Beginner Japanese phrasebooks can give the wrong impression that hai is the same as "yes" and that iie is the same as "no"Sometimes, when listening to Japanese dialogue in a film or game, you might hear the Japanese word hai, yet see it translated into English as no. Even if you only know like five words in Japanese, youve probably learned somewhere that hai means yes and that iie means no.
So what gives? Did someone mess up the translation? Did you just spot a big mistake?
It most cases, its probably not a mistake. This is because hai functions more like correct and iie functions more like incorrect. This normally does equate to yes and no in English but not when a negative question is involved.
I could probably just end this article right there, but I thought this would be a good chance to look deeper into this language quirk, examine why its a translation problem, and then see how its been handled and mishandled in actual translations.
Agreement in English
In English, yes and no seem pretty clear-cut in meaning, but they become a little fuzzier when a question involves a negative.
Answering a negative question with "yes" in EnglishLets say someone asks you, You didnt go to school? and that you answer with a simple yes.
What would that even mean? Are you saying yes, I went to school in response to the verb, or yes, thats correct, I didnt go to school in response to the whole question? A similar thing also happens if you answer with a simple no.
Of course, in everyday English, wed probably instinctively add an I did or I didnt for further clarification. But the important point here is that simple answers to negative questions can cause ambiguity in English.
Agreement in Japanese
Japanese is classified as an agreement language, which basically means that hai acts more like correct, and iie acts more like incorrect.
Answering the same negative question with hai in JapaneseFollowing the same example as above, lets say someone asks you in Japanese, You didnt go to school?.
If you answer with hai, theres only one interpretation: that is correct (I didnt go to school). And if you answer with iie, theres only one interpretation: that is incorrect (I did go to school).
In short, simple answers to negative questions arent ambiguous in Japanese.
Multiple Approaches in Translation
Negative sentences can be troublesome for Japanese-to-English translators. But, depending on the exact problem, there are two main approaches to this translation issue:
- Restate the question so that it logically fits with what comes afterward
- Restate the response so that it logically fits the original question
Approach #2 is why youll sometimes hear hai translated as no.
Anyway, enough with the theoretical stuff lets look at some actual examples of this negative question problem and see how they were handled in translation.
Approach #1 Example
Early on in Final Fantasy IV, a spooky voice in a cave keeps telling you to turn back or face the consequences. Then, when you reach the caves exit, the voice asks one final question. Youre then given a choice. Choosing the top option moves the story forward and starts a boss battle.
Final Fantasy IV (Super Famicom)Final Fantasy II (Super NES)Japanese Version (basic translation)English TranslationYou dont intend to turn back?Do you still wish to go on?hai / iieYes / No
As we can see above, the original Japanese line is a negative question, meaning were in tricky territory.
So, lets say were a badass and that we have no intention of turning back. If were not going to turn back, we could say either of these things to get the same point across, even though one is yes and one is no:
- Yes, thats exactly right, I aint turning back!
- No, I aint turning back!
These two are effectively the same, so which one is the player supposed to choose?
To avoid this potential confusion, the original question was restated as a question without a negative. Now its clear that yes means yes, I still wish to go on and that no means no, I dont wish to go on.
Approach #2 Example
In this scene in the Fairy Tail anime, Gray asks Mest a negative question. In Japanese, Mest responds with aa, a less formal version of hai.
"You haven't heard from him in a year?"
In the show, Mest hasnt heard from the guy in a year. This is why the subtitles translate aa as no here, when youd normally expect aa to mean yes.
An alternative solution wouldve been to translate aa as thats correct or indeed. Yet another solution wouldve be to restate the question, similar to the Final Fantasy IV example above, so that the aa could be left as yes.
There are occasional exceptions to this yes/no problem, especially when the negative question involved is an invitation or a request. In these cases, its often okay to keep everything as-is.
For example, at one point in The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask, this girl asks you if youll help protect her farm:
The Legend of Zelda: Mujura no Kamen (Nintendo 64)The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo 64)Japanese Version (basic translation)English TranslationYoure a boy. Wont you give it a try?Youre a boy, wont you try?hai / iieYes / No
As we can see, the original Japanese line is an invitation that uses a negative question. In a straight translation, this already works pretty logically in English, so there was no need for the translator to take any extra steps.
Problems in Action
Sometimes this negative question problem goes unaddressed in translation. Here are two examples that I can recall offhand, but Im sure Ive seen more.
Example Problem #1
In Breath of Fire II, this character offers to explain how a complicated gameplay mechanic works:
Breath of Fire II (Super Famicom)Breath of Fire II (Super NES)Japanese Version (basic translation)English TranslationI take it you dont need an explanation of Joining?Do you need explanation on joining souls?hai / iieYes / No
Answering with the first option skips the explanation and closes the text window. This is because answering the negative question with hai means thats correct (I dont need an explanation of Joining).
However, the English translator mishandled this negative question problem. As a result, choosing the first option still closes the window without any explanation given. So if you do want to see the explanation for this gameplay mechanic, you have to choose no.This is actually just one example of hundreds of poor translation choices found in Breath of Fire II. Ive written more about the games translation here if youre intrigued!
Example Problem #2
This problem is a little different, but still touches on some of the issues weve seen in this article.
At one point in Dark Souls, a character offers to teach you magic. But then he follows it up with one last question:
"Oh, yeah, by the way, er, I can share my spells with you."
"Ah, unless you find the magics unsavoury?"
After this, youre then prompted to say yes or no.
If you want to learn his magic, which one should you choose? Are you saying yes to learning magic or are you saying yes to not liking magic? If the latter, does yes mean yes, I dont find magic unsavoury? Does no mean no, I dont find magic unsavoury?. Here are some players reactions:
In Japanese, this characters line is: Or, perhaps, are you one who is disgusted by magic?. This more straightforward wording, together with what weve covered in this article, makes the question a bit less confusing in Japanese.
Example Problem #3
This example from Phantasy Star II demonstrates a slightly different way that yes/no questions can get messed up in translation.
If you talk to your party members in one area of the game, you get the option to rename them. Most party members ask something like oh, do you want to change my name?, so answering with a yes or no makes perfect sense.
But one character, Kain, asks a negative question in English:
Phantasy Star II (Mega Drive)Phantasy Star II (Sega Genesis)Japanese Version (basic translation)English TranslationWhat, you got a problem with my name?Doncha think thas a good name?
In Japanese, answering with yes here means correct, I have a problem with your name. So choosing yes allows you to rename him.
In English, not only was Kains line changed into a negative question, it also asks the opposite of what the original line said. This means that if you want to rename him, you have to say yes, I do like your name. That would only make sense in Moonside or on Opposite Day.
Other Uses of Hai
I should also briefly mention that hai is used in many other ways outside of saying yes or no. Sometimes its used as neutral filler speech to indicate youre listening. Sometimes its used as a sign of acknowledgement. Sometimes its used as a delineating device to indicate a change in topic. Sometimes its used as a way of saying here you go.
Basically, hai has many different meanings and uses in Japanese beyond yes.
This has all been a long-winded way of saying that hai and iie arent as simple as yes and no in Japanese. These nuances arent something they teach you right off the bat in Japanese language classes or textbooks, so its common to hear this sort of thing from beginning students:
Id say its probably just the opposite, though if you ever see hai translated as no, its probably a good sign that the translator has some experience and knows their stuff.
Anyway, hopefully this clears up some misunderstandings about the topic and saves future students from this confusion. Also, Id love to collect more examples of this yes/no problem for future stuff, so if youre a translator and can recall any examples that would fit on here, let me know. Or, if youve seen other yes/no mistakes in game translations like with Breath of Fire II, let me know that too!
If you liked this article and are just starting to study the Japanese language - or even if you barely have a passing interest in Japanese - you'll probably like these other articles I've written about the language too. Check 'em out!Follow @ClydeMandelin