How would you explain “so what?” to someone who is learning English? It is an everyday type of vocabulary that I know I say without thinking about the literal meaning. It is obviously not a complete sentence. It begins with a transitional word, “so.” This at least indicates that the phrase is linked to something else, but that something else could be what someone else just said. The “what” part of the sentence could possibly be explained as a truncation of “what is there to care about?” But it could also beg the question, “why should I care?” or “who cares?” Any of these questions are sarcastically rhetorical, since the speaker is actually indicating he doesn’t care.
All this to say that the Chinese version of this is not any better and an English speaker should examine his own language before complaining about that. When a Chinese person says:
This means the same thing as when an English speaking person says, “So what?” If you literally translate the Chinese, it means:
(na4) (you4) (zen3 yang4)
(that/those/then) (again/also/anyway) (how/why)
Take your pick, because it just means, “so what?”
Another equally obscure meaning is the Chinese that means “big deal,” in the sarcastic sense.
(you3) (shen2 me.) (liao3) (bu4) (qi3) (de.)
I have not bothered to directly translate the words above because it seems better to discuss it more thoroughly. In this case, the 有 (you3), is as usual translated “to have.” It is optional for this phrase and not everyone puts it at the beginning.
The 什麼 (shen me.) is also straightforward, meaning the usual “what.” The 的 is (de.) at the end is an adjective marker. However, from there it is just the normal leap of translation as for any idiom.
The three characters together了不起 themselves mean “wonderful.” This is the dictionary definition, but there is no explanation beyond that. The了 (liao3) has dictionary definitions of its own, but none that fits easily here. The best option for the sake of remembering the total meaning of the phrase is “very, fully.” The 不起 is there for no literal reason, but is necessary for full understanding of the word.
Thus, when put together with the other words, it means “to have what wonderful,” which is very like the English “big deal” when used as a sarcastic response. I will probably use “what is so wonderful about that?” to help me remember the Chinese phrase, because it is easier for my English-based brain to stay connected with.
Either 那又怎樣 or 有什麼了不起的 can be used more lightheartedly or in a stronger mocking way. How they come across will depend on context in conversation and relationship with the person being spoken to. You can even use them talking to yourself. Here are a couple examples:
(ta1) (bu4) (gen1) (wo3) (shuo1 hua4). (na4 you4 zen3 yang4). (wo3) (you3) (hen3) (duo1) (peng2 you3)
(he) (not) (with) (me) (to speak). (so what). (I) (to have) (very) (many) (friend)
He won’t talk to me. So what. I have many friends.❶
(ta1) [(you3) (qian2)], (you3 shen2 me. liao3 bu4 qi3 de.)! (ru2 guo3) (ni3) (cong1 ming2), [(qin2 kuai)(de.)](gong1 zuo4), (ran2 hou4) (ni3) (yi1 yang4) (ye3) (ke3 yi3) (you3) (qian2) (ya.)
(she) [(to have) (money)], (big deal)! (if) (you) (smart), [(diligent)(ly)] (to work) (you) (the same) (also) (able) (to have) (money) (expressive sound)❹
She has a lot of money, big deal! If you are smart and hard working, then you can also have money!
Here is an audio of the above Chinese, as spoken by my native Chinese speaking tutor:
Notes on certain things:
❶ For the first sentence in this example, I had tried to word it as 他不會跟我說。My tutor said that means, “He won’t tell me (about something).” If you look, you will see that there are two differences in sentences, with 會 (hui4) in one and the 話 (hua4) in the other. These changes apparently give it the nuances necessary to mean different things.
❷ To say 有錢 (you3 qian2) implies significant amounts of money in this context, not just loose change in the pocket.
❸ Another very acceptable word for “smart, clever, sharp” is 靈敏 (ling2 min3), but 聰明 (cong1 ming2) is more common.