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I asked a similar question on English Language & Usage site, but no one seems to come up with a good answer for me. I have decided to give our Chinese site a try.

Bonus: how will you describe the idiom 有缘无分?

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Could you link the question on EL&U? I can't find it... –  Alenanno Jan 19 '12 at 20:19
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Nice question! +1 –  Flake Jan 19 '12 at 20:38
    
fate? destiny? chemical? karma? –  Flake Jan 19 '12 at 20:41
    
@Alenanno english.stackexchange.com/questions/46621/… –  Terry Li Jan 19 '12 at 21:19
    
are you asking for the english equivalent word/phrase or an explanation in english? –  Laguna Jan 19 '12 at 22:11
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6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The CEDICT definition is:

fate or chance that brings people together / predestined affinity or relationship / (Budd.) destiny

I'm not familiar with the Chinese term, but the translation sounds similar to "Karma".

As for 有缘无分, the CEDICT definition is:

destined to meet but not fated to be together (idiom)

The closest English phrase I can think of is "star-crossed lovers". Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers.

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Wikipedia has a very good explanation of the concept of 缘分:

Yuan (simplified Chinese: 缘; traditional Chinese: 緣) or Yuanfen (simplified Chinese: 缘分; traditional Chinese: 緣分; pinyin: yuánfèn; Vietnamese: duyên phận) is a Buddhist-related Chinese concept that means the predetermined principle that dictates a person's relationships and encounters such as the affinity among friends or lovers. In common usage the term can be defined as the "binding force" that links two persons together in any relationship. The concept of synchronicity from the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung can be seen as similar to yuánfèn,[citation needed] which Chinese people also believe to be a universal force governing the happening of things to some people at some places. Yuánfèn belongs to the family of concepts known in theology as determinism.

Some believe that the driving forces and causes behind yuánfèn are the actions done in the previous rebirths. Therefore, it can be understood as the relational- as opposed to the physical- aspect of karma in Buddhism. However, while karma often refers to the consequences of an individual's actions on him- or herself, yuán is always used in conjunction with two persons.

and 有缘无分:

The proverb yǒu yuán wú fèn (有緣無份), "Have fate without destiny," is sometimes used to describe couples who meet, but who do not for whatever reason stay together.

Other than the above, I would like to add my own interpretation as follows:

In modern day practice, 缘分 is used more seriously to describe a relationship between lovers, whereas 缘 is used more casually to describe the chanced encounter between friends. For example:

我俩的缘分已尽,还是分手吧。(This is the end of our relationship, let's split up.)

我跟你真的很有缘,走到哪里都可以碰面。(The two of us are so fated together that wherever we go, we tend to meet up.)

The character "分" is originally written as "份" and is still very much in use today. "份" has the meaning of a share or a portion, e.g. "股份", "名份", "福份". Therefore, 有缘无分 (expanded as 有缘相爱,无份相守) can be taken to mean two persons having the fate (inevitable turn of events) to meet and become lovers, but not having the destiny (destination, the end result) to share the rest of their lives together as husband and wife.

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缘 has the meaning reason, cause, it means some kind of causality. 缘 as in 缘分 it means luck which brought people together. It also has some sense of determinism. the two lovers were brought together by fate, then you can say they have 缘分.

as in 有缘无分, it usually refers to two lovers who have the luck to know and love each other, but has no luck to stay together(like marriage) by some reason.

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缘: serendipity, as described in the movie of the same name

有缘无分: IMHO, describes a feeling of powerlessness at the relinquish of love/affair in compromising to life's interventions, be it societal or natural...a good example is the story describe in the movie Waterloo Bridge

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chinese name of that movie is 廊桥遗梦 –  Laguna Jan 19 '12 at 22:09
    
Serendipity emphasizes more on luck, and is related to finding treasures, according to my English dictionary. Yet "缘" usually describes the fate of encounter between two people (sometimes people and place) –  ziyuang Jan 24 '12 at 0:31
    
maybe 缘 can be better described as social entanglement: to have 缘 with someone is to be socially entangled with someone. It hints at a cause-effect. 缘 is to socially entangle to fulfill a certain destiny...now I'm here, I feel destiny might be a better word than fate at this effort :) –  Laguna Jan 24 '12 at 14:26
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I'm sure you've heard the expression in English: "we were meant to be together". When applied to a romantic relationship, that's 缘分. Note, though, that Chinese apply 缘分 not just to romance, but also to friendship, especially friendships which result from a chance meeting. If the two of you have 缘分, then your meeting and becoming friends was "meant to be".

It can be interesting to ask Chinese people if they actually believe in 缘分 -- is it a real force which exerts influence on things? Most of them do believe in it, even if they are not generally religious or superstitious.

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缘分 is actually two words in ancient Chinese, and this word came from ancient Chinese.

This word clearly clarified the marriage system in ancient China.

缘 means boy meets girl. 分 means what the status the boy/man could give to the girl/woman.

In present China, Chinese abandon that old marriage system but the term remains. 有缘无分 is another way of saying we cannot get married.

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