The “Bi” word

An American translator in Beijing reflects on the word niubi and what makes it so difficult to translate, and it’s a delightful read. A taste:

On the face of it, niubi is not untranslatable at all: the characters niu and bi can be rendered into English with great precision by the words – and I beg your pardon – ‘cow pussy’, niu being the zoological reference, bi the anatomical. But though the denotation of niubi is embarrassingly plain, it’s connotations are far from obvious.

Niubi is a term of approbation, perhaps the greatest such term in colloquial Chinese. Niubi is an attitude, a lifestyle: a complete lack of concern over what other people think of you, and the resulting freedom to do whatever you please. It is knowing exactly what you’re capable of, making the decision to act, and to hell with the consequences. It is the essence of ‘cool’, but taken to the nth degree, and with a dirty word thrown in.

Of course, like all great philosophical concepts, niubi has an inverse side – an excess of niubi leads to self-importance, arrogance, hubris, imperiousness, and very dangerous driving.

His examples of what makes someone a niubi alone are worth the price of admission. Don’t miss it.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

最佳公公知识分子LOL

November 1, 2011 @ 8:55 am | Comment

In English we say “honey badger.” I think I prefer that to the other animal-inspired term, but maybe that’s just me.

November 1, 2011 @ 9:11 am | Comment

Professor Liu Yu wrote in one of her newest article 《素什么质》claiming that the following Chinese phrases are difficult to translate. How would you do it Richard? :-)

“突击手” “血染的风采” “不折腾” “精神文明” “班子建设” “素质”

Personally I often have a difficult time writing about China issues in English…

November 1, 2011 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

i tweeted it this am. it is almost 4 years old. funny how things get around. @niubi

November 1, 2011 @ 6:22 pm | Comment

I hadn’t seen it before,saw it in a tweek. Mass, I am not a translator,

November 1, 2011 @ 11:02 pm | Comment

@Richard, not necessarily a translator’s job, but for a reporter on China issues, one would inevitably meet these terms like “不折腾” (President Hu’s policy approach) and “精神文明” (CCP’s effort in “promoting” Chinese culture), right? How do you describe these in English?

November 2, 2011 @ 7:22 am | Comment

I don’t have to prove my intelligence or language capabilities to you. I wouldn’t confront you and demand that you translate something, which is actually quite rude. What’s your game?

November 2, 2011 @ 8:41 am | Comment

@Richard – ah sorry if my questions sounded offensive to you! I was just genuinely curious about how to describe these Chinese terms in English, and thought you are probably one of the few dozens people on the earth who can do it well!

(I need to refine my English skills to be less rude!)

November 3, 2011 @ 3:28 am | Comment

Mass, I understand the innocently of your questions, out of curiosity and not meant to challenging anybody. In fact, in quite a few news and publication organizations in China, Chinese and English-speaking expats work together to translate the most difficult terminology and catchphrases. The aim is to make them understandable to foreigners while acceptable to Chinese.

November 3, 2011 @ 9:40 am | Comment

Hard to translate stuff – even from English to English. It’s not just the words but the whole cultural history behind them. If that were not the case, programs like The Office wouldn’t need to be adapted and changed from the original UK version to the US version.
One also has to be careful when trying to translate a political party slogan – it is a slogan, a soundbite, not a deep meaningful thought. As they come from politicians, they can all be roughly translated as “bollocks” most of the time.

November 3, 2011 @ 10:41 am | Comment

The guy used a smiley face in his initial post, Richard. Granted, he didn’t take the hint initially, but you came down a little hard on someone asking for English advice, don’t you think?

November 4, 2011 @ 6:33 am | Comment

Maybe. If so, apologies. I thought he didn’t take the hint and was trying to bait me. (Surely you must know this – answer my question.) There was no smiley face in his second comment. Sometimes it’s hard to ascertain the tone of comments, and I read it as being confrontational. Again, apologies for reading too much into it.

November 4, 2011 @ 6:36 am | Comment

It is tough to tell with comments, sure. Honestly, I can’t tell really tell either way, myself, with any real degree of certainty. Thanks for posting the links, though…always interesting reading here.

November 4, 2011 @ 6:43 am | Comment

@Richard – no feelings hurt on my side!!

November 9, 2011 @ 5:59 am | Comment

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