Language: November 2006 Archives

I mentioned this back in the early days of this blog, but with yesterday's resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all over the news, I wanted to offer a little tribute by recalling of one of my favorite Rumsfeld moments. Whatever else you think of the guy, you have to admit that he's a very intelligent man who chooses his words with great care. At least that's what I would expect any intelligent observer to notice. But some group called the Plain English Campaign was apparently too stupid to figure this out when they gave him the Foot in Mouth award at the end of 2003, calling the following statement "the most baffling statement by a public figure":

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.

As far as I can tell, there's nothing grammatically wrong with that statement. It makes perfect sense syntactically. It also has pretty clear semantic content, and he even states each point in two different ways just to make sure it comes across correctly. As for its truth, it's even a moderately insightful recognition of a kind of ignorance that we don't often focus on. We need to distinguish between the things we know we're aware of, the things we know we have no idea about, and the things we don't know but think we know. He was admitting that there were things someone might not know but without being aware that they don't know it. What's so baffling about that? It's a recognition that we can be ignorant when we think we know something. Duh.

Anyway, I just consider it a cool achievement to have been awarded the foot-in-mouth award for saying something that's actually pretty insightful, an action that revealed more about their own stupidity than it did about the intelligent comment they were making fun of. And then there's what Scrappleface did with this.

At Better Bibles Blog, Wayne Leman and several others often complain about inverted negatives in the ESV. [See Wayne's comment here, for instance.] Inverted negatives are a kind of construction that you find regularly in the KJV and some of its heirs that do not ever appear in contemporary English unless someone is deliberately trying to sound archaic. Yet the ESV continues it, largely out of respect for the KJV tradition and a desire to avoid changing the language many of the biblically literature find familiar to them and expect in a Bible translation.

Matthew 6:13 is an example. The ESV translates it "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The normal English way of saying this in our day would be "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The archaic reversal of the negative is simply not contemporary English, and it's contrary to the purpose of translating into contemporary English (to be understandable to ordinary readers not familiar with Biblese) to translate with inverted negatives.

Contemporary translations not in the Tyndale tradition tend not to translate with inverted negatives, however. The HCSB, a translation similar in many ways to the ESV, translates Matthew 6:13 as "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." The NET gives exactly the same translation. This rendering is much better as contemporary English than the ESV translation. The GNB (TEV) says, "Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One." The ISV has "And never bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." The NRSV translates it as "And do not bring us to the fiery trial, but rescue us from the evil one." I think this is more likely referring to temptation than to trial, and there's no indication of anything fiery in this verse, but the structure of the sentence here is correct (and "rescue" is far better in contemporary English than the old-fashioned sounding "deliver").

This morning I was reading the TNIV of the Luke parallel (Luke 11:4), and I discovered that it uses the inverted negative. In fact, it's exactly the same translation as in the ESV. This is also true of Matthew 6:13, and it's true of the NIV renderings of both verses. That led me to check several translations, and the other one that struck me as interesting was the NLT: "And don't let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." That raises an interesting translation issue that I think is worth spending some time thinking about.

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