Donald Rumsfeld and translation research

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, was asked about the evidence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction. He famously replied “there are known knowns; there are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns”.


The remark was widely mocked at the time as a nonsensical attempt to justify the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the “unknown unknowns” turned out not to exist, and the consequences of the invasion are still playing out in Iraq and across the Middle East today.

However, if instead of talking about non-existent chemical weapons factories, Rumsfeld had been talking about translation research, his point would have been a good one.

In translation we have:

  • known knowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are certain – no need to research this
  • known unknownswords, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are uncertain – we always need to research this
  • unknown unknowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. that we think we have understood but which actually contain different/additional meanings.

The problem is that, by definition, we don’t know when our source text may contain “unknown unknowns”. As a result, we don’t realise that we need to research them. The solution, fortunately, is simple:

Research everything about which there is the slightest cause for doubt, including all real world information, any parts of the source text where your understanding clashes with the context or with a common sense interpretation, and any phrasing in your translation that you suspect of being influenced by the source text.”

In other words, if in doubt, Google it. And, in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, if you’re in doubt about whether you’re in doubt, then you should still Google it.