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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Suckiness Blindness

I read an article a number of years ago that fascinated me. The research behind the article* evaluated how people evaluate themselves. The research found that people forced to evaluate their own abilities in a particular, measurable area tend to "grade themselves down" the higher their measured abilities are. So if their actual skill level is 95th percentile, they'll tend to score themselves 85 or 90.

The worse peoples' abilities are, on the other hand, the greater their tendency to "grade themselves up" slightly. So if their measured skill level is 60th percentile, they're a little more likely to place themselves at, say, the 65th percentile.

For the most part, however, the researchers found that most people evaluated their own skills reasonably accurately, with a rough error of maybe 10%.

Where this general rule breaks down is among people whose skills are just egregiously, amazingly bad. These people will vastly overestimate their own abilities, placing themselves in an acceptable percentile even though they are objectively nowhere close. So let's say there's a test subject whose grammar skills, say, are objectively in the 10th or 15th percentile. That individual might still grade him- or herself low, but not nearly as low as they actually are—asked to evaluate their own abilities, they'll place themselves in the 50th or 55th percentile, or even higher.

So it seems that if you kinda suck at something, you're probably aware of it. (Me with algebra, for example.) But if you really outrageously royally SUCK, you probably don't have a clue. You're statistically likely to be traipsing along through life thinking you're doing, if not just fine, then well enough. You know, kinda like a dead-drunk driver drives.

I had a colleague once who was like that. Her grammar and writing skills were just awesomely poor, to such an extent that you really had to wonder how she ever graduated from high school, much less from the graduate school which had given her a degree. And yet she just couldn't see it. She'd turn in copy for editorial vetting that had bonafide "howlers" in it**, and then complain because we "just changed her words." When I'd point out that her words were, well, awful, she'd say, "what's the difference? People understand."

The reason for such "suckiness blindness" is fascinating. It's that the very same discriminatory abilities which allow you to do something well and to improve are the same abilities that are needed to carry out a realistic self-appraisal. So if you can grasp grammar or algebra decently, even if you have no real aptitude for either, you are still able to grasp your own shortcomings fairly accurately. But if you just can't grasp a subject at all—you have no sense of it, no discrimination between good and bad at all—it's easier to think you're okay at it when, in fact, you suck.

I presume this would be limited to subjects in which there are no hard-and-fast reality tests readily available. For instance, I doubt that the slowest kid in the 5th-grade class would vastly overestimate his abilities if the class were running footraces in gym class every day, and he was losing every time. "Suckiness Blindness" would have to be more common in "soft" and social sciences and among more complicated or subtle disciplines. Wordsmithy would certainly be one. (Appreciating art, surely, is another.)

But the area where we most often see it in the realm of photographic products, at least in America, is in translations, specifically the translations of marketing material or manuals. Obviously, what happens is that an employee of a corporation from a non-English-speaking country, schooled in English but not a native speaker, is assigned to translate materials for the company. With a commpletely deaf ear for native idiom, everyone in the company approves and passes along material so bad that it would make virtually any native speaker wince. Hard.

My most prized example of this was a view camera brochure dating from the '80s which to my great chagrin I appear to have lost. The English was so bad its badness was almost poetic. I wish I could quote it for you. It was delightful.

Although we English-speakers might make fun of poor translations from Japanese as "Japlish" and poor translations from German "Deutschlish," I'm sure this happens in other countries and languages too, and I'm sure Americans are sometimes the culprits—I'm not trying to blame the speakers of any one language or from any particular culture here.

I was reminded of all this because a .PDF document wended its snakey way to me from a "mole" in the business by way of a friend. It consisted of the confidential dealer materials for a certain high-profile recent digital camera introduction. Some of it was classic, perfectly wretched "Deutschlish." (One example: what is included in the box is referred to as "scope of delivery." Kind of reminds you of a title of an Asian translation of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: "Angry Raisins.") The friend who sent the .PDF to me commented, "It is so sorry it is comical. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more poorly written document from a major corporation." He is the President of a corporation himself, so he should know, I suppose.

Ironically, I have another good friend who is a technical translator. Wisely, despite a high degree of fluency in German and French, he only translates from German and French and into English, his native language.

More ironically, this translator friend is an excellent photographer and a longtime user of the camera in question—and his father was a well-known photojournalist and a past President of Magnum, the famous cooperative photo agency founded by Chim and Capa.

So why doesn't the camera company in question hire someone like my friend to translate their dealer materials into English? Simple: Suckiness Blindness. They are plain blind to how bad the language in their materials really is. It sucks, but they think it's fine.

I'm sure if I was to ask, whoever's in charge would say, "What's the difference? People understand."


*"Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6 (thanks to Ben Marzeion for the citation).

**A "howler" is an error so bad it either howls at you from the page, or makes you howl.


Blogger chantal stone said... your "suckiness blindness" theory doesn't do well for me when I'm having one of my (many) moments of thinking my own photography totally sucks! Thanks Mike ;)

7:45 AM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

Over here in Germany more and more people tend to use English words, and many of them have no clue at all about the language. Two examples: the kind of bag a bicycle messenger would use is called 'body bag' in brochures and store windows. On the sides of a train restaurant I saw an advertisement for 'coffee on rolls' (in German the word 'Rollen' can mean wheels).....


7:49 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Here, one manifestation of linguistic ignorance is the local pronunciation of originally foreign words. For instance, in Lexington, Kentucky, there's a main artery called Versailles Road, but it's pronounced "ver-sales." Locally, Vliet Street is prnounced "vleet," and "New Berlin" is prnounced BER-lin instead of bear-LIN (I can't get used to that one).


7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just read LFI to see what Mike means about Deutschlish -

8:22 AM  
Blogger Adam McAnaney said...

If you think photography manuals are bad, try reading translations of securities prospectuses.

The amazing thing is that it probably takes twice as long to "fix" a really bad translation than it would to just do the translation yourself.

Having briefly worked as a translator myself, I can tell you that nobody should ever translate into anything other than their native language, no matter how fluent they (think they) are in another language.

By the way, it is usually referred to as "Denglish" over here...


8:23 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

What is "LFI"?


8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leica Foto International -

8:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"The amazing thing is that it probably takes twice as long to "fix" a really bad translation than it would to just do the translation yourself."

One thing I noticed as an editor is that really bad writing is easier to fix than writing that is just subtly off. I had one writer who was so bad that I just had to try to grasp what he was trying to say and then re-write it wholesale, but in his "voice." A chore, but not difficult. Another writer, however, was intelligent and reasonably articulate, but had a tin ear--he persistently used words that were just not quite right and constructed sentences that almost parsed but didn't quite. He was the one who gave me fits.


8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, bad translating goes both ways--into and from English.

I remember in the early 90s when the movie "Black Rain" (with Michael Douglas, set in Japan) was playing. I saw studio posters which had the title in Japanese katakana--often used for words of foreign origin in Japan.

The posters had it backwards and instead of Black Rain, it read something like "Black nurei."

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a superbly sophisticsated form of all this called "franglais" (private eye in the 1970's and 80's)

Do try to find some examples - there are truly wonderful and many have made themselves into the common use English language!


10:13 AM  
Blogger matt~ said...

Suckiness Blindess strikes me as an interesting tangent to a three way discussion on photo poets that Colin Jago, John Joannides and myself have been hashing out on our blogs. I'd argue that suckiness blindness is a large factor in the decission making process of a lot of folks purchasing high end film and digital gear. Some folks here might be interested in the discussion. You can see the relevant posts here,here,and here.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Here in Charleston we can tell the natives from the tourists by how they mispronounce place names. Or maybe it's the locals that mispronounce them. All we know is that we're right and they're wrong. :-)

I was in Dubios, WY, some years back....It's DOO-boys to the locals. I love that!

A phrase I often use (I wish I remember who I stole it from) is that some writing is so incomprehensible that it sounds like it was translated from Japanese to English by Swedes.

"Suckiness blindness" has been around since the dawn of time. A freind of mine calls it "National Geographic Syndrome". Someone takes a picture, and in their mind it looks like it ought to be in the cover of National Geographic, because that's what they were thinking when they took it. The picture in their mind replaces the one in their hand (or on the screen). That's why we have editors, I guess.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Joshwa said...

See, and when I started reading this post, I thought it was going to be about all the photography-forum regulars who don't realize they suck...

10:44 AM  
Blogger jim witkowski said...

I wonder if the blindness works for all subjects. My reason for this question comes from some study I read about several years ago. The gist of the study was that 90% of American drivers thought they were an above average driver.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I wonder if the blindness works for all subjects. My reason for this question comes from some study I read about several years ago. The gist of the study was that 90% of American drivers thought they were an above average driver."

It's Garrison Keillor's old joke, "Lake Woebegone...where all the children are above average."

There's some basis for this, though. It may well be that we are evolved to lack objectivity. Consider what Publisher's Weekly said about Cordelia Fine's book "A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives":

"Vain, immoral, bigoted: this is your brain in action, according to Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Australian National University. Fine documents a wealth of surprising information about the brain in this readable account that adopts a good-humored tone about the brain's failings without underestimating the damage they do. The brain, she shows, distorts reality in order to save us from the ego-destroying effects of failure and pessimism. For example, an optimist who fails at something edits the truth by blaming others for the failure and then takes complete credit for any successes. The brain also routinely disapproves of other people's behavior (how could he do that?), while at the same time interpreting one's own actions in the best possible light (I would never do that!). The brain also projects stereotypes onto others that reflect prejudicial beliefs rather than objective reality. Despite the firm hold these distortions have on our brains, Fine is not a pessimist. The path to overcoming stereotypes and other distortions of the brain, she says, may be gained through self-awareness and knowledge provided by experimental psychology, a field that explores and exposes unconscious mental influences."


11:08 AM  
Blogger Adam McAnaney said...


Based on careful empirical testing (i.e., looking at myself), I don't think it does. I am an absolutely god-awful, unsafe at any speed driver. In terms of skills, I'm probably in the bottom 5% (no, I'm not exaggerating). But the fact that I realize that would seem to contradict the theory of suckiness blindness, at least with regard to driving. Of course the real question is: I am able to recognize this fact about myself, why don't my driving skills improve? It's probably a result of growing up in New York City...


P.S. Just kidding (about SB not applying to driving, not about my personal skills). I also read that study, which was both completely fascinating and outrageously amusing.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha! The lightbulb goes on! This phenomena totally explains why early last week Bush claimed that he wouldn't do anything differently if given the opportunity to do it all again.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the early 1960s my Dad did some importing from Japan. The translations into English were really bad. My Dad offered his assistance to try and fix the translations. The response was "This was translated by a Professor at the University of Tokyo. Are you a Professor?"

12:06 PM  
Blogger LostBryan said...

Speaking of Translations - I once saw a great cartoon of how really bad stereo manuals are made. It goes like this:
Smart engineer who is native Japanese designs component.
He writes description in engineering language.
Japanese person who has never seen the product and is not an engineer writes translation using a Japanese-English dictionary.
This document is given to a man who goes to a phone booth in an airport.
He reads it to another man in a phone booth in a different airport, this second man transcribes what he thinks he hears.
The result of the transcription while standing in a phone booth in an airport is what gets printed as the manual.

(You JUST know some smart person who doesn't say stupid things designed the product, because it exists at all, let alone works well. That's why the phone booths in the airport are so important.)

2:39 PM  
Blogger Adam Richardson said...

David Bennet - I remember those! "Let's Parlez Franglais". Though I think they were in Punch magazine, not Private Eye. They had titles like "Dans Le Record Shop".

MJ: I wonder if there is an axiom to the bad manual translation: The closer your translation matches that provided by Babel Fish or Google, the worse it is.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, let me get this straight: I suck at photography, and I know it - which means I'm head and shoulders above a whole bunch of people who are so bad they don't even realize it. Good enough for me!

About Japlish: I've come to realize, living in Japan, that a lot of the really bad English is not actually bad at all. It's just that the intended audience are other Japanese, not native English speakers, and the inteded use is to give your copy a foreign, exotic flair. And for that use, mixing up English with Japanese idioms makes perfect sense, since even the worst English students still grasp the meaning quite easily. The grammar is still mostly Japanese so as long as you recognize the main words you understand it - if you're a native Japanese that is.

Again, it is usually by purpose. I think a lot of the Japlish problem stems from the misguided idea to hire the same people who write "English for Japanese" to write "English for English".

9:47 PM  
Blogger eric kellerman said...

I have lived in the Netherlands for over half my life and the Dutch have a deserved reputation as speakers of English. But this reputation makes them think that when they have to write English for public documents, all they need is another Dutchman to show them how – my university recently plastered bilingual safety notices all over the campus enjoining us, amongst other things, to 'evacuate' when the alarm sounds.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

I just found another example of 'interesting' English in Erwin Puts' review of the Leica M8:

"The battery is lithium ion, and can fire about 300 shots (depending of course on the level of studying the pictures in the display). As a comparison the Canon 5D can hold 600 to 800 pictures. The CCD is a currency guzzler!"

To me the whole Leica system seems like a currency guzzler ;-)


3:10 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Mike, I found your comment about lack of objectivity and optimism extremely interesting. It has haunted me for a long time that in my family is usual to be pessimist and always with strong logical basis for being so. Lots of intelligent people (with a good grasp of reality) have a gloomy outlook on things, while dumber (I'm short of more polite words) people usually are protected by a strong shield of optimism that doesn't need any solid logical support to exist.
After long thinking, I ended up concluding that the "dumb" person view is the smarter one, because it saves him from a lot of grieving which the self proclaimed smart person endures but without any kind of reward for doing so.
Not being especially religious, I conclude this is a faith issue. People less inclined to rationalize have a much easier time having faith, or optimism, on how things will work out, on god, or on mankind, depending on your view on things. People who tend to judge reality from reason all the time are far easier prey to pessimism, since they usually end up undermining their own spiritual source of optimism or confidence in the future.
Self-awareness starts up as a race to understand ourselves and the world and ends as a quiet walk towards learning not to take everything we have understood too seriously. All this so in the end, what we really want takes on our lives. "Dumb" people most of the time look like they have already finished when you are still starting the race.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Dave New said...

I've referred to English translation of Japanese technical equipment manuals as 'Japotech'. It seems to bear its own special cross. Descriptions of schematics, theory of operation, and block diagrams had their own charm.

My favorites where ham radio equipment manuals back in the 70's and 80's, before most Japanese radio companies had U.S. sales and marketing divisions. Eventually (thankfully), the U.S. counterparts (like ICOM America) took over the translation duties. Although the manuals still tend to leave things to be desired (as most equipment manuals seem to), at least the 'howlers' are mostly absent these days.

One lingering area, though, is the electronics component industry. Some embedded processor manuals have actually gotten much worse, as U.S. electronics companies have moved their design operations off-shore. Even Freescale (formerly Motorola Semiconductor) has suffered from this recently. It provides some levity in the workplace, I suppose.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Olaf Ulrich said...

Umm ... what's wrong with the term 'scope of delivery'? My German-English Langenscheidt dictionary says:

Lieferumfang m extent (Am. scope) of delivery.

So to me it seems perfectly right. No?

"kevin" wrote:
> A phrase I often use (I wish
> I remember who I stole it from)
> is that some writing is so
> incomprehensible that it sounds
> like it was translated from
> Japanese to English by Swedes.

With Japan-made stuff sold in Germany, we occasionally stumble across owner's manuals translated from English into German by Japanese ... so yes, I know what you mean ;-)

-- Olaf (from Germany)

9:59 AM  
Blogger simona said...

As to translators in Germany I would like to point out that there is a DIN standard (Nr. 2345) telling everyone interested in upholding some translation standards that everyone should translate exclusively into their mother tongue. Many companies stick to this rule - that is why 90 % of my work consists of translating into Slovenian. There are also many native speakers of English living and translating here so should it be necessary one can always get a decent translation :-)

But as to the "Suckiness Blindness": I think people with a low-level ability in something assessing themselves as proficient in this very field will also tend to criticise the same "inability" in others, especially in those, who are better at it...

4:03 PM  

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