Translation caricatures

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From HappySad at

There's a variant of this joke that says "When a diplomat says yes he means perhaps; when he says perhaps he means no; when he says no he is no diplomat". In the conversation-between-the-sexes case, the joke bumps up against the "no means no" issue.

Jokes of this general kind, mostly more elaborate, are common. We've previously featured guides to translating British businesspersons and  French diplomats ("Translated phrase-list jokes", 5/21/2011), scientists ("Clarity and respect", 1/5/2005), etc. Translation caricatures pretty much cover the usual suspects: males, females, bosses, workers, ethnic groups, and so on.


  1. Lauren Gundrum said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    I think this one better covers parents than women! haha

  2. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    It would be better if she said "maybe" at the end. That would mean "no" if he's right. But since then he would be wrong, it would really mean "maybe" again. But if maybe he's right, then maybe maybe means no…

    [(myl) Yes, I think there's a version that would definitely get us into "Cretan liar paradox" territory.]

  3. Kylopod said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    I've used this basic formula (yes means maybe, maybe means no) when recruiting people for a minyan, a religious prayer quorum in Judaism, and I think it applies to any sort of voluntary, unpaid recruitment.

  4. braindancer said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    It is interesting that in ex-USSR, there is an exact opposite version of this joke. (In fact, most frequently it is quoted together with the one about the diplomat.) "When a girl says 'no', it means maybe; when a girl says 'maybe', it means yes; when a girl says 'yes', she's no girl". This version relies on a double meaning of a word 'girl' in Russian – it means both "young female" and "virgin", so first sexual intercourse basically converts a girl into a woman.

  5. braindancer said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Oh, and there is also a third part of the joke that makes it complete: "When a soldier says 'yes', it means yes; when a soldier says 'no', it means no; if a soldier says 'maybe' – that's no soldier".

  6. LC said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    Jonathan, that was my thought as well. The "maybe" answer seems like it would be the most amusing. (To me, anyway.)

  7. Tom Ace said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    "This is easy to remember, just watch the symmetry. When a man says 'yes' he means 'perhaps'; when he says 'perhaps' he means 'no'; when he says 'no' he is no diplomat. When a lady says 'no' she means 'perhaps'; when she says 'perhaps' she means 'yes'; when she says 'yes' she is no lady." – Paul A. M. Dirac

  8. mswyrr said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    Ah, one of those myths of rape culture that just absolutely needs to be spread far and wide. -_-

  9. Matt in PDX said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    Benny Hill had the most concise version of this joke that I've run across…

    MAN (in fake French accent): "Is it true that when you say no, you really mean yes?"
    WOMAN: "No."

  10. Jeroen said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    It's especially interesting to see my cartoon becoming the subject of a linguistics debate, haha :) I feel flattered.

    On the other hand: 'myths of rape culture', really?? Go through my 1300 other cartoons, you'll see that, if anything, they are a tribute to women. And their quirks.


  11. Glenn Bingham said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    @Matt in PDX re: Benny Hill

    Beat me to the punch (line).

  12. Dan M. said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

    Yes Jeroen, that's rape culture. No means no, and you're sexist scum to even joke that it doesn't. Women don't need a "tribute" from you, especially not for the "quicks" that you've imagined in them.

    I appreciate that ML has pointed to some articulation of "no means no", and I know this is Language Log, not Basic Human Decency Log, but could we be a bit less neutral to blatant lying in the service of sexual assault?

  13. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    Is this cartoon about sex? I confess it didn't occur to me until I read some of the outraged comments and followed Mark's link to the "no means no" page.

  14. Jeremy said,

    October 18, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    mswyrr was likely referring to braindancer's post, not to jeroen's cartoon.
    dan m. is the holder of the "clueless" commenter of the week.

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