The idea of ‘untranslatable words’ is very nice. It’s a token of value; it adds a touch of solemn mystery to the work of translation, which otherwise consists mostly of nose-scratching, window-staring, and finding something to weight the book down with. But look, you see? We also have an ineffable something; a tragic ideal; we’re not simply pulling a plow.
Sometimes I think there’s actually such a thing as an untranslatable word, sometimes I don’t. On a good day it seems that any word or phrase could be rendered into English with enough care, even if the word itself vanished and were detectable only through a subtle ruffling of the surrounding text.
But on a bad day, I'm trying to translate níubī.
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. The key difference between positive and negative niubi is that in the former, you have the ability (本事, běnshì) to back your attitude up, while in the latter you don’t. Thus the derivatives bīyàng (the appearance of a bi), and zhuāngbī (pretending to be bi – in northeastern China this will start a fight). The line between positive and negative blurs when it comes to people in positions of power, who assume they are justified in a certain measure of niubi.
- A friend had a high-school classmate who spent every physics class staring at the ceiling, either asleep or completely indifferent. No matter how angry the teacher got the classmate never did the least bit of work, and his attention always remained fixed on the ceiling. When the semester was over and the test results came out, the classmate scored nearly 100%. The classmate was niubi.
- During the furor surrounding the Chongqing nailhouse case, the residents of the nailhouse were almost uniformly described as niubi. Their decision to stay in their home while everything around them was flattened is a perfect example of ‘are they crazy or just incredibly brave?’ – the essence of niubi.
- On an international flight out of China, a well-fed Chinese man with a crew cut was speaking very loudly to his companion (this was well after midnight). When a flight attendant came by to say that another passenger had complained, the man sat up and craned his head, saying “Eeeh? Who’s being niubi? A foreigner or Chinese?” Whereupon he gave the flight attendant his name-card and explained a bit about how important he was. From which we can infer that accusing someone of being niubi often results in being labeled niubi yourself. This is worth pondering.
- When my wife tells a joke and I respond with nothing but a cool stare, I am being niubi.
Niubi is not used in polite society, though niu by itself means the same thing and is fit for public consumption, even appearing in newspaper headlines. As blithely as under-30 Chinese throw the term around, a little decorum remains when it comes to the written characters. Few Chinese can bring themselves to write the proper character for bi, composed of the symbols for ‘body’ and ‘cave’, and instead use a homophonous character (usually 逼) or even the letter B. The only place I’ve ever seen the real thing (besides written by fingertip in window condensation) is in the dictionary – the FLTRP Chinese-English Dictionary, for instance, hurries by with a two-word definition. I’d be hard-put to write it even if I wanted to – as I type this, my computer’s Chinese input program suggests 57 different characters with the pronunciation bi – that of the cow is not among them.
Niubi is hard to translate not because its meaning is so obtuse, but because of the way it’s used. It is uttered under the breath in a moment of awe, or it culminates a long, obscenity-laced rant. It stands out by itself as a self-contained statement of respect, and is thus difficult to weave into the surrounding text. There’s simply no good way to replicate its concise punch in English. It usually appears as ‘awesome’ (or ‘fucking awesome’, to reproduce bi’s edge), but the problem is that ‘awesome’ is an empty adjective – it begs the question – whereas niubi is simply all you need to say.
One of these days I’ll climb up on a mountain ledge and fast until the proper English translation comes to me. Until then, I will be far from niubi myself.