Every language has at least one word or phrase that defies translation. Brazilian Portuguese has "saudade" (a wistful attachment to someone or something now distant or absent; almost nostalgia, but with more passion). Danish is famous for the word "hygge," which describes a very specific kind of comfort, one that is grounded in what we often describe in English as “rustic charm.” This language phenomenon comes from name concepts or emotional conditions unique to originating cultures.
Mandarin Chinese is no exception. 关系 (guānxì) is probably the most famous example in Mandarin, and is a word that has become virtually synonymous with “doing business in China,” particularly in the 21st Century. Even things like terms of endearment get lost in translation (although it's hard to imagine English-speaking parents refer to their children as "heart-livers.")
In Mandarin, idioms are known as chengyu, “fixed language.” Chenyu are often comprised of four characters, and the oldest Chenyou are treated to this day as proverbial sayings. Regardless of whether they are single words or chenyu, in their “strangeness” to Western ears and eyes, these expressions can both delight and provide rare insight into the Chinese consciousness.
1. 欢迎光临 (huānyíng guānglín)
The internet might have you believe that this phrase simply translates to “welcome.” And, if you set foot inside a Chinese place of business, these may be the first words you heard upon entering. Yet 欢迎光临 is no mere “Hello” or even “Please come in.” The four characters of 欢迎光临 are actually two distinct pairs of characters. 欢迎 (huānyíng ) can indeed be translated as “welcome”, but a more literal translation would be something along the lines of “I meet you with joy.” As to the second pair, 光 means “light,” and 临 “to arrive.” 欢迎光临 not only extends a greeting, but it also connotes the image of daylight streaming into a room through an opened door. 欢迎光临 sets a welcoming tone, in part, by describing the appearance of the guest as an event.
2. 吹牛 (chuī niú)
In English, someone who is “full of hot air” is a rhetorician of the worst kind. They spew empty promises, or outright lies, and talk mostly so they can take pleasure in the sound of their own voice. 吹牛 refers to a similar kind of individual, but by way of a rather different analogy. 吹 is the character for “blow.” 牛 is the a character for “cattle.” “To blow cow” in Mandarin is actually more specific than “to be full of hot air.” 吹牛 means to brag or boast—to attempt to inflate one’s importance or exaggerate one’s accomplishments. But why is the hot air in this instance being funneled into a cow? Some etymologists propose that the origins of the phrase date back to ancient times, and the practice of building river rafts whose buoyancy was aided by leather “balloons.” Much like a beach ball, these contraptions had to be blown up by mouth. If anyone were to take sole credit for blowing up such a raft, they were clearly “all talk."
3. 麻辣 (má là)
Cuisine contributes richly to vocabulary, especially when it comes to our attempts to convey just what deliciousness is (cf. umami in Japanese, or how oenophiles smack their lips over terroir.) 麻辣 is both the name of a Szechuan condiment flavored with Szechuan peppercorns, also known as Chinese coriander. But 麻辣 also describes a paradoxical sensation familiar to anyone who has ever sampled “hot pot.” 麻辣 combines the characters for “numb” and “spicy,” and is meant to describe how some dishes are so fiery they can almost daze you.
4. 体贴 (tǐ tiē)
Mandarin draws a distinction between the kindness one is expected to demonstrate to strangers, and the consideration shown to loved ones . 体贴 could be literally translated as “to stick together (as a unit).” What the word really denotes is the respect and mutual attending to individual needs that allows families not just to function, but to thrive.
5. 为无为 (wéi wú wéi)
This idiomatic expression is one of the pillars of Taoist philosophy. 无为 (wú wéi) is not inaction (i.e., rest) but rather non-action, or action by means of remaining, too all outward appearances, passive. As described by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, this non-doing is more akin to doing without individual will or intent; without trying. 为无为, or “action without action,” roughly translates to “acting naturally.” It can be used to describe an effortless performance or a behavior that is completely in harmony with one’s surroundings, circumstances or specific context. The same principles are espoused by the French thinker Pascal when writes that rivers are roads that take us where we want to go. In other words, 为无为 rides and lets someone else do the driving, but still manages to reach its destination.
6. 加油 (jiā yóu)
加油 is an unusual word. You might hear it being shouted by fans cheering their team on to a comeback, or you might find yourself using it while giving a pep talk to a spouse who’s had a bad day. 加油 is an imperative: “put some more oil in it!” Or, as we say in English, “put another log on that fire.” 加油 is a way of encouraging someone both keep their spirits up and to overcome exhaustion by finding and using some last reserve of energy within themselves.
7. 拱手 (gǒngshǒu)
Many Westerners already know what 拱手 because they have seen it in action. 拱手 is body language. Much as boxers tap gloves at the beginning of a bout to indicate their agreement to the sport’s rules of good conduct, so do martial arts combatants typically beginning each match by making the gǒngshǒu. To cup (拱, “arch”) one hand (手) in the other in front of your chest is to display submissiveness in the face of a superior. The gesture denotes both respect and obedience. Interestingly, in contemporary usage, this salute can take on a negative or ironic connotation. The phrase 拱手旁观 (gǒngshǒu páng guān) refers, essentially, to “sitting back and doing nothing,” to observe as though one were not involved at all—旁观 translates to “on the sidelines”—when one might be expected to intervene.
8. 举手之劳 (jǔshǒuzhīláo)
Like 拱手, 举手之劳 can trace its roots back to kinesthetics. 举手之劳 combines the characters for “lift,” “hand,” “labor,” and nominative pronoun “it” (as in “Soon it is going to rain”). In English, the roughly equivalent phrase would be “You’re welcome.” But 举手之劳, with its emphasis on actually putting one body to work, also conveys the sense of “It was no big deal,” or “No trouble at all.” So, when a fellow Mandarin speaker expresses their gratitude for help offered, etiquette dictates that one minimize one’s assistance by responding that the effort made was modest
9. 审美疲劳 (shěnměi píláo)
All spoken languages are living languages, and words and phrases are constantly circulating through the vernacular. 审美疲劳 is a recent addition to Mandarin. (However, note that it is still structured like a chengyu: “to know”; “good; pretty”; “weary”; “toil.” ) 审美疲劳 was popularized by a successful comedy by one of China’s more famous film directors, Feng Xiaogang. In Cell Phone (2003), to gaze for too long at something—or someone—beautiful is to belabor it, with the result that one loses one’s appreciation for that phenomenon’s—or that person’s—beauty altogether. As 审美疲劳 applies to romantic relationships, we might say that “the honeymoon is over.”
10. 山寨 (shānzhài).The evolution of meanings associated with 山寨 reveals a great deal about how China’s booming 21st Century economy has radically transformed mainland life and culture. The literal meaning of 山寨 is quite simple: “mountain stronghold.” But 山寨 also connotes both “cottage,” as in the English phrase “cottage industry”: business, especially manufacturing, based out of one’s home. Further, 山寨 is associated with traditional Chinese warlords who would secure large quantities of supplies in remote or hidden locales (e.g., “the hills), either to escape taxation or for the purposes of running their own black markets. In contemporary usage, 山寨 is now used to refer to low-end, knock-off products, particularly high-tech or luxury items, such as cell phones or handbags. However, the term has become so prevalent that it is now used to describe almost anything imitative, from celebrity look-a-likes to parodies of Western pop songs. Whether, as some observers have argued, shānzhàism is a hallmark of a growing subculture that views mainstream Chinese culture with great skepticism is a question of some debate. Some even argue that 山寨 can connote “homemade” in a non-pejorative sense. Form this perspective, 山寨 is a characteristically Chinese approach to innovation, one in which “the little guy” succeed by virtue of his cleverness and industriousness, and despite his limited means.
What other words so unique to Mandarin they stretch the possibilities of any language into which they might be translated? Which chengyu best capture the nuances of Chinese experience? Share your favorite examples in the comments below.