Stump the Laowai: wúnài 无奈

Welcome to part 3 in a series about difficult Chinese words to translate into English. Today’s contestant:

wúnài 无奈

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:

Story 1

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:

Story 2

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:

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(from Bù de bú ài 不得不爱 by 潘玮柏, lyrics here)


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  1. 14 Responses to “Stump the Laowai: wúnài 无奈”

  2. Joss GERMANY said:

    It seems to me that the phrase most similar to this in English is the rhetorical “What can you do?” to express a resigned acceptance to some situation.

    It’s certainly not a direct translation, but it seems to capture the two cases that you mention here.

    Comment date: Oct 6, 2009

  3. Chuner96 CHINA said:

    In the second story, by “hěn wúnài”很无奈, the speaker meant that although we know the truth we have to accept it and we can do nothing to change the situation. So “helpless” might be right. “But we have to accept it” means the same with “helpless” but maybe better. Or “But this is the truth.” Just a suggestion.

    Comment date: Oct 6, 2009

  4. Cole UNITED STATES said:

    “It is what it is”?

    Comment date: Oct 7, 2009

  5. 博文 UNITED STATES said:

    My wife says about the second story, that the speaker was saying something like: “the kids aren’t really interested … … but there is nothing we can do about it.”

    Comment date: Oct 12, 2009

  6. American Han UNITED STATES said:

    Just as “享月” is an abbreviation of the 1st and 3rd characters of the four-character combination “享受月亮” (and you know how fond those Chinese are of four character combos), “无奈” is a compression of the of the 1st and 3rd characters of the four-character combo of “无可奈何”. You can find this in the Oxford concise under “奈何” (they don’t tell us this in the entry for “无奈”).

    As I’ve heard and used it, “无可奈何” and “无奈” can be translated semantically, not literally, as “It can’t be helped,” or “There’s nothing to be done about it.” One context I heard it in was that of a mother complaining about her child who wouldn’t obey or listen to her anymore. She said, “我无可奈何!”

    The journalism major at the tennis match probably meant, in his head, something like “It can’t be helped that we have to fill up the bleachers with junior high students who know nothing about tennis, because that’s the way it’s done here in China, just to make things look good, just to save face.”

    By the way, “享月” occurs in classical literature, as does “无可奈何”. Yes, Chinese is a hard language to learn, but it helps not to complain. You need to save that energy to learn more, because life is short, my friend, and I question your commitment to and experience with this language.

    Comment date: Oct 14, 2009

  7. Albert CHINA said:

    American Han,

    Thanks for the 无可奈何. I’ve added cross references to MDBG. Always good to know where those short forms came from.

    Comment date: Oct 20, 2009

  8. Blenderman CHINA said:

    American Han, don’t be a pretentious prick. He didn’t complain, he stated. He’s running a great blog about learning Chinese, his commitment to the activity can hardly be questioned. It’s great that you had something to add to the discussion, but lose the attitude

    Comment date: Nov 24, 2009

  9. Geroi900 UNITED STATES said:

    Really great comment, and very helpful, with the exception of the unexpected nasty turn at the end. I appreciate the explanation, but I wouldn’t question the dedication of anyone even studying Chinese, a very difficult language for English speakers, much less someone heping the rest of us learn it.

    Comment date: Dec 9, 2009

  10. Larry UNITED STATES said:

    For the context in the 2nd story, I would say “wunai” should be translated to “frustrating”.

    That guy meant to say: it doesn’t make sense to force innocent kids to sit here just to make the show “looking good”. But, that’s very popular practice in today’s China. Nobody would stand up and confront such practice. The kids? They can do nothing but obey.

    So, frustructing, and, in a sense, it is “helpless”.

    Comment date: Jan 11, 2010

  11. Leslie CHINA said:

    Interesting. Chinese always seem to be wunai in one way or another… actually i hear them say something like yu4 men4 a lot online. might be the same meaning.

    thanks for the sharing.

    Comment date: Nov 27, 2010

  12. Jonathan UNITED STATES said:

    “it can’t be helped”, “helpless” seem to my very limited understanding of Chinese to be rather similar to 没办法. Could someone explain how 无可奈可 differs from 没办法?

    If the meaning is more like “have no choice” then it would seem that 无可奈何 and 不得不 are rather similar. How would these two differ?

    The ABC Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary indicates that 无可奈何 means “have no alternative” which is closer, it seems to me, to 只能.

    Ah….not easy ;)

    Comment date: Dec 1, 2010

  13. Zhifu UNITED STATES said:

    I like what Joss said way back then.

    Comment date: Jan 18, 2011

  14. Clark CHINA said:

    无奈 in many situations, means ” you or I or Somebody has to deal with it, can’t do anything about it!.”

    Comment date: Mar 31, 2013

  15. Debbie said:

    i don’t think it means “helpless”, “helpless” is more like 无助wuˊzhuˋ,无奈 is a feeling to describe some situations contain “helpless””have no choice” and more.

    ex: my son was killed by drunk driving, i’m sad and very angry
    my son was killed by a meteorite, i’m sad and feel 无奈

    the situation is you can’t blame anyone, no one has the responsibility to fix the situation.so when somebody said 很无奈, he will sigh(叹气tan4chi4) first.
    in story 1, the student, she did’n want to blame you either the radio station, so she said 我很無奈. if she had a bad temper, she won’t said wunai, she’ll yell at everybody “what? you’r wasting my time!”, so wunai is a word only said by those more peaceful person.

    and in the song不得不愛, my personal opinion is,
    Love is the most 无奈thing in the world, you can’t blame your girlfriend love you or not.

    i’m a native-speaker of mandarin but not very good at english,
    just share my opinion, and it’s fun to discuss a word we use every day but never know the real meaning behind.

    Comment date: Aug 12, 2013

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