"It wasn't" in English and Chinese

« previous post | next post »

From "Zits" for August 30, 2013 — the episode just before the one featured in "Earworms and white bears":

"It wasn't", in the third panel, seems like a simple enough statement in English, but a friend of mine wondered how best to express that in Mandarin, and ended up losing a whole night of sleep over it. He proposed bùshìle 不是了 ("it isn't anymore; it isn't any longer"), where le 了 indicates change of state: it has come to a state of no longer being. Google Translate renders bùshìle 不是了 as "not anymore", which is not bad.

Google yields 2,340,000 hits for "不是了", which would seem to indicate that it is an acceptable collocation. And this Yale website discusses sentences having shì 是 with change-of-state le 了 at the end under IIE, though not with bùshìle 不是了 as such. Change-of-state le with a negative is illustrated in section III, but again not with bùshìle 不是了 as such.

It is certainly acceptable to say xiànzài bùshìle 現在不是了 ("now it is not"), but that is not the same as saying "it wasn't").

I asked about a dozen native speakers their opinion about whether it would be possible to translate "It wasn't" in the third panel of the cartoon as bùshìle 不是了, and received some very strong reactions, of which I list a few here:

In this case, I would translate it as zài zhè zhīqián bùshì 在这之前不是 ("before this it wasn't"). I do not think there is a standard way to translate "it wasn't" since Chinese does not have tense. We have to say céngjīng bùshì 曾经不是 ("at some time in the past it wasn't"), guòqù bùshì 过去不是 ("in the past it wasn't"), yǐqián bùshì 以前不是 ("before it wasn't"), etc.

I would say běnlái bu shì de 本来不是的 ("originally it wasn't").

I think bùshì 不是 ("is not") is probably enough and most natural since Chinese relies heavily on context to distinguish tense. If you must make it clear that "it wasn't, but it is now" you probably can say something like yuánlái bu shì / běnlái bu shì, xiànzài shìle 原来不是 / 本来不是,现在是了 ("originally it wasn't, [but] now it is"). However, in my humble opinion, the latter is a paraphrase rather than translation, and sounds awkward. Or did I interpret the English wrong?

I think I will translate "it wasn't" into bù…shì… 不…是…. ("is… not…"), to express the feeling of the man. The ellipsis in bù…shì… 不…是… ("is… not…") is often used by netizens in China to express various kinds of feelings, such as helplessness / embarrassment / awkwardness, and so on.

I've never used bùshìle 不是了 before. But I have heard some Taiwanese say bùshìle la 不是了啦 ("it isn't anymore") before, especially young girls. I think bùshìle la 不是了啦 ("it isn't anymore") might be used to translate "it wasn't" here.

I would probably not use bùshìle 不是了 here, which would suggest that the tune used to be "Puff the Magic Dragon", but now it isn't any anymore.

Bùshìle 不是了 is incorrect in this context. Bùshìle 不是了 would be "not anymore" in English. The 了 points to the changed state, not the original condition / situation. Colloquially, however, it is completely proper (even preferred) to say bùshì la 不是啦 ("it wasn't"), which may sound like bùshìle 不是了, but is actually quite different. 啦 softens the tone and thus sounds more pleasant; but le 了 changes the meaning / implication.

The translation bùshìle 不是了 for the last panel that you gave is very wrong. Bùshì 不是 ("it wasn't") is the correct translation. Le 了 indicates a new situation that has come into being, rather than a simple mark of the past tense. Bùshìle 不是了 means "be not anymore" = bù zài shìle 不再是了 ("it no longer is; not anymore"). For example, Xiànzài de Měiguó zǒngtǒng shì Bush ma? — Yǐjīng bùshìle, shì Obama 现在的美国总统是BUSH吗?–已经不是了,是OBAMA ("Is Bush the president of America now? [No,] he no longer [is president], it's Obama").

I think bùshìle 不是了 means "it is not now but it was". It is present rather than past in terms of tense.

Such are the reactions occasioned when tense in English meets aspect in Chinese.

[Thanks to John Rohsenow, Xiaojue Wang, Maiheng Dietrich, Rebecca Fu, Cheng Fangyi, and Jing Wen]


  1. Denny said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 1:30 am

    A very interesting post.

    In terms of bringing the meaning out — for example, explaining the joke to a Chinese person — I think 原來不是(現在是了) "originally it wasn't (but now it is)" does a good job.

    I also really like the suggestion of translating "It wasn't" as 不…是… "no…", using ellipses to indicate the humorous twist. That said, I wonder whether such a translation would work in speech, lacking the visual clue for "but now it is" that the comic provides?

  2. Denny said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 1:46 am

    As a side note, if the joke was that Yellow Submarine had been knocked out of his head by Puff the Magic Dragon (rather than, seemingly, co-existing with it), then 不是了 "not anymore" might have been a pretty good translation.

  3. Lauren said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 2:11 am

    I'd probably argue that, to whatever extent your explanation of 不是了 is complete, that would actually mean the exact opposite of the intended "it wasn't."

  4. anon said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 2:54 am

    It sounds as if many of your contributors didn't understand the joke in English. It literally does mean "originally it wasn't, but now it is," but two people said that is not how they interpreted it. This person's interpretation is actually backwards: "I would probably not use bùshìle 不是了 here, which would suggest that the tune used to be "Puff the Magic Dragon", but now it isn't any anymore." That is exactly what it means.

  5. rgove said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 4:09 am

    It may not be a direct translation, but if you want something concise enough to serve as a punchline, is "是了" acceptable?

  6. jwhipple said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 8:41 am

    Building on rgove's suggestion, how about something like "不是的就是了吧!"?

  7. JS said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    The commenter simply misspoke; they meant one should "not use bùshìle 不是了 here, which would suggest that the tune used to be "Puff the Magic Dragon", but now it isn't any anymore." Just as the commenters and Lauren say, this is the exact opposite of what is intended, which is that the tune used not to be PMD but now is. 原來不是 sounds perfect to me. Believing 不是了 to mean "it wasn't in the past" betrays a complete misunderstanding of how sentence-了 functions.

  8. Biscia said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    In a weird juxtaposition, this brought to mind the opening words of Alessandro Manzoni’s poem “Il cinque maggio” on the death of Napoleon: “Ei fu.” Is there any term for this device of using tense to convey content above and beyond what it would normally convey?

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

    How about just "shi le"?
    i.e., (Yuanlai bu shi, danshi xianzai) SHI LE.

    Can the LE convey "NOW it is" (altho' it wasn't before)"?
    Would Puff have to have replaced Yellow Sub for
    the the LE to work?

  10. Adrian said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    Using Google's Verbatim function, I only found around 200 instances of 不是了.

  11. ChoongKheng said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    How about '不尽然是'?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 8:26 pm


    Please explain why a Verbatim search is to be preferred to a regular Google search for "不是了" (with quotation marks).

  13. JS said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    ^ AFAIK Verbatim and regular "" should return the same results… but for some reason the former loads and paginates 200ish and the latter 300+ for this search.

    But this doesn't matter: the 2,000,000+ hits estimate and a little common sense are enough to know that 不是了 occurs many, many more than 2-300 times on the web.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

    From Soo Lon:

    No need to lose sleep over this! :) I think the LA is copied from the Cantonese way of adding LA to everything, just like Valley Girls style–and to add to the confusion LA!!!

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    不是了 without quotation marks yields 3,150,000,000 ghits, which affords no useful purpose for the present problem, but "不是了" with quotation marks is another matter.

  16. Rodger C said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 7:37 am

    Troia fuit.

  17. Wentao said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    本来不是的 is perfect in this context! The others, albeit correct, are a little obscure and/or unnatural.

    The "young-girl-ish" 不是了啦 means something very different from "it isn't anymore". It's closer to "Noooo! This is not what I mean!"

  18. Frank Harr said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

    What's "then" (or similar) in Mandarin? Because "not then" seems like an efficient way of putting across the idea without worrying the verbs over-much.

  19. Brendan said,

    September 4, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    The first thing to come to mind for me was 本來不是 — "it wasn't [to start out with]" — I think the 現在是了 could probably be left out. 不是了啦 sounds to me more like what Wentao said above, and 不是啦 is just a breezy-verging-on-girly-sounding "Noooooo."

    Might the phrasing of the question make a difference here? "不會是 'Puff the Magic Dragon' 的主題曲吧?"

  20. Lao-seng said,

    September 4, 2013 @ 8:54 pm

    The thing is what "了" means here. In most cases it's used to soften the expression (as it's a negation) and should be ignored. It's "不是" that counts.

  21. PaulB said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 4:20 am

    To me, both 原來不是 and 本來不是的 successfully capture the meaning, but they seem to lose some of the punch of the original deadpan humor. So to revive the funny — and to slightly shift the locus of the joke — in the context of this strip I'd be tempted to 'translate' 'It wasn't' as '是了'.

RSS feed for comments on this post