Translation for the words Yes and No not as simple as one may think

Recently a client asked me why the Hmong translation for “yes” and “no” as a response to a question differed throughout one of their questionnaires.

The words “yes” and “no” are typically thought of as to only have one translation in most languages. After doing some more research I came across a wonderful document explaining some intricacies in the Hmong language and culture.

I learned that in Hmong a simple answer is usually not a “yes” or “no” answer because to answer “no” can be considered rude regardless of the context. And in a verbal response a Hmong speaker (in English) will answer “yes” when really “no” is what they mean. For example, in a question like “Did you go to school today?” the answer wouldn’t be “no” but rather “yes, I didn’t go” or something to that effect.

In that example “yes” is referring to the fact that they understood the question and not “yes” they went to the school. The same idea is true for translation. If the sentence above was translated into Hmong, the Hmong translator wouldn’t give a literal translation of “no” but rather something that either affirms or negates the question.

In that respect the answer would be “went” or “didn’t go”. In written Hmong there is simply no concrete way of translating the word “no” and “yes” as it exists in most other languages.