The Dunning-Kruger effect

This phenomenon seems to apply in particular to many people’s opinion of how good their English is: the cognitive bias of overestimating your skills because you aren’t fully aware of your shortcomings.

A minor side track today: instead of the alterations we make to our client’s documents, why not take a look at the revisions the clients apply to our translations?

This may sound like the start of a rant against customers who lodge unfounded complaints or make so-called corrections that in fact make things worse (for which the Germans have the wonderful word Verschlimmbesserungen). But it’s not meant as a diatribe: there’s a genuine point in here. Somewhere.

  • There’s a sort of inversely proportional relationship between the number of alterations clients make to our texts and how necessary they are.
  • A clear picture has emerged over the years from the few complaints that we get: they come from people whose English is in fact less good. They have a very clear expectation of how they think something ought to be expressed and are liable to believe that any alternative formulation must be inferior or wrong.
  • Clients who are less confident of themselves tend noticeably to make changes in contrasting directions: changing a good and valid phrase into horrible transliterated Dutch one moment (Dunglish) and then saying that the next sentence is too literal and sounds like Google Translate when it just happens to be one where a one-for-one conversion works fine.
  • I did a webinar recently for the Dutch association of translators and interpreters about this blog. Not particularly a success – the feedback said it was too elementary, stuff they knew already. However, I know from experience that these mistakes are made time and time again by those same professionals: the points I was making sound obvious and so they assume that it’s beneath them.

I should perhaps also make it clear at this point that I have no problem whatsoever with my customers raising queries and I always actively encourage them to do so. I’m perfectly capable of making mistakes (typographical errors, for instance, and changes during the final round of checking that introduce slip-ups), misunderstanding something that’s perhaps a bit ambiguously worded, or failing to notice that my translation memory software has inserted something automatically that’s wrong for the context.

Prevalence: —
Frequency: —
Native: —

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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