“How do you say ‘mafan’ in English,” my student asked me this week in class. I paused. The word I had become so used to using in my daily speech now left me dumbfounded when I tried to think of an equivalent word in English. There must be something here, I thought. When a word central to one language has no easy equivalent in a second language, chances are it’s indicative of a larger cultural difference.
My Third Edition Oxford Chinese Dictionary translates mafan as an adjective meaning ‘troublesome’ or ‘inconvenient’ or as a verb meaning to ‘trouble,’ ‘bother,’ or ‘put sb. to trouble.’ These are perhaps the best translations available, but they don’t seem to capture any natural English expressions. A phrase that is so central and common to Chinese seems awkward when thought of in English.
‘Mafan ni’ or, loosely, ‘I’m inconveniencing you’ can follow follow a request made of another, but it sounds awkward when translated into English. Take, for example, when I ask the lady in the copy room to copy materials for my class: “I want 150 copies of this sheet. I’m really inconveniencing you.” It sounds less awkward to translate mafan when it preceeds a request, such as in this buffed-up translation: “Can I trouble you to to ask, ‘Where is the bus stop?’” But in either case, instead of sounding like a native English speaker, it sounds more like a Chinese student translating directly from Chinese.
‘Mafan’ has the curious ability, also, to pop up untranslated in an otherwise English sentence during conversations with other foreigners living in China. An average conversation might include, “Yeah, it’d be nicer to get out of campus more, but it’s so mafan to take the subway and get back in time for class.” From this I suspect that ‘mafan’ simply carries a different meaning or connotation than its supposed English equivalents, and thus often gets thrown into an otherwise entirely English sentence.
The reason these translations don’t seem to capture the feeling of the word, I think, is because ‘mafan’ is much more commonly used in social situations that do not require it in the United States. I believe ‘mafan’ exists to balance out an interdependent society in which people are expected to often rely on each other, as opposed to American society where we often try to go everything alone, the help of others be damned.
In an interdependent society, this common reliance must be balanced against the recognition of appreciation for the help of others as well as the constant reminder of the inconvenience our reliance may cause others. An interdependent society out of control would be crushed under the weight of endless favors done for the sake of others. Yet a successful interdependent society encourages helpful interdependence, but tempers it with a reminder that one person’s favor can be another person’s mafan.