Hey, That’s Cheating! OK?

When my brother was about six years old, I watched him play battleship against my father (play free here–WARNING: turn down sound first). There was a break in the action when my dad had to answer the phone, during which I left the room as well. When I came back in, they were playing again and my brother had miraculously begun annihilating my dad’s fleet with remarkable precision bombing. It was clear that he had simply looked at my dad’s game board while he was on the phone (as any child in his position would have) and memorized the position of all the ships (as I’m not sure any child could).

My father, of course, figured this out too. So then, much to my brother’s surprise, instead of hearing “Hit, and you’ve sunk my battle ship” after each shot, he was hearing my father say, “Miss!”

I stayed (uncharacteristically) quiet just to watch the action unfold naturally. At one point I actually heard my brother mutter to himself, “Hmm…I can’t remember where that one is.”

My father heard it too and replied, “That’s because I just moved all my ships.”

My brother, incensed, shouted, “Hey, that’s cheating!”

What’s That Got to Do with Chinese?

I would like to submit that one possible Chinese translation for my brother’s final shout could be:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!
Hey, that’s cheating!

I’ve been trying to figure out how to translate a special use of hǎo bù hǎo 好不好. I propose that it could be translated as:

…hǎo bù hǎo! …好不好!
Hey that’s…!

It’s strange because hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 is usually a question meaning “ok?” or “Would that be ok?” But I recently heard it used in two situations that lead me believe it’s more of a “Hey!” sort of exclamation.

Situation 1

My students were all preparing for an oral English exam in another class in which they would have to answer the question: “Are women and men equal?” or something like that. Most of the students had already taken the test, but one student was ill or something and was going to take it right after my class. She asked me if I could tell her my opinion. When another student heard her ask me, she obviously thought it wasn’t fair for the foreign teacher to help only one student when all the others had taken it on their own. She shouted:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!

Now, I’m sure she didn’t mean:

How about you cheat, ok?

Even though that’s what it sounded like at first.

Situation 2

During a little “Chinese corner” practice group, an American colleague of mine asked the Chinese native speaker in the group how to say something in Chinese (I can’t remember what). She told him but he kept proposing an alternative word, insisting that it was right. She’d never heard it. Finally, he said, “Well, when I was in Sichuan they always said that.”

She slapped a hand on the table and said:

Nà shì Sìchuan huà, hǎo bù hǎo! 那是四川话, 好不好!

We then discussed this little hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 for quite a while and I think it really meant:

Hey, that’s Sichuanese!

The underlying message being: “(So why are you asking me about that? You know full well that I’m not from Sichuan!)”

Anyone else heard this anywhere? Any alternative translations that I should consider?

19 Replies to “Hey, That’s Cheating! OK?”

  1. Sometimes, Brits put tag questions on statements that are not questions, kind of reminds me of your “hao bu hao” observation…

    “That’s cheating, isn’t it!”
    “That’s Sichuanhua, isn’t it!”

  2. Google Translation of the Chinese Characters of your Second/last example is;

    It was the Sichuan dialect, okay!

    Is that of any help ?


  3. I’ve been saying this quite a bit recently thanks to my (female) flatmate’s influence. According to a (male) friend from Chongqing though, it’s a very camp speech pattern and my flatmate only says it a lot because she has a lot of gay guy friends. Both of your anecdotes had women saying the phrase. Whether it’s camp or not 无所谓, just fyi from what I’ve heard.

  4. @Alec,
    Very interesting indeed. Yes, they were both women. Interesting that our Chinese corner informant didn’t ever once bring up that there may be some social factors to this phrase. (For our American readers, see “camp” definition #1 here.)

    @JP Villanueva,
    You’ve got a good point there. But my impression of British tag questions is that they’re usually used for obvious situations where both speakers know what’s going on. In my two examples, one speaker was trying to point out something that the other one (presumably) hadn’t thought of.

    @John C,
    That’s the most common translation of “hao bu hao” that I think doesn’t really work very well in these situations.

  5. I’m pretty familiar with this, I think you might be right that it’s mostly girls who say it, but I’ve heard guys say it too, my ex-boyf, though come to think of it his dancing is pretty camp…

    They ways I’ve heard it used plus the above examples I see it as a kind of rhetorical device that used to settle a matter by pointing out the other’s mistaken assumption or whatever. It’s hard to disagree with someone who pulls out a 好不好。It’s always used when the one who uses it is a bit pissed off.

    You can also use it with a command I think, though maybe the command would be negative e.g. ”别打扰我,好不好“. I think it can also be used to tell off kids? I could be wrong with these two though.

    I’m British so I think it would be close to an exasperated or angry “alright?” in tone and meaning. You could sometimes translate it as “got it?” which might work too?

    So I don’t think ‘hey’ works very well here. It’s not pointing out something the other doesn’t know, or new information, but just reinforcing your view based by challenging them to disagree with your statement.

    In fact, upon more reflection, I think OK is best, as long as in English you change your tone of voice and emphasis. Which is hard to do when writing. Or maybe I just can’t think of a better way.

  6. I think F has some good points, the translations might be something like:
    – That’s cheating, alright!
    But the sentence “作弊,好不好!“ could also be missing “你不要” from the beginning “你不要作弊,好不好”, “don’t cheat, okay!?”, since words are quite often ommited in Chinese the meaning is often inferred.

    As for it being a bit camp, It’s only camp if you say it 很娘, it’s all in the way you say it as to whether it’s feminine or not, just like English.

  7. It’s like many other interjections in any language – direct translations are a little tricky. I think any of these would work, but I agree the most with @F in that “all right!?” would work the best in capturing both meaning and being a little more literal.

    Another possibility would be “you know!”

  8. I have to say that the “hey!…” translation you proposed is the best equivalent in colloquial American English. That’s how we accuse someone of cheating. The other proposals are translations that help to understand the original, but none would actually be uttered by a native speaker of American English.

  9. It may surprise you if i’m saying i’ve never heard of “hao bu hao”at the end of the conversation your passage mentioned above until I went to college.But it is true.Many young students blurt the word out if they often watch Taiwan soap opera.It has become kind of fashion in daily life.
    Personally speaking, i’m not in for this change in language as it looks like a spare part of a sentence.
    I think sometimes it means “please” in English for plea.In your passage,however,the translation “Hey,that’s…,okay?” has a sense of blame and it fits!

  10. I don’t claim to get out much, but I’m not even aware of the construction up here in Beijing. If Ana’s right and it came from Taiwan, maybe it hasn’t migrated this far?

  11. hmm, “construction” isn’t quite right. I mean I’m not aware of this particular usage. It would be hard not to know about haobuhao 😀

  12. I’ve heard my teenaged nephew say it. He’s from Taiwan, but lived in Guangdong Pr. for several years, although he went to boarding school while there, with most of his classmates coming from Taiwan.

    I think “Okay” with a demanding tone of voice (and rising intonation like a questioning tag question) is close to a good translation, but (I think) with the coercive implication of a falling tone/confirmation-seeking tag question. It’s probably also close to “you know,” as Another One said. But “Hey!” probably communicates much of the same intent.

    I’ve also heard it used with things like “Don’t be so stupid/ridiculous/other negative adj.”

    I’ll inquire about this with some Chinese grad students next week, and pass on their thoughts…

  13. I think “isn’t it” or “amirite” isn’t quite strong enough.

    When someone uses 好不好 in this way they are really telling the person what’s what.

    I’d go with something like, “you realize that, right?” or “You know that, don’t you?” The key point is it’s usually used when the thing the person said or did is wrong in someway.

    作弊, 好不好!
    “That’s cheating, you realize that, right?”
    那是四川话, 好不好
    “Then that’s Sichuanese, you know that, don’t you?”

  14. Reminds me of when I was little my best friends mother whenever she caught us doing something ‘wrong’ (and she had a broad definition) would ask us something like, “You didn’t push in your chair, yes or no?” or “That’s not appropriate, yes or no?” in a rather threatening way (she scared all us neighborhood kids) and it was hard to say “no” of course when she put it like that.

    I think “alright” sounds like a good translation though. “That’s cheating, alright?!” but putting a “Hey” on front, “Hey, that’s cheating, alright?!” seems to help convey the feeling of the statement more.

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