God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

I Could Care Less About Translating Each Word

We have an expression in English: “I could care less.” And what’s funny about the saying is that it seems like it should be “I couldn’t care less.” The image is of something about which I care so little that there is no way I could care less.

I imagine two approaches to translating that English phrase into a foreign language. One approach translates word by word, not daring to add the “missing” negative. The other apporach translates phrase by phrase.

Three questions come to mind:

1. Which approach will yield a better translation?

2. What investigative techniques would let a translator recognize that this English phrase shouldn’t be taken literally?

3. What can we learn from this example to help us translate ancient Hebrew and Greek?

(While the English “I could care less” is extreme, it is not unique. Modern Hebrew has a pleonastic negative. In Hebrew, “Park wherever you don’t find a spot” means “park wherever you find a spot.” I think French has something similar, but I can’t remember the details.)


September 23, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , ,


  1. I think either way one chooses, the translation would have to be footnoted. If the literal approach is taken, one would have to have lengthy explanatory footnote. It the other approach is taken, one must footnote that this is an interpretation of an idiom. For me, and this may sound trivial, the relative length of the required footnote indicates which option is preferable. I think the shorter our footnotes need to be, the better our translation. I am of the mind that the more we need to qualify the words of the translation, the less value that translation has in general use.

    Comment by Ryan | September 23, 2009

  2. Ryan: Very astute observations.

    In addition to considering the length of the footnote, do you think there’s merit to asking what happens when people don’t read the footnote at all?

    (Incidentally, I’m finishing up a one-page translation to an ancient poem. The footnotes take up six more pages….)

    Comment by Joel | September 23, 2009

    • Yes, that is also a very good question, especially as it pertains to scripture. As a pastor and teacher, I have a hard enough time getting people to read the text, imagine if I told them they had to read all the footnotes!
      Kidding aside, I think my comments are applicable to general use. I think the opposite is true for academic use. The bigger the footnotes, the more useful the translation. This is why, incidentally, the NET Bible is great for seminary, and bad for church. It is not a great translation (I am a DTS grad, so I have had ample experience with the NET), but it has extensive(!) notes.

      Comment by Ryan | September 23, 2009

  3. If the negative (or it’s absence) is a wordplay, then the translation should attempt to capture the play on words.

    Here’s from the rather serious and formal guidebook, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, E. B. White (with my bolding of the wordplay, whether the authors intended the play on words or not):

    The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted:

    “I could care less.”

    The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed.

    Then there’s the novel, Money Wanders by Eric Dezenhall, in which the character David Fine says, “… what that says is they’re careless in the true sense of
    that word. Without care. People say ‘I could care less‘ like they should get a prize.”

    A good translator of either the stuffy Strunk & White or the creative fiction writer Dezenhall will try to capture the wordplay.

    Linguist Deborah Tannen says, “It doesn’t really matter whether one says ‘I could care less’ or ‘I couldn’t care less’.” Quoting Tannen, writers Alger Nicolaus Doane and Carol Braun Pasternack add: “In textual language, however, the presence or absence of the negation makes all the difference in the world.” Doane and Pasternack (in Vox Intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages) see how written language, in contrast with oral language, can accentuate wordplay.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 23, 2009

  4. Some people, myself included, learned it as “I couldn’t care less” many years ago. I still say it that way. But I understand those who say “I could care less” perfectly well. And, frankly, I couldn’t care less which way it is said–well, I actually care a little, but not enough to correct anyone or suggest to others that what they have said isn’t right.

    It’s the intended meaning that comes through loud and clear (or is that loudly and clearly?!).

    This is a great blog, Joel.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | October 14, 2009

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