God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

A Simple Yes or No Won’t Do, Will It?

Yes or NoWhat could be easier than translating “yes” (nai) and “no” (ou)?

Actually, “yes” and “no” are sometimes tricky, because they work differently in different languages.

In particular, negative questions are a common source of trouble. For example, in response to “do you want ice cream?” the answer “no” indicates no desire for ice cream, and “yes” indicates the opposite, a desire for ice cream. But in response to the negative question “you don’t want ice cream?” the answer “no” still indicates no desire for ice cream, while “yes” is a bizarre, ambiguous response among adult speakers. Similarly:

John: “You’re not flying to England?”

Mary: “Yes.”

leaves open both the possibiliy that Mary is flying to England and the possibility that she is not.

In Japanese, the situation is reversed. The answer hai (“yes”) to a positive question means “yes, I do,” but in response to a negative question it means, “yes, you are right that I do not.” So someone who does not want ice cream will respond to “you don’t want ice cream?” in Japanese with hai. (You can see how negotiating Toyota Land Rover import agreements could get tricky.)

It seems that Greek works like English, with “no” confirming a negative question. But “yes” in Greek negates a negative quesion, rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a problem in translating Matthew 17:25. In Matthew 17:24, Peter is asked, “does your teacher not pay taxes?” The answer should be “yes, he does,” in English. But the KJV, ESV, and NAB (surprisingly) go with just “yes,” mimicking the Greek but not answering the question in English.

(French has three words with which to answer questions: non, which means “no”; oui, for “yes” in response to positive questions; and si for “yes” in response to negative questions. But only some of the French versions go with si here.)

So, unfortunately, many translations leave the question unanswered here.

November 4, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , ,


  1. Toyota Land Rover? Never heard of it.

    Comment by John | November 11, 2009 | Reply

    • Hmm. Maybe a Land Cruiser? It’s something like that.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 11, 2009 | Reply

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