What you know will turn you on: Using erotica to test L2 reading comprehension

Adam Lebowitz


“We need emotional content,” said Bruce Lee to a young acolyte at the beginning of Enter the Dragon. As a teenager, this line impressed me as much as his physical prowess. Not long thereafter I was reading classical Chinese erotic poetry from the Shījīng in translation and came across the description, “Her skin like congealed lard,” meaning white, smooth, and flawless. As a metaphor it was a little unnerving, but palpable. Intrigued, I read the same line in the original: 膚如凝脂. Granted it was several hundred years old, but something was missing; it did not float my boat. Other texts referred to a man’s “lotus stalk,” and I asked my girlfriend at the time if it did anything for her. Basically she responded, “no matter how it’s sliced, it’s still vegetable,” which signaled the direction of our relationship.

Though off-point, my professor added a cogent insight. Back in the Golden Age of Gentleman Sinology, Oxbridge-educated scholars translated the classics into English; however, in erotica all the naughty bits would be turned into Latin. The reasoning was simple: If you were educated then you knew Latin from public school and would be above any base titillation. Elitism aside, this practice indicates the scholarly community at the time had some awareness of the emotional content of text. 

Fast-forward two years, and I am in a used bookstore in Fukushima perusing questionable content. It was English, but some industrious student had filled the text with underlines and margin notes, indicating use as a reading textbook (I kick myself for not buying it). This makes sense: If extensive reading increases titillation over time, there must be an effect. This point was rammed home to me several years later while hurrying to catch a flight from Narita. I dashed into the airport bookstore and came across a small collection of banned short stories from the early post-war period. And when reading it on board soon after, I was actually “getting it” (which is saying something on an airplane). I realized then and there that I had somehow reached a (excuse the pun) peak in my nihongo reading comprehension, and finally achieved the emotional content so instructed by Master Lee in my callow, wimpy youth.

This backstory inspires me to propose a model for researching reading comprehension through emotional response to text. The experimental design would be as follows: For the null hypothesis (H0), we could say L2 erotica does not arouse. To protect against Type II Error—not rejecting the false H0—we need to establish not only that the subject can be aroused, but also that they can be aroused through text. To test the latter, the subject would read erotica in their L1 and the response observed. Arousal can be measured by brain or other anatomical response. Protecting against Type I Error—rejecting a true H0—may be more challenging because we need to control for a scaffolding effect. That is, we need to make sure the subject has not read the target L2 erotica in translation; for example, if they have read a translated Fifty Shades of Grey, there may be some transfer through a memory of past arousal. This happened to me once reading a translation of the The Godfather novel (from a section left out of the movie): the translation was so-so, but it got the job done. Results could then be correlated with a standard (non erotic) reading comprehension test.

Once the null hypothesis has been convincingly rejected within an acceptable margin of error through replication, and the effect size validated through systematic review and meta-analysis, work can proceed on a standardized L2 Erotic Base Ordinal Scale (LEBOS™). The LEBOS can be used to measure reading comprehension level in any language—LEBOS-JPN, LEBOS-CHI, LEBOS-KOR, etc.—for any subject above the age of consent and with a sense of humor, based on the assumption that there is a kind of universal appeal, skin lard aside, to erotic content; LEBOS-FRA may work particularly well. Since it is notoriously difficult to understand cultural humor (how many times have we heard, “It’s OK, it’s an American Joke”?), comic literature may only have limited specificity. For example, remember the Deathday Party in Harry Potter, Book 2? Matsuoka Yuko does a good job overall, but in that section something definitely gets lost in translation.

Please feel free to use this experimental design, on the condition that co-authorship is respected. Keep on testing, and if you can improve upon this model let us know at Outside The Box! 


Bishop, J.L. (1965). Harvard-Yenching Institute Studies 21: Studies in Chinese Literature. Harvard UP.

Chow, R., Weintraub, F., Heller, P., & Clouse, R. (1973). Enter the Dragon. America: Warner Brothers.

Puzo, M. (1978). The Godfather. New York: Signet Books. 

Puzo, M. (1982). The Godfather (trans. by Ichinose Naoji). Tokyo: Hayakawa Bunko.

Qū Wànlǐ. (1959). Shījīng shìyì. Taibei, Taiwan: Zhōnghuáwénhuà.

Rowling, J.K. (2000). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Scholastic Books.

Rowling, J.K. (2001). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (trans. by Matsuoka Yuko). Tokyo: Sayzansha.