Attending online events I’d never manage to go to in person is one of the few advantages of the COVID-19 pandemic. So along with a handful of Group Translation Chat (GTC) members, I signed up for the CopyCon 2020 conference held by ProCopywriters.
Long before we got to the talk on perfectionism, some speakers floated the idea that copy doesn’t have to be perfect. Sandra Wu from Blinkist told us that perfectionists were wasting their time because people skim content and only read around 30% of what you write. Copy doesn’t need to be beautiful and engaging to convert and so rewriting text to make the language better doesn’t pay off.
Gill Andrews continued the theme in her talk (“How to Evaluate Your Copy Quickly”), telling us that our writing only has to be good enough because so much average copy is bad.
But it was Honor Clement-Hayes who faced the issue head on with her “Death to Perfectionism” talk. Her angle was that perfectionism can make us so afraid that we get stuck and unable to write anything. The fear of endlessly trying to impress can cause procrastination. And, of course, not actually producing any copy will get us nowhere fast. That’s why it’s better to see quality as a continuum (rather than shit or great) and aim for good enough. And as this is less stressful, we’re more likely to get it done and produce better results in the process.
How does this relate to translation? Jane Davis decided to find out by hosting a moderated GTC session on the topic. She began by asking us three questions:
What does good enough mean to you?
Do you apply that definition in your work?
Does applying this definition make you feel guilty?
We started off by deciding that “good enough” doesn’t mean machine translation post-editing (MTPE) because good enough is far better than OK quality. Besides, post-editing interferes with your translation brain making it impossible to arrive at a human-equivalent outcome (which I discuss here).
However, “good enough” is always going to be subjective. While some translators suffering from imposter syndrome will never be fully satisfied with their work (and seeing exceptional translators strut their stuff at translation slams can fuel that fire), others don’t have the required self-perception to realise their output sometimes fails to hit the mark. This can become glaringly obvious when you work in a team and discover your colleagues’ standard is below yours. The result is a mess of a translation and/or one party making more of an effort for the same pay. Although collaborating with competent translators that consult each other and learn from feedback is a joy, an agency setup in which a job is shared out piecemeal is best avoided. Especially as your dissatisfaction will negatively impact your view of the client and how you approach their work.
For some clients, your “good enough” will exceed their expectations. For example, if the source text is poor, the client shouldn’t expect miracles, although inevitably we usually manage to improve it when we translate.
The quality level of our translations usually depends on the project’s intended purpose (which is why you should always ask questions before you start). There’s a huge difference between an internal company document for gisting and one that is to be published (and there should be a difference in the price too). Giving your client the equivalent of a space shuttle when they just want a bike isn’t helpful and your efforts to elevate the text’s quality will be in vain. Sometimes when we’re too clever and use puns, for instance, colleagues might marvel at our skill, but most end users won’t appreciate them.
Quality is also impacted by deadlines. When they’re virtually impossible to meet but cannot be extended, the end result will undoubtedly be less polished. Errors can easily be introduced the more last minute our work is. In this case, we must inform the client so they agree to be satisfied with the compromised quality they’ll receive under the circumstances. Often it turns out that all they need is good enough, not excellent, especially if it’s a non-marketing text requiring less attention.
Obviously, work for high-end direct clients and/or with your name on it has to be spot on or as perfect as possible. Crucial medical, legal, financial and technical texts also have to be precise. And that’s where working with a reviser comes in (which we discussed in the previous GTC hosted chat). Some texts for publication go through both a revision and a review/proofreading phase. Given that our brain is geared to miss things, to read what we want to see rather than what’s there, and that texts can always be improved, good revisers are a godsend.
Some new translators can fall into the trap of thinking their work is good enough because it’s going to be revised by the agency. But they should be aware that such an attitude is not tolerated across the board. Although the standard some agencies expect is not particularly high (and their own website copy often provides a good indication of that), and they even ignore quality issues when they’re pointed out to them, others will operate a three strikes (or fewer) and you’re out policy. After all, it’s often said in this profession that you’re only as good as your last translation. But we all agreed that handing in a job littered with mistakes and typos was not normal behaviour and would never be considered “good enough”.
If you’re a professional, part of your role is to decide how much effort to make and to know when it’s good enough. This is especially important as some clients cannot determine this themselves as they don’t speak the target language. Given that not all projects and clients are the same, we should learn to regulate our input and do our best in the situation. When we’re happy with the rate and other conditions, we’re more likely to push our limits and produce our best work.
Some of the attendees had been perplexed by the chat’s title wondering why they would ever deliver a translation that was merely “good enough”. While some admitted they often worked on the basis of the translation being good enough for their client’s purpose, especially if the pay is too low to justify spending time on achieving a higher-quality outcome, others put their all into everything, if time permits, because they prefer to feel fulfilled by pursuing perfection and excellence. This approach is further motivated by translators imagining themselves in their reader’s shoes and also wishing to avoid embarrassment by being corrected (and maybe even penalised) by their revisers. It’s like sitting an exam. Do we want to fail, pass or get top marks?
However, in the end, just as most copywriters at CopyCon 2020 agreed with the principle that perfectionism is not your friend, it turned out all of us at Jane’s chat produce work that is good enough rather than perfect from time to time. We didn’t get around to discussing whether we feel guilty about this or not, but given this is rarely something translators confess, I guess the answer to Jane’s final question is probably “yes” but shouldn’t be depending on the context.
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