Do translations only have to be good enough?

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 Chats (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.

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 creep in 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.

You can now listen to me reading this post on my podcast My Voice for a Change.

If you’d like to find out more about GTC, please read The Group Translation Chats Story.

Images in order from top to bottom: (1) by Arek Socha; (2) by Alexander Fradellafra; and (3) by Mircea Ploscar, all from Pixabay

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10 thoughts on “Do translations only have to be good enough?

  1. There is certainly a lot of food for thought here, Nikki. I have mulled over this for a couple of days, and perhaps over a lifetime. “In pursuit of excellence” was a catchphrase floating about back when Pa fell off the bus. That phrase echoes in my brain each time I encounter a translation difficulty. These days, when revising my own work, I tend to remind myself of the imperative contained in my favourite hashtag: #xl8better.
    By coincidence, I looked at the contents of an old flash drive the other day, in search of a photo. I found the final English version of a 16,000-word Fr-En translation I did for a direct client in February 2007, but I have been unable to locate the French original. Not surprising, since I jettisoned a very tall pile of translated papers when I migrated to Portugal in 2008. And the client has since developed and expanded what was a foundational document upon which their entire organisation is based. I have now cast a critical eye over that work. Everything except the Preamble (about 700 words) is without fault.
    No doubt, I gave my very best effort at the time. In that Preamble, however, I found several instances of having followed French word order (the parenthetical comma problem). There were some places where the English could have liberated itself from the glue that binds literal translation. And then there was one paragraph (about 7 lines long) which through today’s lenses constitutes a WTF moment. On the upside, there is evidence that I jumped over quite a few difficult hurdles and landed on the other side with some deft target text renderings.
    So, why did I aim for excellence in this document? Because I always do. Obviously, from my critique of the Preamble above, I did not achieve 100%. The client was extremely pleased, by the way. We had one round of back-and-forth after delivery, dealing with minor typos. Was the document important to the client? Hell, yeah! Was there any room for error? Hell, no! How many lives have been positively affected by that single document (okay, there were endless appendices too)? Hundreds of thousands, no exaggeration. What value has flowed under the bridge in the intervening 15 years as a result of that translation? It’s hard to tell, but I would say “billions of euros, spread around the globe”. Am I a better translator now than I was in 2007? Yes. Would I be a better translator now if my mantra had been “good enough” instead of “in pursuit of excellence” and #xl8better? No. And perhaps I would not still be a translator if the “good enough” attitude was the overriding one. Am I boasting, while feeling compromised by that less-than-ideal Preamble? No, not really. I eat the humble pie and continue to try to translate better.
    I am a little guilty, though, for having written such a long comment. I am still working on being economical with words. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m not sure that translating some things merely well enough means you never get improve as a translator. Lightbulb moments sometimes come from even the most mundane of texts. In the discussion (it’s a shame you weren’t there) it became clear that all of us strive for excellence in at least some projects, and that our version of “good enough” may well be a lot more than that!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It is a shame that my workload made it impossible to attend your presentation. Let’s take an example (one gleaned from a revision). The target text said “interested parties” (a literal translation from the Portuguese). The correct term in context was “stakeholders”. In other contexts, the correct term could be “the parties concerned”). For a moment, let’s argue that “interested parties” is good enough. It ticks the boxes of being understandable and does not contain typos. Let’s also assume that the translator in question has been using this “good enough” translation for, I dunno, ten years and because it is good enough, has never even thought to research the term and sadly, has never had that lightbulb moment that in at least half the texts where she has gaily typed “interested parties”, she should have typed “stakeholders”. While the translator might accept the correction in this translation, it is likely that she will retreat to her rut of good enough “interested parties” the very next time it occurs in a translation job, precisely because she regards it as good enough, and she did not make a note of the correction and besides, cannot remember what it was. That single basic example alone adds up to a lot of errors over time, and one has to question what other “good enough” solutions have unwittingly led to a general impoverishment of the quality of that translator’s output no matter how long she has been translating – without her ever realising it. Can a consistent practice of producing “good enough” translations guarantee that you will improve as a translator, or will that improvement be merely accidental? I would rather aim for excellence since the chances of improving are greater that way. As to clients who only want a “good enough” text, I am always tempted to ask “good enough for what?”. If the answer is that government regulations oblige the client to archive translations of key documents that “no one will ever read”, then I would prefer not to bury myself in that particular hole.
    You’re quite right that your version of “good enough” might actually be “damned good” and potentially much better than someone else’s “first-rate quality”; it is hard to pin down this subjective notion.
    What I do know is that people find it a lot easier to point at something that is excellent. If all the client really wanted was “good enough”, but did not say so, and instead they received “bloody good”/excellent work, are they going to send it back to the translator with the instruction to make their work look just a tad shoddy here and there? I don’t think so.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No, that’s very true. But you are (perhaps) assuming that your client is sending you source texts that are “good enough” too – which, as we both know, is far from the case. One of the things we touched on was how far the translator should/can go to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

    There’s also the question of whether a client really needs “excellent”, if it’s going to take longer to produce – which I think has almost always got to be the case. One of the things that led to me coming up with this topic was receiving a huge project with a very short deadline, for a very good (direct) client. If I’d aimed for excellent (which is not at all necessary for their purposes, particularly as it would have involved rewriting their source text from scratch) I’d still be working on the files, and they’d have missed their biggest turnover day of the year.

    But one thing that did become apparent during the discussion is that we all have different approaches to translation quality, and that these vary depending on factors including the translator, type of client, end use and text (for instance, there’s no room for “good enough” in many types of medical text). And there were participants who, like you, always aim for excellence in absolutely everything they do. Ultimately, my take on “good enough” is whether I’m happy overall with what I’ve produced. Good enough for me, in other words!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Jane and Allison, thanks for your comments.
    I think we all know, Allison, that your standards are very high indeed and definitely something for us all to emulate. At no point during our discussion did we say that “good enough” should become our mantra (and neither am I advocating that here). We didn’t have the discussion and I didn’t write this post to give people an excuse to deliver shoddy work. Personally, I’m trying to improve in many ways, to #xl8better, by being a member of a RevClub and an Edit Club, thereby meeting weekly with colleagues to discuss our previous translation efforts and how we can become more skilled.
    As Jane says, and as mentioned in the post, “good enough” is subjective. The quality many translators produce as “good enough” frankly isn’t sometimes, which is why a good reviser is always necessary. Referring to your revision example, IMHO putting “interested parties” instead of “stakeholders” is a mistake and, therefore, certainly not “good enough”. This is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about endlessly polishing every text, striving for excellence in everything when it isn’t necessary and we’re not being paid to produce that quality. It’s viewing our work from Honor Clement-Hayes’s angle, which was a self-care perspective. Be kind to yourself and be happy that you’ve managed to write something rather than getting so wound up about being an imposter that you can barely produce anything. The premium market exponents and their rhetoric may well encourage many to up their game but it also leaves others, including me, feeling inadequate, useless and wondering why we bother at all as the standard seems so unattainable. And some of the things said about us non-premium translators are incredibly unkind.
    Allison, you mention that you personally don’t want to translate an internal document that will just be archived, one that just has to be “good enough”. That’s your prerogative. However, it still needs to be translated. Someone has to do it. It’s often been said that rather than a straightforward bulk versus premium scenario, translation quality is a spectrum. And I think our “good enough” (which, again, is not the quality we produce every time and certainly not our aim) sits quite comfortably in it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nikki, I had various thoughts about good enough. Certainly, as you say in your post, no one benefits if we are such perfectionists that we become paralysed with fear thereby shooting ourselves in the foot because our productivity, and therefore our ability to satisfy a client’s demand for urgency, will suffer. One thought had to do with a number of agencies that offer a two-tier pricing; a lower price for “good enough” translation, and a higher price for something more polished – and that’s something I find hard to conceptualise. Jane’s example in her second comment (huge project, urgent, for a good client) had a specific brief, and Jane satisfied the client’s requirement, producing something serviceable that was most probably of good quality but could have been better had there been more time. It sounds as if Jane saved the client’s bacon, actually! Two months ago, I had to go into overdrive for a good client (large volume, urgent, with C-suite level readership, and eventually the document will be in the public domain). It is only because of years of being so hard on myself that I was able to pull it off – and knew that I could before I started. I had a revisor who worked quickly batch-wise. Between the two of us, we rid the text of typos and a couple of her suggestions were most useful. We even managed four queries to the client and got responses in that short space of time. The quality of that complex text would not have improved with extra time. I can stand by the result exactly as it is.
      By contrast, I did an urgent short text (800 words) just before Christmas. Just as well when I delivered it, my e-mail included the standard “please contact me if you have any queries”. I had made a balls-up on one sentence (I misread the jolly thing!) which was repeated later. Excellence there came in the form of my hanging around at my computer long enough for the client to query it so that it could be resolved. But it also serves to show that producing quality texts consistently is a risky business, and safety nets are essential.
      I think all regular participants in the Group Translation Chats group are making efforts all the time to be better translators. I know that there are many, many excellent translators who are not commanding the prices their work does deserve, for a complex set of reasons. We should never measure quality by price or vice versa (e.g., Goop). Yet there is some anecdotal correlation. I have also witnessed the quality of several people’s translations improve significantly (my subjective opinion) solely because they have increased their prices initially by around 30%, sustained that, and slowly commanded better rates in selected projects with new clients. It’s a psychological thing: value yourself –> place value on your work (and learn how to quote effectively, so that you get the job) –> get better pay –> produce work of greater value/quality. I am sure there are people within the chat group who would agree that if you’re earning a good rate for a job you feel that you can flex your translator muscles, and have room to go that little bit further unimpeded to arrive at a result that you are truly satisfied with.
      I have been too busy lately to notice social media commentary on that nebulous bulk versus premium construct, and I am sorry if there have been unkind remarks. I have little to say on the matter, since I find myself in neither one camp nor the other. All we can do, really, is follow our own path of improvement – with a little help from our friends.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello! my name is Aura, and I’m an English Literature student from Medan State of University in Indonesia. so my question is how do you translate a legal document? how do you choose the word to be translated? please answer my question. Thank you in advance!


    1. Hi Aura, you have brought up one of the main issues with legal translation: how to choose the right words. If you need a legal document translated, I suggest you get it done by a professional who specialises in legal translation. if you want to learn how to translate legal texts, I suggest you do a course in legal translation/terminology.


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