When Mandarin means more than you think – Karin Malmstrom and Nancy Nash
Editor’s note: It’s a common pitfall, when speaking a foreign language, to take what has been said at face value, when in our own mother tongues we often use euphemisms to convey a meaning we’re too polite to say outright. Mandarin is no exception – in fact, it’s full of hidden meanings. With thanks to China Heritage, we’re delighted to bring you an abridged and revised version of The Man With the Key Is Not Here (Guǎn yàoshi de rén bú zài 管钥匙的人不在), a deliciously mischievous translation of common Mandarin phrases. – Alec Ash
It is always said, and it’s usually true, that méiyǒu is the first phrase a visitor learns in China. So often is it heard, it may be the only Chinese phrase that many visitors remember. But méiyǒu can mean more than “not have”…
Méi yǒu (没有) – “not have”
- There are none.
- We have some, but are saving them for special customers.
- I cannot be bothered to find any because I have no incentive to do so.
- If you are persistent enough to hang around and ask a few more times, I may be able to locate some.
Bú zài (不在) – “not present/to be out”
- The person you wish to speak to is not here.
- I’m here, but I don’t want to talk to you so I’m not going to identify myself.
- The person you want to speak to is here, however is not prepared to see you yet.
- The person you want does not exist, you have dialed the wrong number/opened the wrong door.
Bù xíng (不行) – “it’s not possible/out of the question”
- It is not possible.
- I don’t want to get into trouble with my boss so don’t dare to help you.
- Your request cannot be granted because there is too much red tape involved to organize it.
- We can’t do it because the price is not favorable.
Děng yíxiià (等一下) – “wait a moment”
- A moment, please.
- I don’t know how long this is going to take, but just keep your place in line.
- I’m stalling because I don’t know and need to get the answer from my colleague.
- We can’t tell you right now, and we can’t tell you how long you have to wait.
Méi wèntí (没问题) – “there’s no problem”
- There is no problem.
- Your problems have just begun but I don’t know how to tell you.
- Please have confidence that you will eventually arrive at your final destination.
- If we all believe that things will work out OK, then maybe they will.
Méi bànfǎ (没办法) – “there’s no way (out)”
- There is no way.
- I’m exhausted and don’t want to pursue the matter.
- I’m not the right person to talk to.
- I know the correct person to talk to, but it would take too much trouble to convince them.
Méi guānxi (没关系) – “it doesn’t matter/there is no connection”
- Don’t worry about it.
- What you’re talking about and what I’m referring to are not related.
- It really does matter but I forgive you because you cannot be expected to understand.
- The reason why you can’t get what you want is because you don’t know the right person.
Yǒu yìsi (有意思) – “of interest”
- That’s interesting.
- Want to know more; please continue talking.
- How did you find that out; you’re not supposed to know.
- Do not continue; your behavior is culturally unacceptable and you are embarrassing yourself.
Méi yìsi (没意思) – “not of interest”
- It’s not of interest.
- It’s too small/inconsequential to be of interest.
- This activity is not going to better my situation so it’s a waste of time.
- You don’t understand how things work here, so stop hassling me.
Bú tài qīngchu (不太清楚) – “it’s not too clear”
- I’m not sure.
- I know the answer but don’t have the authority to make the decision, so can’t say.
- I’m in charge but don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
- You’re interrupting our conversation; please go away.
Hǎo (好) – “good”
- How’re you doing?
- I don’t agree but will go along this time.
- I’m relieved it’s been decided; this discussion was getting monotonous.
Kěyǐ (可以) – “allowable/acceptable/possible”
- It’s possible/acceptable.
- I’m marginally impressed, but since there are no alternatives, it will have to do.
- Not bad! In fact, much better than I expected.
- We must have a contract and there’s no time to deliberate, just sign, please.
Duìbuqǐ (对不起) – “sorry/excuse me”
- Excuse me.
- This line is getting longer, and I was ahead of you.
- Of course that’s the right answer; I just wanted to see if you knew.
- The plane is leaving; pardon our 25-member delegation while we squeeze by you.
Bié kèqi (别客气) – “no need to be polite”
- Don’t mention it.
- We’re done with “small talk”; please start eating.
- It was a great effort on my part to get you this “soft berth” train ticket; I’m pleased you realize that you’re privileged.
- No need to thank me profusely, I only brought you a wet towel and a fork.
Bù zhīdào (不知道) – “do not know”
- It’s been a long day; I want to go home so don’t want to start a conversation.
- You’ve hit on something very sensitive; please don’t mind the blank stare while I try to steer the discussion elsewhere.
- I know, and would like to help you, but don’t have the authority, so can’t.
- Please go away; someone else must know the way to the Great Wall. ∎