“Untranslatable” Words In Chinese

Although I’m not a fan of the word “untranslatable”, one should recognise that there are plenty of words in any language that are difficult to translate. However I don’t think anything is really “untranslatable” in a practical context – if you work hard enough you can find a way to get the message across, especially if you have enough time to think hard about it or have adequate resources at your disposal. It is very interesting, also, to look at expressions which are quintessentially Chinese, and thus problematic for translators. Here’s my humble list of twelve, but feel free to comment and add some more. Truly, one could go on for years…

1. 见外 jiànwài – Literally, “to look [from the] outside”, 见外 refers to the act treating someone who is supposed to be your friend as an outsider, especially by thanking them too much and being overly polite.

2. 拱手 gǒngshǒu
– This refers to a specific body gesture in which one cups one hand in the other before one’s chest, usually to demonstrate one’s respect and submission to a superior. Westerners would probably only be aware of this gesture in martial arts contexts in which rivals do this gesture before the beginning of a fight.

3. 辛苦 xīnkǔ – Literally translated as “working hard” or “laborious”, this word is commonly used to point out someone’s hard work in order to thank them for it. However if rendered as, “You’re working hard”, you lose all of that communicative thrust.

4. 咱们 zánmen – It means “we”, but not as we know it in English – it’s “we” including oneself and the person one is talking to, to the exclusion of all others.

5. 下台阶 xià táijiē – Literally, “to go down a step”, this idiom means to find a way out of an awkward situation. Often one “gives” someone a 下台阶 in order to allow him or her an opportunity to maintain face. Pragmatically this expression may be translated in a variety of ways according to the given context, however the cultural aspect of “face” remains a challenge.

6. 失恋 shīliàn – Literally, “to lose love”, this verb is used when you are talking about someone being disappointed in love. The translation “jilted” comes to mind, but no one really uses this word anymore, at least not in Australia. “To have one’s heart broken” is a good rendering and expresses more or less thrust of it.

7. 审美疲劳 shěnměi píláo – Literally, “aesthetically fatigued”, this modern-day chengyu was made famous by the 2003 Chinese film Cell Phone (《手机》). It refers to a very specific phenomenon of seeing so much beauty that one does not appreciate it anymore, especially if that beauty happens to be one’s lover.

8. 举手之劳 jǔshǒuzhīláo – Literally, “the labour of one raising one’s hand”, this common polite expression is used when one wishes to communicate to someone that the help they can give is no big deal.

9. 山寨 shānzhài
– Its original meaning of “mountain fastness/stronghold” well and truly in the past, 山寨 refers to imitation goods made to resemble famous brands such as iPhone or parodies of well-known movies (send-ups), amongst other things. As such a pervasive practice it even has its own Wikipedia page.

10. 流氓 liúmáng – If you’re a 流氓 you’re a bit of a “hooligan”, but the word is much more expansive than that; at its core represents a person who has no regular job and tends to make trouble for others.

11. 离谱 lípǔ – I am assuming that 谱 here refers to “musical notation”, and the metaphor is that one has left or gone beyond (离) what is expected, like a jazz trumpeter improvising in a symphony orchestra. In other words, one has gone “too far”, as it were; the British colloquialism “out of order” comes to mind.

12. 不靠谱儿 bù kàopǔr – Building on the logic of number 11, if you’re 不靠谱 you’re unreasonable or unreliable – you do not “lean” on the “musical notation”. This extremely common slang expression is a lot of fun to use but difficult to translate without losing that expressive force.

So now that you’ve seen my little list, what words would you suggest are difficult to translate from Chinese to English?

10 Comments to "“Untranslatable” Words In Chinese"

  1. 23/11/2010 - 4:37 am | Permalink

    I find that the best way to translate such so-called “untranslatable” words is to unshackle yourself from the word-by-word interpretation and simply think what you would say in a similar context in the other language. For instance, this led me to realize that 哎哟 in a certain context is the same as もう in Japanese, which didn’t jump out at me when I tried to translate it into Japanese.

  2. 03/12/2010 - 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Liumang is also a pervert, anormal person.

  3. Steve's Gravatar Steve
    18/03/2011 - 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Great list! Your other blog entries are excellent as well.

    Apologies if someone has already covered these, but I would add these words to your list: mafan (麻烦) and lihai (厉害). These are extremely useful words that seem so much more flexible and robust in Chinese than their English counterparts of “trouble” and “strict” or “serious”. So perhaps it’s not that they are “untranslatable” but just that it is so much more convenient and accurate to use these words even when one simply inserts them into a primarily English conversation.

    Even the ubiquitous 饺子 makes me cringe when I hear my friends translating it as “dumpling.” I try to share the examples of “taco” or “spaghetti” or “pizza” being non-English words and yet perfectly acceptable in any English context these days. As China takes a more important role in the world, it would seem that the non-Chinese speaking world could accommodate at least a few culinary words like 饺子.

  4. Rachel's Gravatar Rachel
    09/03/2012 - 8:52 am | Permalink

    How about “利索?” “Quick” isn’t quite right, and neither is “efficient,” what do you think?

  5. Mark's Gravatar Mark
    14/06/2013 - 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never found a good translation/explanation for 素质

  6. Shuangquan's Gravatar Shuangquan
    14/08/2013 - 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I think “不靠谱儿” can be translated into “unreliable”.

  7. Clay's Gravatar Clay
    07/02/2014 - 2:24 am | Permalink

    Just a question, 4. 咱们 zánmen – I thought this meant “we” as in the broader sense of everyone listening (or reading) including the speaker. Something a public speaker might say, or in reading “We the people …” as in the US Constitution.

  8. Collin's Gravatar Collin
    09/06/2015 - 4:05 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people have a tonne of trouble with words who’s meanings can translate more than one way, but even if you’re learning from a dictionary, it can be helpful to simply look at all the meanings listed to get a sense of how wide it’s semantic field is. They say you need context, and it does help, but most people can work out the meaning of a word if they’re given a list of possible translations, context helps best when you want to learn how to go about making a sentence where one part of speech is, sort of off. Like the word 茬儿,which is a noun, being the ‘part’ in sentences like ‘I forgot to mention that part’ as well as the ‘hint’ in ‘cant take a hint’

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