The curse of knowledge

In his excellent YouTube video on good writing, Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out that the central problem of writing is “the curse of knowledge”. Here’s my favorite explanation of this curse:

The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing
A writer knows something that he wants to write down. Because he knows it he finds it very difficult to put himself in the place of his readers who don’t. That may lead him to leave out information his readers need because he wrongly assumes that they know it because he does.

The same thing happens with something called church language. It is quite common that Christians develop understandings of certain words in church. Then we speak them with the church understanding and hear them the same way. Some Christians will forget that people outside the church understand the words differently. Those Christians are suffering from the curse of knowledge.

I experienced this first hand in Burkina Faso. We were translating the story of John the Baptist. So I asked a local pastor how one said baptize in the language. He responded “bateezeng”. That is obviously just and adaptation of the English word. Aware of the problem of church language, I asked several people who did not attend church about ” bateezeng”. They all told me the same thing. It means to give a newborn its name on the 8th day. Of course, we can use “baptize” for naming in English too. I went back to the pastor and told him of the responses I got. He agreed that was what everyone understands by the word. We eventually found another word for baptize that communicated much better than bateezeng.

The curse of knowledge is one of the reasons why we have a step in the translation process called community testing. When a translator translates a passage, he does so knowing what he meant to say. He then finds it very hard to forget what he meant and read his translation for what is actually says. It helps to let the translation sit a while then come back to it, but a surer solution is community testing. The translators go out into the community and read each passage asking people what they heard. Because the people don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, they will tell the translator what the translation really wrote, just like those people in Burkina Faso who told me that bateezeng meant giving a child a name.

3 thoughts on “The curse of knowledge

  1. Good point! We have so much “Christian jargon”. I notice that in my school, the staff often sign off their emails with the tagline “Blessings,…” and then their name. I always wonder what people outside the school think when they receive emails in their places of business that end that way. (Personally, I think that it is God Who gives blessings, but that is another rabbit trail, isn’t it?)

    Liked by 1 person

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