I've recently got my hands on a brand new copy of Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia, translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss. On page xx of the preface, one sentence struck me as being particularly strange:

My obstinacy frightens me, the obstinacy that makes you say, “If I'm making a mistake, but I do it knowingly.”

This quote is just a complete mess. It looks to be a zero conditional sentence, judging by the lack of will. Yet, the first clause is in present continuous rather than present simple, effectively throwing this assumption out of the window. Furthermore, what's but doing in here? I can completely understand adding a noun-modifying adverb into a conditional. In this case, however, it seems like the word has little to no meaning, and was seemingly included to serve absolutely no purpose other than throwing people off and be absolutely confusing.

I've consulted several native English speakers on this issue, and they unanimously agree that the quote is extremely awkward to read, and that this must've been some sort of mistake.

Well, things aren't exactly that simple. The book was published by Pan Macmillan - one of the UK's largest publishers. The probability of editors working for a large publishing company glossing over a mistake that severe and that early on in a international best-seller certainly seem quite slim. Additionally, the translation was provided by Virginia Jewiss, who received her Ph.D in Italian Literature at Yale and taught at Dartmouth before moving to Italy. If this were indeed an error, a person of her qualifications must've no doubt made an attempt to address the issue and not allow it to appear in the print version of the book, mustn't it?

As of now, hard evidence does not seem to support the assumption that this particular quote is erroneous. Luckily, after some detective work, I've found several pertinent information that might prop up our case. First is a review of the book by The New York Times. One section reads:

For such an important book, “Gomorrah” has some serious problems. Where the original Italian is forceful, if at times overheated, Virginia Jewiss’s translation is tentative and overly literal. She stumbles too often over colloquialisms and crucial words.

Ah ha, so Mrs. Virginia might not have been as impeccable as we thought!

Second is the original Italian version of this quote, which reads:

E l’ostinazione che mi spaventa, quell’ostinazione che ti fa dire “starò sbagliando, ma lo so facendo consapevolmente".

and roughly translates to:

And the obstinacy that scares me, that obstinacy that makes you say "I'll be wrong, but I know by consciously doing it".

The if is not seen anywhere in neither the original nor the machine-translated version, but is somehow present in the officially translated version of the book. Quite strange indeed.

However, I'm still unsure if there is indeed any obscure meaning to Virginia's translation. After all, she did get a Ph.D in Italian Lit. at Yale. A highly-qualified person making a mistake in a best-selling book that somehow got overlooked by editors working for the fourth largest book-publishing company in the UK is simply much too unlikely to be true.

Here are my questions:


If I'm making a mistake, but I do it knowingly.



  • 2
    I wouldn't lose too much sleep over this, as the editors clearly didn't. – ralph.m Sep 30 '18 at 22:57

The reason you don't see "if" in the original Italian is because the Italian future tense can have a bit of a subtle peculiarity. The Italian part "starò sbagliando" is translated in Google Translate as "I will be wrong". It's true that this is a future tense, but in Italian the future tense can also mean speculation or supposition instead of meaning "will happen". This is shown here:

dove saranno gli occhiali?
where might the glasses be?


Google Translate translates it as:

"Where will the glasses be?"

instead of

"Where might the glasses be?"

So the part of the sentence:

... quell’ostinazione che ti fa dire "starò sbagliando, ma lo sto facendo consapevolmente".

might better be translated in my opinion as:

that obstinacy that makes you say/think "I might be wrong, but I do it knowingly".

I'm not a translator, so I'm sure their ability to translate is much better than mine, but it seems they've gone with this particular construction, which then uses the conjunction "but" in a way which seems old-fashioned or less common. What they have is:

...if I'm making a mistake, but I'm doing it knowingly.

The question is that since they've chosen that construction, what is the "but" doing after the comma. It does seem jarring at first, I believe because this is a less common use of the word "but". The definitions hint at this use of "but":

2a : on the contrary : on the other hand : notwithstanding
he was called but he did not answer
not peace but a sword
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

b : yet
poor but proud

2.Contrary to expectation; yet
American Heritage Dictionary

2.and yet; nevertheless: strange but true.
Random House Kernerman Webster's Dictionary

You see "nevertheless", "yet" and "notwithstanding" as similar words to but. So how does this sound instead?

... the obstinacy that makes you say, “If I'm making a mistake, yet/nevertheless I do it knowingly.”

The "but" here seems to me to say "yet still". It's a more uncommon use of "but" but one that I still understand.

I suggest the formation is similar to these:

"Though I am weak, yet I am fastened to that which is everlasting."
Christ Inviting Sinners to Come to Him for Rest

"And I pray, heavenly Father, that though I be tired, but I'm happy to be Your servant."
From religious sermon

Look at this verse from the Bible, Colossians 2:5:

For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit ...
King James Bible

For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit ...
New American Standard Bible

For though I be absent in body, [but] by spirit I am with you ...
Wycliffe Bible

Searching for these sentences is difficult, because Google search ignores punctuation. I've searched many of these types sentences and most are of the 'though ... yet' variety. I did manage to find a few, but maybe I'm looking in the wrong places. If you comprehend the word "but" to be what the dictionaries list under its definitions, that is, nevertheless, or yet, the sentence seems fine.

So as to your question about whether it's an error or purple prose, I don't know. All I know is that I understand the English sentence to be correct despite it using what seems like a rather odd and old style of conditional statement.


It looks self-referential.

You can consider the whole quote to be just the antecedent; the consequent is missing. You might say it’s a ‘mistake’, but the speaker could have done it deliberately - to highlight his or her point about making mistakes deliberately.

Alternatively, you can consider it a hanging sentence, where the trailing part is left open for the listener to fill in. A common example of this is the demand “Do this, or else!”, where the threat is left unspecified. In your quote, the part left out could be inferred to be something along the lines of “... then it’s not really a mistake”.

(Note: this answer addresses just the English portion and makes no claim about the Italian.)

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