Welcome to part 3 in a series about difficult Chinese words to translate into English. Today’s contestant:
As you can see from the two dictionary links, wúnài 无奈 is sometimes translated as “helpless” or “without choice.” That fits with this situation in which I heard it used recently:
I went with a student to a Guangzhou radio station. We were each supposed to record a short interview for some show about campus life or something. After I recorded my interview, the station personnel told the student that they didn’t have time for her interview that day. She’d have to come back some other day. As we were leaving I told her how sorry I was that she’d spent over an hour on the bus getting to the station, and even ditched her afternoon class but didn’t do a thing. She said:
wǒ hěn wúnài 我很无奈
I guess that should be translated as, “There’s nothing I can do about it” or maybe “I feel helpless,” right? I kind of get the feeling that it has the connotation of “Yeah, this is bad but there’s nothing I can do about it.” At least that’s how I try to connect this story with the next one:
Some friends and I were watching the semi-finals of the Guangzhou Open (not a huge tournament on the pro circuit) a few weekends ago and some sports journalism majors from Guangzhou Sports University sat with us. They started talking to us and one of the topics of conversation (that they brought up, mind you) was the crowd of xiǎoxuéshēng 小学生, all wearing matching hats, who had been bused in for the first match. The guy told us the kids don’t know (or care) anything about tennis. The organizers just wanted the bleachers to look full for the TV cameras. I nodded in understanding and the guy said:
hěn wúnài, shì ba? 很无奈是吧?
I tried to clarify with him “What is wúnài? This situation? Your feelings? My feelings?” But, as so often happens to me, the water just got muddier and, in the end, I gave up trying to get him to explain what he meant.
I’m constantly stumped when students ask me in class how to say “wúnài” in English. I usually just tell them to go with “helpless” but I don’t know if that’s the best translation, and I don’t know how it would apply to the second story. If anyone has any ideas, suggestions, or guidance, please comment away.
In closing, here’s the first time I ever heard the word: