Sunday, November 15, 2009

The "Beefiest" Translation

The Chinese internet is a melting pot of popular creations, where new expressions (even new words/characters) constantly emerge like an endless stream. This presents a continuous challenge to a translator like me.

One popular adjective created and becoming fashionable in the new millennium is '最牛'. It is a mocking term that can mean, in humorless translation, "boldest" or "hottest" or "most awesome" or "formidable," depending on the object it modifies. The following image, borrowed from a Chinese blog called 西交虫, might help illustrate the meaning of '最牛':

最牛的司机  "The most [ ] driver"

I've left the English translation for '最牛' blank in the caption above, because none of the English adjectives I mentioned earlier can convey the mocking tone of this Chinese term. Furthermore, "awesome" is a commending word while '最牛' could be used with either positive or negative connotation. The other modifiers might be neutral enough, but they do not bring laughter.

When in doubt, I find that often the best solution to such a challenge is go for the literal, or verbatim (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). In this case, because '' means "cow," and an associated adjective is "beefy," I'm inclined to translate '最牛' as "the beefiest." The (invisible) driver in the above image thus becomes "the beefiest driver."

The origin of '最牛' seems no longer traceable. In fact, I noticed on the Chinese internet that several such origin-seeking questions had met with mocking answers like "you've posed the beefiest question!". I remember one of the first times the term caught my eye was when bloggers named the Chongqing nail house "the beefiest nail house" and brought it to the attention of the public and the media (even NYT) in early 2007.

More recently, this seemly harmless mocking expression has been frequently applied to bad behaviors of government officials. For example, when a judge tried to force Zhang Hui, a victim of Shanghai hooks, to drop his lawsuit and Zhang did not agree, the judge angrily yelled at Zhang as if to a child, "Be obedient!" ("你要听话!") Immediately that judge surnamed Huang was termed "the beefiest judge" on the internet.

"The beefiest official line" occurred in Guangzhou two weeks ago on Oct. 30th. In a public hearing on traffic jams, attended by several departments of the city government, a reporter asked whether the traffic police should first notify the public before closing a road. A middle-aged man replied, "Do I have to tell you whether I'm going to shit or not? Do I have to tell you whether my shit stinks or not?" These words quickly became a catch phrase on the internet, which in turn led to the man's public apology and job suspension.

The term has become so trendy that even main stream media can't afford to not use it. On Nov. 11th, reported "The Beefiest Developer Sentenced to Death," about a Chongqing developer who tried to get rid of a nail house owned by an old couple, by hiring thugs to kill their only son.

"Beefiest" is only one of many new slang words coming into being with the internet. I don't view this as simple folk language evolution; rather internet slang symbolizes a new popular culture, providing for the first time a viable means for Chinese people to publicly make fun of officials. I would be curious to know how those officials who are named "the beefiest" something feel when they see their new title. Perhaps they will step a bit more gingerly next time.

Related post: "The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"


Anonymous said...

What about "with the most balls" instead?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hey, that's pretty good. Thanks. But what about inanimate objects?

Matthew said...

I can still remember the thoughts that ran through my head when my mother-in-law said I was "very cow." It was just as confusing as the first time I was told I was "very stick."

I think we could make this into an English-Chinese hybrid word. Let's call it "Niuiest." I just like the sound of it.

Jocelyn said...

Great post. I always perceived 最牛 as being "bullish" (but not in the stock market sense) -- but even that doesn't really capture it, because 牛 isn't necessarily a bull.

I also think the expression 牛脾气 is interesting -- my husband brought it up this summer as we were hiking through the mountains and suddenly came upon some free-range cattle in a national forest. I suddenly got nervous, and then my husband described the moodiness of the cattle as 牛脾气. And I felt the meaning exactly...and walked as fast as I could from the cattle!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Matthew and Jocelyn, your reactions to the word '牛' are very interesting. I enjoy your anecdotes very much. When I hear this word applying to a personality, the impression it gives me often is "stubborn." So Matthew, I guess you might be as stubborn as I am? :-)

"Niuest" does sound good, however I worry it also sounds too much like "newest."

eswn said...

I have been translating the term as "the most awesome." I am not sure that is the most ideal translation.

I was thinking about the behaviors as being so extreme and far-gone that people are over-awed (as in jaw-dropping).

But I do think that "awesome" does not have that folksy flavor.

Anonymous said...

how do you make the symbol??? read this on my students blog... in St. Paul MN
wow - beefiest... how does one use it?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Roland, nice to see you here! Your translation is certainly a logical one the way you explain it. My only hesitation is that "awesome" is usually a praising word in modern English, as such it might not be the best choice when used with negative connotations. By the way, thanks for your great effort in updating ESWN daily. We can't live without it!

Anon, I guess by "symbol" you mean the Chinese characters I used in this post? You'll need Chinese language options in your browser to see the characters properly. Inputting is a bit trickier. I'm sure your Chinese students can help you on that.

b. cheng said...

but using "beefiest" faces the issue that it ignores the actual root of the term, as 最牛 is a shortening of 最牛逼 meant to be more "easier on the ears", especially for a wider audience, therefore I think awesomest probably works best.

Anonymous said...

what about "most hardcore" or "extreme", as in Doritos or heliskiing?

Anonymous said...

Referring to mouseneb's comment above, "ballsiest" (or is that "ballsy-est") seems suitable as well, though it's not an actual word.

Damjan_D said...

The oft-heard colloquialism "zui niu bi" is the first thing I thought of when reading your article - have you explored the possibility that this vulgar expression has been coopted into a more socially acceptable form due to its popularity with Chinese youth?

Xujun Eberlein said...

B. Cheng, you lost me. How does "awesome" solve the root problem you mentioned?

Damjan, as far as I can tell, this expression (without "bi") has already become socially acceptable in China. Do you know any similar examples in English? It would be interesting to make comparisons.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Anon, "ballsy-est" is a good one! I like it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Xujun Eberlein,

Regina here, for

I would like to personally invite you to list your blog on our Expat Women Blog Directory ( so that other women can read about and learn from your expat experiences.

Many thanks in advance for your contribution and keep up your great blog!