August 19th, 2007

Walking to the station the other day, a brief question-and-answer Sachi and I shared reminded me of an interesting linguistic difference between English and Japanese. Wanting to know which route we should take, I asked, “Do we go straight ahead, or turn left?” Sachi answered, “Yes.” I laughed, but I understood: we turn left.

I have encountered this before in Japan: when asking a binary “A or B” question, the answer “Yes” means the latter is correct. To an English speaker, however, that sounds like a joke answer–as if both were the correct reply. However, I have yet to probe this deeply; for example, I have never heard “No” to mean the former of the two choices as being correct. Nor am I sure of how strong a linguistic certainty this is; I don’t seem to get much agreement from Japanese speakers that this is the way Japanese people answer such a query, though I have witnessed it many, many times.

In contrast, there is a much more established difference between the two languages, concerning the answering of negative yes/no questions. Positive questions (such as “Do you have a problem?”) are answered the same way in English and Japanese; however, negative questions (e.g., “You don’t have a problem?”) are answered differently.

In English, we answer “yes” or “no” based upon the positive or negative status of the answer; for example, if you do have a problem, you answer “Yes,” because the answer is that you do (positive) have a problem. If you don’t (negative), then you answer “No.” The positive or negative sense of the answer always matches the “Yes” or “No” reply.

In Japanese, however, the answer depends on the truth of the question; in other words, if the assumption of the question is true, then the answer is “Yes,” even if the question is negative. Ergo, the question, “You don’t have a problem?” is answered “Yes, I don’t”–“Yes” because the question was true. If the question is not true, the answer is “no,” as if to say, “no, you’re wrong,” even if the answer is stated in the positive–as in, “no, I do have a problem.” Kind of like the old song, “Yes, we have no bananas today.”

The same structure is used in Chinese, and, I suspect, most far-eastern languages. I remember a story told in a movie a few decades back (“Chan Is Missing“), where a Chinese man is stopped by a traffic cop in San Francisco. The cop holds that the Chinese guy ran a stop sign; the Chinese man insists that he did not. Eventually, the cop asks, “You didn’t stop at the sign, did you?” And the Chinese man answers, “No!” Of course, he meant, “No, I did stop!” but the American cop took that to be an admission that he didn’t stop, and so wrote him the ticket with greater confidence.

I always try to teach this difference to my students. When I ask them if they have any questions, they usually answer “no.” So I add, “Ah, so you have no questions? Then they answer “Yes.” So I come back at them with, “So you do have a question!” To which they answer, “No!”…. and that can go on for as many as three or four cycles until they catch on. By the end of a semester, nobody gets caught by that little trick, and they are all aware of the difference. It’s a funny little instructional gag that everybody enjoys. But it effectively demonstrates the trouble you can get into by making assumptions based upon your own language’s patterns when speaking a different language. In this case, I tell my students that it is safer to give a full answer rather than just a simple “yes” or “no”; to answer “Yes, I have no questions” is more clear than the simple “Yes” if you don’t correct for the language pattern difference.

Another slightly different example of language assumptions is with the Japanese phrase “muzukashii.” That word, literally, means “difficult,” but used in certain circumstances, means “no way in hell can we do that.” It is more polite to covey the idea subtly; instead of refusing a customer’s request, a shopkeeper will instead say it is “difficult” to do it. Japanese people instantly recognize this contextual clue and stop asking for the thing. Westerners, however, think that it is simply a matter of effort, and so keep asking how the task can be accomplished, and are confused and frustrated when the Japanese person keeps talking about how difficult it will be. “Yes, yes, I know it’ll be difficult–you’ve told me three times already! But can you do it??

While this seems entertaining in itself as a quirk of translation, I should at some point do a post about how such mistakes so commonly occur between people speaking the same language, but assume a particular word means something very different. Like “atheist” and “agnostic,” for example–but in situations a lot less clear-cut than even that.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags: by
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