"Better Dance Than Never"

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Jonathan Smith just saw this sticker in 798 Artzone in Beijing:

The Chinese says:

bùrú tiàowǔ


it's better to dance / it would be better to dance / would rather dance

Bing / Microsoft Translator offers "Why not Dance?".

The key to understanding this sentence is the bùrú 不如 part (tiàowǔ 跳舞 means "dance").  Character by character, bùrú 不如 literally means "not like / as / resemble", but that explanation does not begin to convey the ineffable quality of this marvelous little expression:

not as good as

be inferior to

be unequal to

cannot compare to

it would be better to

would rather

might as well


Jonathan's comment on the sticker:

Satisfying semantic resonance between "不如X" and "better late than never" but marginally interpretable as an English message… True creativity? Unlikely to be machine translation at any rate

My reply to Jonathan:

love it!

beautiful utterance, although you have to keep gnawing on it to make sense….

For those who are curious, and there are undoubtedly many, the usual translation of "better late than never" into Chinese is "chídào zǒng bǐ bù dào hǎo 迟到总比不到好", which lacks the gnomic quality of the English.


  1. GH said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 6:21 am

    I think "Better Dance Than Never" has a really nice ring to it. The kerning on the text, however, is much too tight: it doesn't look nice and it is hard to read.

  2. Alexander B said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 7:13 am

    The kerning is unusually tight, but I really like it because it mirrors the texture of the Chinese characters. I would prefer a typeface with a double-story lowercase A, like most serifs, so that I don't misread the As as Os.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    Since each word begins with a sharp, distinct capital letter, the kerning seems ample to me, and I agree with what Alexander B says about it mirroring the "texture of the Chinese characters" (beautifully stated!).

  4. JorgeHoracio said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 8:08 am

    Beautiful maxim!

  5. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    Wasn't this a James Bond film….. :)

  6. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

    I wonder how the Prince / Sinead O'Connor song "Nothing Compares 2 U" was translated when it was a hit (and I have no doubt China ate it up as they do most ballads exported from the US).

    不如你 "Bùrú Nǐ" might work, but somehow feels like it might violate MSM prosody rules. It certainly would be hard to parse that over the six syllables of the original song title.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

    From my brother, who thirty to forty years ago used to run a high quality typesetting firm:

    If GH is referring to the Roman text, I wouldn't call that kerning. It's uniformly tight, and thus is simply very tight letterspacing. Kerning refers to the unique spacing between specific pairs of letters, as the capital W and the lower case a.

    But I suppose that's an outdated view.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 8:19 pm

    @Neil Dolinger:

    "Bùrú nǐ 不如你" by itself means "not as good as you; does not compare to you; etc." You have to specify "what" is not as good as you:

    yīqiè dōu bùrú nǐ 一切都不如你
    shénme dōu bùrú nǐ 什麼都不如你

    But these are not the usual translations for "Nothing compares to you".

    There are many different renderings of the famous song title. Here are five:

    méiyǒu rènhé shìwù néng yǔ nǐ xiāngbǐ 没有任何事物能与你相比


    shénme dōu bǐ bù shàng nǐ 什么都比不上你


    méiyǒu shéme bǐ dé shàng nǐ 沒有什麼比得上你


    wú rén kěyǐ qǔdài nǐ 无人可以取代你 (lit., "no one can replace you")


    méiyǒu shéme shì kěyǐ yǔ nǐ xiāngbǐ 没有什麼事可以与你相比


  9. julie lee said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 11:06 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    Victor Mair's "Shénme dōu bùrú nǐ 什麼都不如你" is for this reader by far the best translation of "Nothing Compares 2 U". It sounds more natural than the usual translations, and it's also six syllables.

  10. Shihchuan said,

    July 20, 2018 @ 4:05 am

    I think "Why not dance?" (or "Why don't we dance?") is a particularly adequate translation.

    For cultural background, it's also the title of a classic hit by Hong Kong singer Kelly Chen in 2000.

  11. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 20, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    Victor and Julie,
    Thank you for answering my somewhat off-topic question. And extra thanks to Victor for providing the links to videos with those translations used. Will definitely watch later at home. I'll be interested in how these singers fit those >6 syllables to the six-syllable melody.

    Until that moment, I'll just have to imagine Sinead O'Connor singing

    Shénme dōu bù,

    Shén dōu bù, rú nǐ!

  12. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 20, 2018 @ 11:59 am

    Sorry, WordPress didn't take the spacing I intended. I put the "me" in the line above indented to appear to the right and above the "Shen" to visually indicate the melodic leap she takes in the original version.

  13. Alexander B said,

    July 20, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    @Victor Mair: Your brother is right, now that you mention it. With democratization of typesetting, the same kind of thing happens with the usage of "font". Strictly speaking it is a specific variant, like "Times italic bold", but is now often used to mean simply a typeface, including all variants.

  14. GH said,

    July 20, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    You're right (or your brother is) about kerning vs. letterspacing or tracking, of course. Sloppy of me.

    But I don't agree that the tightness of the spacing "mirrors the texture of the Chinese characters", and I would argue that it just looks terrible. For example, take the way the 'c' in "Dance" gets merged with the surrounding letters so it could easily be mistaken for an 'o', or the way the serif on the 'T' in "Than" nearly, but not quite, overlaps with the ascender of the 'h'.

    If stylistically mirroring the look of the Chinese characters was the goal, they could have broken each word into two lines to create a square block. (Not that I would advocate this.)

    Or they could have just done the sensible thing and used a slightly smaller or narrower font so there would be adequate spacing between the letters.

  15. Chaak said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 1:01 am

    I agree with Shihchuan. I can only get the "Shall we dance" or "Why don't we dance" sense, but I'm not sure whether this Cantonese usage has spread to Beijing Mandarin.

  16. Nicki said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

    I often find that English language text is treated as "decoration" here in China, and little to no thought is given to readability, which results in vertical sideways English text, tiny English text paired with nice large Chinese text, and a myriad of font choice and spacing issues which often render the English text nearly or completely incomprehensible. On occasion you even get completely reversed and mirrored English text!

    I've in fact been told, more than once, when suggesting changes to improve legibility, not to worry because "it's just decorative".

    It bothers me more for some reason when it's something I've personally translated, ha.

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