One of my favorite things about learning new languages is discovering words that do not translate directly into English, my native language. Each of these words feels like a revelation: a new way of expressing myself and thinking about the world. I enjoy the mental challenge of explaining these words and concepts to my English-speaking friends (whether or not they are interested in other languages). Usually, it’s more than just a linguistic explanation. These words are “untranslatable” because of the differences between the two cultures, and thinking about how to share these words with someone else feels like a way of building bridges between them.
Chinese culture differs from Western culture in many significant ways, giving rise to many Chinese words without direct English translations. 成语 (chéngyǔ) or idioms fall into this category but so do plenty of non-idiomatic words. Let’s explore nine examples of everyday Chinese words that do not translate easily into English.
Hello and Goodbye
1. 欢迎光临 | huānyíngguānglín | Welcome. I am honored by your presence.
This could be one of the very first phrases you hear in China, especially if you stop at a convenience store or cafe on your way from the airport to your hotel. Staff members call out this formal greeting to welcome people to their place of business. In fact, the first two characters translate directly to “welcome” in English, and online dictionaries will leave it at that when defining 欢迎光临.
But what about the next two characters? 光 means “bright” and 临 means “to draw near”; put them together and you get “light drawing near”, indicating that the person’s arrival is like a ray of light. This phrase is attributed to 曹植 (Cáo Zhí), a prince during the Three Kingdoms period, who wrote, “不远遐路，幸见光临。(Bù yuǎn xiá lù, xìng jiàn guānglín.)” This line means, “Not far down the road, I felt fortunate to see your light approaching.” What a beautiful way to say, “I’m honored by your presence,” right? So 欢迎光临 goes beyond a simple welcome, expressing respect for the guest and joy that they have honored you with their presence.
2. 慢走 | mànzǒu | Take care!
Once you’ve purchased your egg tarts and are on your way out the door of the convenience store, the staff will likely call out to you again: “慢走!” The literal translation, “walk slowly”, leaves many foreigners scratching their heads. After all, most of us probably learned that 再见 (zàijiàn) means goodbye. However, 再见 is relatively formal and used for more permanent partings between people with a close connection. The meaning of 慢走 is closer to “take care” or “take it easy”, and you may hear everyone from taxi drivers to friends saying this to you as you take your leave.
Places Near and Far
3. 热闹 | rènao | bustling with noise and excitement
热闹 describes a place or situation that is bustling and full of life. “Lively” is technically a correct translation, but the full meaning is a bit more complex. 热闹 carries connotations of prosperity and indicates a place is crowded or active in a fun, warm, or happy way. People gravitate toward that place and they enjoy themselves there. 热闹 can act as a noun or verb, in addition to as an adjective:
Verb: 我们组织活动，来热闹一下吧。（Wǒmen zǔzhī huódòng, lái rènào yīxià ba.) We’re organizing an event. Why don’t you come and have fun with us?
Noun: 他只顾着瞧热闹，忘了回家了。(Tā zhǐgùzhe qiáo rènào, wàngle huí jiāle.) He was engrossed in the lively scene and forgot to go home.
4. 老乡 | lǎoxiāng | someone from the same hometown
If you and your Mandarin-speaking friend are from the same hometown, your friend might say you are 老乡. Although the second character means “village”, 老乡 can refer to anything from a small town to a province, or even an entire country. It doesn’t have to be your literal birthplace, either: when I meet new Chinese friends in the U.S. and tell them I lived in Chengdu for over a year, they may say we are 老乡 if they are also from Chengdu, or even from elsewhere in Sichuan province.
When someone refers to you as 老乡, it indicates that you share similar experiences, customs, speech patterns, and other cultural markers. I’ve heard this word translated into English as “old same”, perhaps because 相 and 乡 are homonyms. In any case, 老乡 expresses commonality and strengthens fellow feeling between people by reducing the distance or differences between them.
The Ties that Bind
5. 关系 | guānxi | relationship; connections
Anyone who conducts business in China has likely encountered the concept of 关系. The translation “relationship” or “connections” only scratches the surface when defining this complex word. In fact, the meaning of 关系 is so specific and nuanced, it often goes untranslated among savvy Western businesspeople who don't know many other words in Mandarin.
The individual characters forming the word 关系 mean “closed” and “system” respectively. Put together, they indicate the network of personal and professional connections that forms the backbone of Chinese business and politics. According to Confucian values, family relationships take priority, but you can also cultivate 关系 with classmates, friends, and coworkers. 关系 is not a passive relationship: it requires active cultivation and culminates in reciprocal ties where each party can expect favors from the other.
6. 缘分 | yuánfèn | fate that brings people together
缘分 specifically refers to the intangible force that seems to connect some people to each other. Although the term has roots in Buddhism and other religions, Chinese people use it in a more secular way today. If you have experienced the predestined feeling of love at first sight, or if you’ve repeatedly crossed paths with someone due to a series of coincidences, you’ve experienced 缘分.
The idea applies not only to romantic relationships but also to close friendships. For example, if by chance you run into an old friend you haven’t seen in years, you might say it’s 缘分. Meeting someone for the first time but feeling like you’ve known them forever is another example. Like 关系, 缘分 is a connection that you can cultivate: the closeness between parents and children or teachers and students can also be interpreted as 缘分.
Flavors, both Figurative and Literal
7. 吃苦 | chīkǔ | to bear hardships
When translated literally, 吃苦 means “to eat bitterness”, a poetic way of saying someone must endure hardships or is going through a rough time. If someone has just been laid off and is struggling to feed his family, that is a clear example of 吃苦. But this word implies a silver lining: Chinese folklore is full of stories about people who struggle to scrape by and finally succeed in making a better life. The maxim 吃苦在前，享受在后 (chīkǔ zàiqián, xiǎngshòu zàihòu) means “Bear hardships before, enjoy life after,” implying one must endure suffering in order to achieve success and fulfillment. Chinese people often admire those with a strong ability to 吃苦 and believe those people have a capacity for greatness.
8. 香 | xiāng | fragrant and appetizing
The first few times I went out to eat with friends in China, I noticed they often described the food as 香. I had learned to use 好吃 (hǎochī) to say food tasted good; 香 was new to me. The dictionary definition was “fragrant” and could apply to not just food, but also perfume and incense. But judging by my friends’ usage and intonation during meals, there was more to 香 than that. Usually, they uttered this word with anticipation, relish, and sometimes slurping. In fact, 香 has several layers of meaning which refer not only to smell but also to taste and good appetite. So if something is 香, it smells good, tastes good, and stimulates your appetite.
香 can also refer to sleeping well, similar to the English phrase “sleeping sweetly”. Finally, 香 can also indicate that people like something or that it is popular. Clearly, “fragrant” is too simple of a definition for this complex word.
9. 麻辣 | málà | numbing and spicy
I wouldn’t be a 四川人 if I left this one off the list! English doesn’t have a word for 麻辣 simply because Western cuisine doesn’t include this flavor, which Chinese chefs create by combining spicy chilis with numbing Sichuan peppercorns (花椒 huājiāo). Despite its name, 花椒 is not closely related to black or chili peppers but is more similar to the citrus family. Take it from me though, if you bite into one of these tiny pods, your mouth will indeed go numb and tingly. I could never get used to describing this sensation in English: 麻辣 is a word that I usually just keep in Mandarin, even in conversations that are otherwise in English. 麻辣 seasoning is a key component in hotpot (火锅 huǒguō) and other Sichuan and Chongqing dishes.
Cultural Connection Through "Untranslatable" Words in Mandarin
A vast number of elements contribute to the development of languages over time: religion, traditions, literature, cuisine, and more. These factors vary from culture to culture and can produce words in one language that have no direct translation in another. Delving into these “untranslatable” words can give language learners insights into the culture and consciousness of people who speak their target language. It can also inspire you to keep learning because you never know when you’ll come across another of these little puzzles. Above all, don’t let these “untranslatable” words deter you: even though the differences between Mandarin and English feel daunting at times, it’s definitely possible for you to learn Chinese. Check out our guides to learning Chinese online and work with a Speechling tutor to improve your spoken Mandarin. If you approach your language learning with a sense of curiosity and fun, you are sure to make steady progress.