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?