Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On “Lost In Translation”: When Yes Means No


Learning language involves more than learning its alphabets and being able to count (neither of which are good starting point for learning Danish, by the way. After a year of intensive Danish lessons, I have yet to pronounce all the vowels correctly (æ, e, and i all sound the same to me when I ask people to spell) and their number system resembles the quirkiest parts of French and German).

When you understand every vocabulary being thrown at you in a sentence which you can diagram, and yet you don’t understand what’s going on, you’ve hit the cultural barrier. As a native speaker, you won’t recognize how tricky it can be, because you know these phrases as responses to particular situations, and you aren’t translating them literally. I’m not even talking about proverbs, but simple words, like yes and no.

In many cultures, the word “no” is avoided, as it is seen as rude, not accommodating, and/or losing face. That is exactly the case in Japan.

Your language text book may tell you that the word for “no” is iie (pronounced as the letter “e” twice then eh) but chances are, you won’t ever hear it in use (unless perhaps when someone disagrees with your compliment, such as saying “no” to “oh, your daughter plays the piano so well”).

If you ask someone, “Is it possible to leave my bags here?” and they say “mmm…chotto (hm…little bit)”, it means no. This is a shortened version I wouldn’t expect any foreigner to understand, though the full version, “it is a little difficult” doesn’t scream no, but it most definitely means no. It works because in Japan, you wouldn’t want to burden others, so if someone says it’s a little bit difficult, you would know not to push. I forgot about this nuance when I was interpreting for a Japanese client, and translated their words literally. The American partners said “well, maybe if we give it more time, you can do it?”  Oh dear.

My Canadian friends might enjoy hearing that apologizing also means no in Japanese: “moushiwake arimasenga (it is inexcusable but)” (that’s the full phrase that means no), since Canadians are known for saying “sorry”.

After your Japanese guests enjoyed your meal and you offer them some more, if their response is “kekkou desu (excellent)”, they politely refused another helping. They say that it was excellent to mean that while they do not want a second helping, they do not want you to think that they did not enjoy the meal or that it was not excellent.

Reviewing different ways of saying no in Japanese made me realize that there are different types of no: not being able to comply with a request, “chotto (little)” or “moushiwake arimasenga (it is inexcusable but)”; refusing something that’s offered, “kekkou desu (no thank you)”; disagreeing about something “chigaimasu (it is different)”; and the imperative “don’t do it” as in “damé desu (it’s no good)”.

I was pleasantly surprised that an online Japanese phrase book had a little section to explain ways to say no in Japanese when many introductory language textbooks stop at “iie”. The one-to-one mapping may satisfy the little language schema you got going in your brain but if your goal is to communicate in that language, that approach is…little difficult.

Photo: Ise Jinguu (the most significant Shinto shrine), Ise, Japan

Post Script: My friend who spent time in Samoa told me that rather than saying no, the Samoans make up an incredulous excuse, such as “Are you coming with me tomorrow?” “I am flying to Paris”. I wonder how other cultures avoid saying no.


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This entry was posted on October 9, 2015 by in Culture, Japan, language and tagged , , , .
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