‘没办法’

At our last workshop, we had a wonderful discussion about the translation of the Chinese expression ‘没办法’, which opened a real new understanding of Chinese values and attitude for all participants. So we thought it may be the opportunity to launch a new column on this blog: ‘highlights from our translation workshops’, which we will write in English and Chinese.

We were debriefing the translation of a text about the proposition that ‘There’s too many Chinese people‘. ‘没办法’ appeared in the first line of the first paragraph, and as the table in charge read through their translation, there was disagreement about the translation. Someone proposed the usual ‘there’s no way’, but another participant insisted ‘that’s how it is’ was a better translation. Now that got me interested, and I thought there was something really worth pursuing there.

Anyone who’s lived in China will know the expression ‘没办法’ – pinyin ‘Mei Banfa’ – generally uttered by Chinese colleagues or friends whenever they’re confronted with some sort of administrative or bureaucratic obstacle.

Here’s the more interesting bit: I’ve always interpreted ‘没办法’ literally, as an expression of fatalism in the face of higher powers – ‘there is no way, I can’t find a way, I am unable to think of a method to solve this problem, and I have given up’. I also developed a certain irritation when confronted with this (repeated) expression of helplessness, and thought ‘surely, there is a way, couldn’t we just sit down and find how to solve this?’

But here I was confronted with another interpretation of the same expression: ‘没办法’ doesn’t mean ‘I am unable to think of a method that would solve this problem’, but rather ‘let’s not this problem get at us, and since that way seems blocked, let’s focus on something else’. I tested this assumption – and got confirmation from Chinese participants in the workshop.

This interpretation of 没办法’ as a kind of Chinese ‘c’est la vie’ suddenly brought back to mind a number of instances when I heard this expression – and revealed a new angle on my memory. My Chinese friends were not defeatist, but wise – and trying to cheer me up, inviting me to be philosophical, and accept the little annoyances of life in community with a smile.

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