In "Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2" and other Language Log posts, we have delved into the terminology for nerddom. In the course of our discussions, we seem to have arrived at a consensus that it's difficult to find a Chinese term that conveys well the notion and nuances of the English word "nerd".
Now, in the March 1 issue of Global Times, a Chinese government publication associated with the People's Daily, there is an article entitled "Nerdy slang becomes pivot of education arguments" that attempts to promote the term xuébà 学霸 as a sort of equivalent to nerd.
The article begins:
Nerds and bookworms in China are having their day. A new slang term called "xueba," which literally translates to "academic guru," has been spreading on the Chinese Internet for over a year. The term is used to label students who study all the time and have outstanding academic performances.
First of all, I don't think that "academic guru" is a literal translation of xuébà 学霸:
xué 学 ("learn; study; imitate")
bà 霸 ("hegemon; tyrant; autocrat; feudal chief; oppressor; usurper; rule through force; lord it over; dominate; dictate; domineer; tyrannize over")
As a matter of fact, the term xuébà 学霸 came up in the comments to the "nerd" post cited in the first paragraph above. As pointed out by Wentao and julie lee (two separate comments), more often than not xuébà 学霸 is deemed derogatory.
Xuébà 学霸 also lacks the affectionate, amusing quality of "nerd". Quite the contrary, a xuébà 学霸 is rather formidable, if not downright terrifying. Consequently, I remain puzzled that there are still no widely circulating Chinese transcriptions for "nerd", as there are for "geek", but I wouldn't be surprised if one arises before long.
[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]