Translators and Perfectionism

We live in a world of rapid pace; sometimes it’s too overwhelming to keep up the pace. In a short amount of time, we have to deliver. We find ourselves squeezing words out of a single cup of coffee like a downsized turbocharged engine. And the output has to be flawless!

We, translators, realize that we don’t have the right to screw up; it exerts immense pressure on us to deliver. It’s not a choice. Regardless of the circumstances, we simply don’t have the right to settle for compromises. Our profession is based on trust; a flaw in the output could lead to trouble for the client and losing credibility in some scenarios.

Most of the translators believe they are not good enough for a reason that is not obvious to the crowd. Being good enough depends very much on to whom you compare yourself.

I believe that in every translator’s mind, there is an ideal, a standard –a gold standard to live up to.

I once had a dream to become a writer; I didn’t continue, unfortunately. And my gold standard was the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. Until this very moment, I still regard him as the best writer of all time. He is the benchmark for his precision and clarity. Because I sucked at writing good dialogues and penning good descriptions, I gave up.

Back in 2010, I used to be active in DeviantArt community; I talked with aspiring writers and poets. It was an amazing and enlightening experience. I remember an Australian girl called Erika; her description skills are magnificent; I told her how jealous I was of her mastery of description. She told me that it took her rigorous work of more than four years, creative writing-focused classes just to master description. This very example speaks volumes!

Philip Dufour, a stellar Swiss watchmaker, is the gold standard in the world of watchmaking. He is a man who takes a lot of pride in his work. He designs, makes, polishes and assembles his watch from the ground up singlehandedly. His pursuit was to make watches that last for a lifetime for their owners; for this reason, he knows he should make parts in a certain fashion to ensure their durability. His clients understood his philosophy and some waited for over six years to get their hands on one. He likes to do things by hand; he also knows how to use technology but is aware where the human touch is unrivalled. And that is a life lesson for all translators who want to achieve supremacy. It starts with humility and unwavering motivation to reach new heights every time.

Looking up to translators with decades of experience is a good thing; regardless of the technological advances, certain rules don’t change. The foundations of our profession remain intact over the years. Being a traditionalist doesn’t mean rejecting new paradigms, especially technological ones.

Look at it from this angle; translators in the previous century had time, plenty of time, but there was the issue of scarcity of dictionaries and logistics. Working with a slow pace has its benefits.  Today, we have the internet; we can look up everything fast, and it’s great, but it comes with a high price: tight deadlines. They want it fast, -I encountered many who wanted it yesterday (if you know what I mean). The assumption has become that technology can reduce turnaround but that is not entirely true.

Novice translators know for sure they have a long way to improving their skills; they know that, fresh out of the box, there are glossaries to be built, background readings to be done. I skip the business learning curve since many colleagues spoke about it before.

Translators face challenges with every assignment they receive; they know there are some hard choices to make: confusing sentence structure that could lead to mistranslations. Moreover, take, for instance, a novice who has little knowledge about the subject field and he/she could mess the whole translation if he/she failed to recognize some terms or abbreviations in the text. The end reader is mostly blind to what is said in the original and he/she completely trusts the translator to show them the way. To the average observer, he/she will only judge the quality of a translation by the translator’s target language mastery. People often fail to recognize that there are several layers of quality in translation. Sometimes, considering time constraints, some comprises have to be made … precision is not one of them!

Speaking of my own experience, some translators I met like the idea of being fast to the detriment of precision. Let me explain, there were times when the source text contained dozens of abbreviations and the translator wanted to blaze through them without taking the time to investigate. I won’t go on about the times some translators even leave out difficult parts to render. You can imagine the amount of time needed to decipher them. Sometimes I wonder how many terribly-gone translations are circulating out there. If you are a specialized translator, I bet you have funny stories to share!

When a translator is regarded as a “perfectionist”, I bet that he/she nails every detail to remain faithful to the source text and even improve on it if it were poorly written. The main pursuit is simply precision. The responsibility is huge. An ethical one, actually. Perfectionism is actually doing the job properly. It has nothing to do with perfection; in Arabic, we have the word “itqan”(doing something very well), and I believe that’s what perfectionism stands for. And yes, over and over, we hear the sentence “don’t be such a perfectionist” …. If they only knew what happens in the background, nobody would ever say it again!




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