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I am trying to translate a Chinese word 奴才 into English. Quite often it is translated to slave. But 奴才 is more about a person's mentality, e.g. obedient servant and being numb, timid, apathetic, and utterly disinterested in public affairs.

Luxun, the most famous Chinese writer in 20th century used the word 奴才 a lot, e.g. in his novel "The True Story of Ah Q",

Lu Xun to write the "True Story of Ah Q" was to help the people in the nation to be able to have feelings of pain when they are getting suppressed by the society feudalism, and also help them turn into "men" from the "slave" during the revolution of China from feudalism to the "New China".

"Diary of a Madman"

The story is not just a depiction of a man suffering from mental illness with the delusion of being eaten but rather a symbol of the cannibalistic nature of Chinese customs and society wrapped up in the veneer of Confucianism. The story progresses with the appearance of imagery such as that of a dog, which symbolizes cannibalism and a certain "slave mentality".

Also I also find lackey from these words

Nuli  奴隶  (slave) and Nuchai 奴才 (lackey) are two keywords that are often seen in Lu Xun's 魯迅 works. Though the meaning of these two terms may appear so similar, and sometimes to a point that readers can get confused, there are subtle yet significant differences between them. By differentiating the differences between these two terms, we hope to be led to a new perspective from which we can re-examine Lu Xun’s thoughts and works closely and re-read his important novella entitled “The True Story of Ah Q”. Besides Nuli and Nuchai, a third term called Nulixing   奴隶性 (slave-like mentality) which appears in  “The True Story of Ah Q” also deserves some attention. This paper will investigate the complicated relationship among these three terms.

The important thing about the translation is to express the slave-like mentality

What is a good translation of 奴才,or I just use the word slave with some attributive adjective like I just mentioned?

The comment I got saying lackey is very derogatory. Then I would say it is better than slave because 奴才 is a very derogatory word in Chinese. When I say what is a good translation of 奴才 I don't need a concrete noun but I need my words to convey the derogatory meaning of 奴才.

--- update ---

After reading all the answers and comments I think I will add this my translation, 奴才 is someone like Winston Smith in 1984 after he was broken by the rats and offered Julia up for torture. From then on I believe Smith lived a life just as a 奴才 does.

To quote from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Smith_(Nineteen_Eighty-Four),

By the end of the novel, O'Brien's torture has reverted Winston to an obedient, unquestioning party member who genuinely loves Big Brother... his total capitulation and submission to the party.

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9 Answers 9

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You could use servility:

the quality of being servile (= too eager to serve and please someone else ):

The world they want to create is one of constant submission and servility. (Cambridge)

As you can see, the dictionary juxtaposes submission to the noun I suggested. But for your context I would use submissiveness not submission. Submissiveness is defined as

the fact of being too willing to accept somebody else's authority and willing to obey them without questioning anything they want you to do (OxfordL)

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  • Please check my update again. I find another translation lackey, although I feel it is not accurate. Commented May 13 at 8:52
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    Give the exact sentence leaving a blank where you would insert that word.
    – fev
    Commented May 13 at 9:11
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    @Qiulang邱朗 A 'lackey' in English is derogatory, but specifically for an aid or helper to someone in power, like an advisor (in making decisions, usually a 'yes man') or a personal servant or guard (a 'henchman'). A slave is one of millions of common people. Note that 'lackey' is a common word in translations of how Maoist China used to denounce Western powers: "imperialist running-dog lackey".
    – Mitch
    Commented May 13 at 15:18
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    @Mitch - thanks for the nostalgic reminder! How I and my (UK, student, fashionably Maoist) friends fulminated against the imperialist running-dog lackeys back in 1969! And called certain of our number out for being 'leftist adventurers'! And read those tissue-thin bulletins from the Hsinhua news agency! I see it's spelled differently now. Commented May 14 at 11:33
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    @MichaelHarvey these days we have earned another title for that, "wolf warrior diplomacy" lol Commented May 15 at 2:15
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The word subservient conjures up the abject state of the downtrodden:

From Merriam-Webster [bolding mine]:

How is the word subservient distinct from other similar adjectives?

Some common synonyms of subservient are obsequious, servile, and slavish. While all these words mean "showing or characterized by extreme compliance or abject obedience," subservient implies the cringing manner of one very conscious of a subordinate position.

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So basically the crux of the question is this: The oppressive policies of the state have stripped the men of their worth and reduced them to mere puppets. Since the writer in question is urging them on to reclaim that sense of worth and dignity (...and also help them turn into "men" from the "slave" during the revolution...), I would suggest spineless (adjective) to describe this mentality where one is willing to forgo even their dignity. Here's the definition per Collins:

If you say that someone is spineless, you mean that they are afraid to take action or oppose people when they should. [disapproval]

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    I like spineless. In my other question is history site, I translate some words as "completely breaking the backbone of its people", which is spineless then Commented May 13 at 9:39
  • Yes. Plus it's highly derogatory.
    – user405662
    Commented May 13 at 9:52
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    Spineless is good.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 13 at 17:08
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    That thought (Winston Smith) came to my mind after reading all the answers and comments. To quote from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Smith_(Nineteen_Eighty-Four) "By the end of the novel, O'Brien's torture has reverted Winston to an obedient, unquestioning party member who genuinely loves Big Brother... his total capitulation and submission to the party" That is exactly what 奴才 would do. Commented May 14 at 9:28
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    @user405662 I learned another word I can use, yoke, it conjures up a vivid image. The writer LuXun indeed wrote those novels to rouse our people to action to break free from the tyrants' yoke (qing dynasty) Commented May 15 at 2:36
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As a native English and native Chinese speaker, and as someone who is deeply interested in this precise topic:

I strongly second fev’s answer, and Mitch’s reply to that answer: servile / servility is the word that you are looking for.

I apologize for the duplicate answer, and I encourage everyone to not upvote this answer, but instead upvote fev’s answer, which this post is seconding.

I would normally never duplicate someone’s answer, but I felt impelled to action due to a combination of:

  1. Your unexamined and somewhat rude dismissal (which I feel is not a very academic approach) of what I view as the correct answer.
  2. The higher vote counts on two answers that I strongly felt were strictly less correct.
  3. StackExchange’s nonsensical policy of allowing answers but not comments from people with 0 reputation.
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  • Thanks for the answer but what did you mean when you said "Your unexamined and somewhat rude dismissal (which I feel is not a very academic approach) of what I view as the correct answer." ? Commented May 14 at 1:15
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    I’m sorry, I was in a bad mood when I wrote that, for reasons unrelated to you, and I criticized you for no good reason. I meant that I felt you dismissed the answer easily rather than digging deeper, perhaps because you liked a different answer better. However, that was an assumption on my part, and regardless, it’s only my opinion that the answer I preferred is better. I have no right to assert that you were wrong, nor to call you rude for no good reason, especially when I was the one being rude.
    – Jimmy Luo
    Commented May 14 at 1:59
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    Thanks, if you like we can further discuss this question at some other places as this is also a topic I am deeply interested in. Before I asked the question I already suspected there was no such word in English and I need another long sentence to describe what 奴才 is in English. Commented May 14 at 2:15
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    After reading all the answers and comments I think I will add this my translation, 奴才 is someone like Winston Smith in 1984 after he was broken by the rats and offered Julia up for torture. From then on Smith lived a life just as a 奴才 does. Commented May 14 at 8:31
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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – verbose
    Commented May 15 at 16:56
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The person/people might be

downtrodden
People who are downtrodden are treated very badly by people with power, and do not have the ability or the energy to do anything about it.

The owner is making huge profits at the expense of downtrodden peasants.

From Collins Dictionary, while Merriam-Webster has

downtrodden
suffering oppression

a war that was supposed to liberate the downtrodden citizens of that nation

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  • The word downtrodden immediately remains me the words by Sir John Barrow's in his book "Travel in China", "While they are by nature quiet, passive, and timid, the state of society and the abuse of the laws by which they are governed, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel.". But unfortunately downtrodden only conveys the first part, not the result of that, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel. I didn't know downtrodden, thanks. Commented May 13 at 11:44
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The important thing about the translation is to express the slave-like mentality.

I can think of no single word in English that expresses this idea. I suspect there is none as, based upon your excellent and detailed description, it would have to be exceptionally specific.

I suggest you lose the "-like" from slave-like mentality, and simply use "slave mentality".

The word "Slave" carries a sufficient derogatory nuance.

The OED has

Mentality

  1. Mental character or disposition; the characteristic attitude of mind or way of thinking of a person, social group, etc. Frequently with modifying word.

1958 Something of the kind happens as soon as we are confronted with the Eastern mentality. R. F. C. Hull, translation of C. G. Jung, Collected Works vol. XI. vii. 480

1974 These Port managers, with their special knowledge and important position, tended to acquire the bureaucratic mentality. U. K. Le Guin, Dispossessed vi. 133

That said, there is bovine:

  1. Belonging to, or characteristic of, the ox tribe.
  2. figurative. Inert, sluggish; dull, stupid; cf. bucolic adj.

1855 Where bovine rustics used to doze and dream. O. W. Holmes, Poems 235

1879 Neither in the ranks of bovine Toryism nor of rabid Radicalism. Contemporary Review 291

And Merriam Webster:

Bovine 2: having qualities (such as placidity or dullness) characteristic of oxen or cows

He had a stupid, bovine expression on his face

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  • Never heard of bovine and it feels quite alien. What I learned from all the answers and comments (I read each one of them carefully) is "slave in American English doesn't have the connotation of having poor character at all" while you said "The word Slave carries a sufficient derogatory nuance." so I guess this is one of nuances I should pay attention to. Thanks. Commented May 14 at 2:05
  • @Qiulang邱朗 slave in American English doesn't have the connotation of having poor character at all" Your original description has no mention of having a poor character. I assume by "poor character" you mean "dishonest/untrustworthy", which is the meaning in English. However, address someone a slave (in the literal sense), and they will not be happy as it implies blind obedience and servility.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 14 at 21:47
  • By"poor character", I mean numb, timid, apathetic, and indifferent and some others words I got from answers like subservient, servile and kowtowing. Commented May 15 at 2:07
  • @Qiulang邱朗 "By"poor character", I mean numb, timid, apathetic, and indifferent"... Ah... this is incorrect. "poor character" has a specific meaning in English.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 16 at 15:12
  • What is the specific meaning then ? Commented May 17 at 3:50
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The adjective you're looking for is

debased: When applied to a person, someone who has become lowered in "status, esteem, quality, and character." https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/debase

This is someone who is both oppressed AND the worse for it (in terms of character).

In terms of noun, minion has somewhat of the quality you are looking for, although it implies people with direct loyalty to one master. Beasts of burden literally means donkeys and oxen, but it can sometimes be metaphorically applied to people who are treated like animals. Your first example turn into "men" from the "slave" seems to demand a non-human descriptor for contrast (although "men from minions" has a nice poetry to it). At one time, "slave" would have been an appropriate translation in English, but in modern times we have a greater appreciation that so-called "slaves" were full human beings under adverse circumstances, rather than a different category of being.

Another potential noun might be subhumans. "Subhuman" could also be used as a modifier for one of the other suggestions. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subhuman . (As noted in the comments, this word, while well-understood and in common use, is problematic, since it has connotations of the analogous German term, which was used by the Nazis as a part of their dehumanization of their victims. But it does, arguably, capture the meaning you're trying to translate.)

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  • Is sub-humans a common phrase in English? It feels like semi-barbarian that Lord Macartney used. Commented May 14 at 2:02
  • @Qiulang邱朗 "Subhuman" has connotations of "untermensch", so I'd recommend avoiding it.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented May 14 at 17:00
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    @wizzwizz4 - It's not a word I would choose to use myself--no people are subhuman--, but this is a question of translation., and I think it expresses the concept the OP wants translated. I've edited my post to note your concern, however. Commented May 14 at 17:10
  • @ChrisSunami hi I found someone else also used "debased" and added my own answer. Thanks for the answer. Commented 13 hours ago
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I have got several good answers but after doing some further research I would like to add another answer. My answer is more about adding some background to my question.

I want to explain our ancestors' mindsets (奴) in the 18th century under Qing dynasty's brutal regime. Before I asked the question I have known two famous quotes from Lord Macartney and Sir John Barrow:

  1. Macartney's Journal of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China,

Since the conquest of the North or the Manchurian Tatars, at least in the past 150 years, there has been no improvement, no advancement, but only backwardness; when we advance in the arts and sciences every day, they are actually becoming semi-barbarian.

  1. Sir John Barrow's comments in his book "Travel in China",

While they are by nature quiet, passive, and timid, the state of society and the abuse of the laws by which they are governed, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel.

...

It is sufficiently evident, that the heavy hand of power has completely overcome and moulded to its own shape the physical character of the people, and that their moral sentiments and actions are swayed by the opinions, and almost under the entire dominion, of the government.

Those words were very accurate about our ancestors' mindsets but they can't be used directly as the translation of “奴”. Then I read the following words by Augustus Frederick Lindley, a mid-19th-century British adventurer and writer, in his book "The History of the Taiping Revolution".

He made a similar observation about Qing's ruling:

the grinding oppression of nearly two centuries had apparently obliterated all that was good and noble in the land, and the debasing influence of the Manchoo invaders seemed likely to consummate the entire destruction of the moral, social, and political condition of the Chinese.

He wrote the following words about our people under Qing's ruling,

From the day these Tartars came into the country, China has been steadily deteriorating, and now the people may best be likened to herds of grovelling swine, living merely for the day, stultified in intellect by the most degrading superstition.

From infancy the people have become habituated to scenes of blood and torture, similar to those inflicted upon their ancestors during the last two centuries by the Tartar conquerors. Made callous and degraded by the ceaseless persecution of their authorities; unnaturally branded with the shaven-headed badge of slavery; their spirit broken and debased by a system of grinding tyranny; their lives and property at the mercy of the most merciless officials in existence ... seclusion is their salvation; too surely they know that their power consists in the weakness, ignorance, superstition, and degradation of their Chinese slaves. ... One of the most remarkable contrasts between the Ti-pings and their enslaved countrymen ... One presents a type of the whole—a dull, apathetic countenance, without expression or intelligence, except what resembles the half-cunning, half-fearful manner of slaves ... Where you would see the servile Tartar-subdued Chinamen continually cringing ...

So he used "slavery", "debased", "servile".

BTW, I need to emphasize that I consider myself an expert of Qing dynasty and as a native Chinese, I read those words and the books with only admiration for them. I applaud for their accurate and poignant observation.

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  • *applaud them... (Last line)
    – user405662
    Commented 11 hours ago
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Another word that might work is meek. Merriam-Webster defines it as "putting up with wrongs patiently and without complaint" but I'd strike "patiently" and substitute "timidly".

“Meek.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meek. Accessed 17 Jun. 2024.

meek has resonances with western culture in that there is a paradoxical saying in Christian religion that "the meek shall inherit the earth".

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