

The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoir go for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.

Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosa and his Memoirs (as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II

Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of  a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.

We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.

Tour guide interpreters to lose guild status

The Japan tourism agency is saying (sub req’d) they plan to ease a strict ban on tour guide interpreters getting paid for their services. As it stands, only nationally licensed guide-interpreters can get paid; as a result, you can see many “volunteer” interpreters at tourist destinations. Other translations do not need any certification, as far as I know.

Now, they aren’t completely eliminating the qualification program or abandoning quality standards for tour guides, as this key passage makes clear:

The Japan Tourism Agency thus decided to allow people without formal qualifications to charge for their services, while maintaining the current certification program for highly skilled interpreter-guides. The agency hopes to submit a bill to revise the rules to next year’s regular session of the Diet at the earliest.

Still, the agency determined that a certain level of quality, if not national certification, is needed for those who work as guide-interpreters. It is therefore considering drawing up guidelines and having municipalities and private-sector companies certify those who undergo training.

An official with the agency said revising the rules would allow the roughly 54,000 Japanese who now act as volunteer guide-interpreters to better use their skills, and help create jobs for foreigners living in Japan.

So that’s one more group that’s losing protected guild status, much as Japan’s barbers did years ago. Having a strict national qualification requirement for such a minor occupation seems like overkill to me. I can see why the tourism regulators want to maintain quality, though – a situation like the child tour guides at the Taj Mahal in Slumdog Millionaire would probably be a worst-case scenario.

Japan Times on Geos collapse – read Adamu’s UNCUT commentary

Richard Smart writing for the Japan Times has an article looking at the Geos meltdown in detail. I am quoted with my take on how Geos handled its demise and the outlook for eikaiwa employment.

Adam Richards, a 28-year-old translator and writer on Japan at the Web site and travelogue Mutant Frog, argues that the G.communication takeover has in some ways made the best of a bad situation.

“Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy,” he says. “That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.”
...
Japan Economy News’ Worsley agrees that the eikaiwa schools need to change to survive.

“The industry itself will continue to shrink as does the population and number of younger people in Japan. In order to avoid disappearing, language school operators are going to have to embrace new technologies, diversify their products and services, and appeal to new market segments,” he says.

This, argues Richards of Mutant Frog, is likely to lead to worse conditions for newcomers to Japan.

“It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there,” he says.


In the interest of context, here is what I commented to Richard in response to his questions:

I obviously don’t know exactly what happened, but a multitude of factors have conspired against the eikaiwa industry – cutbacks in consumer spending, corporate belt-tightening, cuts to government subsidies, and tighter regulation are the big ones. It seems like Geos was unable to shrink down to size fast enough to adapt to the changing environment. Geos adopted a somewhat similar strategy to Nova – grow large and bring in lots of new students. Then, in April 2006 a Supreme Court decision led to a swift change in the regulatory environment – eikaiwa schools suddenly had to set up sensible refund policies (and in Nova’s case front a flood of refund requests), and this made the economics of a large chain less attractive. Geos apparently weathered the change relatively well, but once Nova failed so spectacularly it did serious damage to the reputation of eikaiwa as a service. This, combined with the economic downturn starting in 2007, probably did Geos in as their sources of cash dried up.

It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there. Berlitz and ECC seem to be hiring. Generally, I would recommend applying for JET or even teaching English in a different country, but if you have your heart set on working in Japan and don’t mind the salary levels, then why not?

There is a danger the Geos bankruptcy will continue the downward spiral that Nova set in motion. When there is a bankruptcy, you inevitably have students with contracts that are either broken or not satisfactorily fulfilled, and you have teachers who find themselves either out of a job and possibly unpaid or thrust into the arms of new management that may treat them differently. The general dissatisfaction gets reported in the media and spread by word of mouth, fueling the perception that eikaiwa is a scam or otherwise not worth the trouble. However, Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy. That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.

Japanese people want to learn English as much as they ever did. All are required to study it in school but most never come within a mile of fluency. They spend their childhoods being fed the idea that speaking English is the key to success yet they never get there! So as long as the public education system keeps creating this demand, I think there will always be supplemental learning options like eikaiwa.

The Geos bankruptcy – what’s next for eikaiwa?

(Updated to change student data)

Geos, one of Japan’s major “eikaiwa” English conversation chains, has entered the bankruptcy process (see Let’s Japan or any number of news reports for more details). Some reactions are declaring eikaiwa dead and encouraging teachers to look for employment outside Japan. It does seem like the old eikaiwa business model is not poised for a serious comeback barring a significant improvement in the Japanese economy. That said, eikaiwa as a concept and attractive learning option for Japanese people isn’t going away.

From the looks of it, some eikaiwa bankruptcies are all but inevitable. Revenue is down, and according to Nikkei “the number of language schools in operation last year remained mostly unchanged from 2008, but the number of new students enrolling in the schools plunged 35.7%.” That’s down 35% from post-NOVA levels!

Let’s see some of those numbers in graph form:

And some indicators of our own:

As overall revenues have fallen, sales of teaching materials have risen in importance, now accounting for around 10% of the language school business.

The industry overall now employs more part-time teachers than full-time, but now both categories of teacher are in decline. Not exactly a good sign for financial health or the job security of teachers.

Revenue per student has risen slightly as the average number of classes per student is down, which suggests to me a slightly lower value for the lessons.

Going forward

Paradoxically, this sort of downsizing is exactly what the industry needs, but when schools collapse so suddenly and spectacularly it scares people away and hurts business even more. Nevertheless, I would not be so intensely pessimistic as some of the commenters I have read. The initial success of these schools has created the “eikaiwa paradigm” that will live on, I think, even if all the big chain schools fall to the wayside. Just as small-time piano teachers can make good money anywhere in the world, any halfway decent teacher who can reliably provide value for his/her services can do OK. Maybe not “tens of thousands of western immigrants descend on Japan” kind of OK, but OK nonetheless. Japanese people still want to learn English and are willing to pay for it. They just can’t afford it as much anymore and don’t want to hand their money to crooks.

The problem is that these major players set up large-scale businesses that profited by essentially gouging customers – promising stellar results and pressuring them into long-term contracts only to give sub-standard lessons to people who may not have really been able to benefit from them in the first place. Now, a combination of factors – tighter laws, the bad economy, rise of the Internet as a study tool, people generally getting wise to the con – has come crashing down on Geos.What the numbers don’t show is that the major operators seem to be offering more or less the same product as before – if anything, they are diluting the product with less value and more part-time teachers – and customers just aren’t as interested anymore.

(The stats above can be had at the METI website (bilingual Excel file))

Thoughts on legal translation

A thread popped up on the Honyaku mailing list today regarding the use of “will” and “shall” in legal documents. I took the rare (for me) step of responding. Since we have many translators in the audience, I’m cross-posting my response here, with a few edits to consolidate another comment in the same thread.

Law is a conservative field, and legal drafting is generally adverse to change, despite whatever trends may be popping up among certain forward-thinking lawyers. “Shall” is still the most common way to set up an obligation in a contract, and is probably the least controversial way to translate a phrase like ~しなければならない or ~するものとする when used for that purpose. There is nothing wrong with using “will” or “must” for this purpose, but it is not really the standard usage.

On which is “better”: It really depends on the subject matter and specific usage in question. I mostly work with institutional financial transactions, where the contracts are all drafted by a handful of large law firms from Word templates, look more or less the same, and they generally use “shall” to set up obligatory commitments. In this context, it would almost be stupid not to say “shall” since that is what everybody expects to see. A consumer contract, on the other hand, might need different language, since a reasonable non-professional may not understand the meaning of “shall” in a particular context.

However, I would never use “shall” for more than one purpose in one contract—that seems to be asking for trouble.

That said, please use consistently different translations for different terms in the original document. For instance, I usually translate ~しなければならない as “must” and ~するものとする as “shall,” regardless of the apparent intent behind the terms.

I say this because there can be hair-splitting in the interpretation of a contract based on inconsistent usage of words like “will” and “shall.” For instance, if the contract usually uses “shall” to create obligations, but inconsistently uses “shall” elsewhere to state a condition or a representation of fact, that inconsistent usage may be relevant in arguing about the contract later. The party reading the translation may want to note that inconsistency or dispute it with their counterparties, but they cannot tell that there is an inconsistency unless that inconsistency is reflected in the translation with similarly inconsistent language.

The same applies to tense. Past tense, present tense and future tense may add nuances to the contract that lawyers will argue about later. If a sentence otherwise sounds like an obligation but is stated in the past or present tense, it may be interpreted as a representation or warranty, which makes a huge difference. (An obligation binds the parties to do something, whereas a representation/warranty is a statement of fact which the parties rely on—the other parties can claim damages from whoever “said” the statement if the statement is incorrect.)

Sadly, there are many contract drafters (both lawyers and non-lawyers, both Japanese and non-Japanese) who fill their contracts with incomplete, inconsistent or illogical terms. As the translator, you should not cover these up—you have to read these documents word-for-word and directly translate any incompleteness, inconsistency or illogicality in the original. Otherwise you are likely hurting your client by concealing the bad drafting of the underlying document.

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has a good online glossary of Japanese contract terminology if you want to learn more about the nuances of different terms. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any similarly straightforward English-language resources. One good “dead tree” book on English contract terminology is “Drafting and Analyzing Contracts” by Scott Burnham (ISBN 0820557889), but it is aimed more at lawyers and law students who want to write contracts, not so much at translators and analysts.

Question: Do you think it would be a good idea to suggest that clients include a definition in English translations of contracts to make it clear that “shall” means “has a duty to” and consistently use “shall” only in that sense?

This is not legal advice for any particular situation, but only a general observation: I see efforts like this in professionally-drafted contracts from time to time, most often when written by lawyers from the Commonwealth countries. To use a tired metaphor, it is a double-edged sword. If you explicitly define “shall” to mean something in particular, it’s much harder to argue that “shall” means anything else, so you have to be especially careful to avoid any other usage of “shall.” If you don’t define “shall,” then you can use the context of the word to argue your way out of any inconsistent usage, by claiming that it was never explicitly limited to any particular meaning.

Perhaps this discussion illustrates the value of getting a lawyer involved in drafting! But in any event, I hope it illustrates the value of keeping original terminology distinctions intact as much as possible.