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.

Ensuring quality

It is very important that translations of the Bible be accurate. So how do we do that for translations in smaller languages? Well, that’s not as simple as doing just one thing.

  • The first step is to select the translators with care. If done well, that is a multi-step process in itself.
  • Then we train the translators in seminars and on the job.
  • Then the translators get helps and specialized software. Today, most of the helps are computer based.
  • It is crucial to train at least two Translators and have them work as a team, confirming each other’s work and working through difficult translation problems together.
  • For thorny problems, the translators should be exposed to the solutions found in nearby languages. So they should have the opportunity to work together with other translators, especially those with experience.
  • Next, the translators meet with groups of local people and read the translation with them, asking what the people understand.
  • Finally, a translation expert goes over the translation with them verse by verse. This is as much for training and for improving the translation as it is for giving approval for printing.

These steps are repeated over and over. Each book of the Bible goes through this process. For longer books, just part of it might go through this process then the rest later. Because the translators learn through the process and their translations get better and go faster, it is better to run through the complete process with smaller portions of translation, especially at the beginning. I have seen cases where translators took the whole New Testament though only first few steps. Then when they got to the next steps, they learned things that caused them to go back and revise all they had done. What’s a waste of time and money.

These days, people are experimenting with changes to this process with a view to making translation go faster and cost less. I think that’s great, as long as accuracy doesn’t suffer.

Translation consultant Matthieu Ouattara training translators in Abidjan

The Cute and the Informative

I’ll start with the cute. NewsOK, a Oklahoma on-line news site, has a great article entitled Who Wrote the Bible. It’s not what you might think. Instead of a dry theological treatise, the author gets the answer from children from ages 8 to 10. Smart kids. You’ll enjoy it.

Also in the fun and informative category is Wycliffe’s new website – Road to Transformation. It opens with a nice infographic and you can stay there or dig into more details. Believe me, the process is exactly like we do it.