Like many other translators (and writers more generally), I would describe myself as a perfectionist. I meticulously check and fine-tune every job, no matter how small or straightforward, to try and eliminate any mistakes and make the job as “perfect” as can be. Now, by and large, being a perfectionist is considered a good thing: while the perfectionist themselves might suffer from the agonising, painstaking work they do to try to make their work perfect, the text itself can only benefit from these exertions. Right? Well, not necessarily. In this post, I want to consider some reasons why perfectionism (or at least a common, specific form of it) should not be uncritically embraced, and how unadulterated perfectionism can actually be to the detriment of the texts we write.
- Perfectionism can make us reluctant to admit mistakes or uncertainties. Logically, if we don’t know something or, even worse, discover we have made a mistake in a text that has already been delivered, perfectionists should want to remedy this ignorance or mistake by admitting to it, thereby helping to make the text better. But the same desire that motivates us to be nothing less than perfect can go hand in hand with a desire not to be seen to be anything less than perfect. It can make it hard to face up to or admit to mistakes or ignorance.
- Perfectionism can make it hard to improve. This is related to the first point: to improve requires us to admit that we weren’t already perfect, that we have made mistakes or delivered less-than-perfect solutions in our previous work. If we can’t face up to this painful knowledge (because we cannot abide the recognition that we have fallen short of perfection), we will be unable to identify areas where we need to improve.
- Perfectionism can stand in the way of taking creative risks. When translating, the easiest way to avoid making a mistake is to stick as closely as possible to the original text. As long as you reproduce exactly what the original says, the thought goes, there is no chance of getting it wrong. By contrast, adding elements that aren’t strictly in the original puts us into precarious territory: what if our assumptions about what can and should be added or removed to make the text function in the target language are incorrect? There is no objective back-up to guarantee we haven’t got it wrong. Yet these sorts of leaps, guided by our judgement and professional experience, are necessary to produce high-quality translations. If perfectionism leads us to avoid making such leaps, this would impair the quality of our texts.
- Perfectionism can make us lose sight of the bigger picture. Perfectionism can lead us to focus on pedantic niceties, perhaps even showing off to ourselves or our clients that we are meticulous about every last detail. However, focusing on the tiny, often insignificant details can lead us to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and create a text that is disjointed overall. For example, the attention paid to finessing one particular point can make it seem overwrought in the context of the overall flow of a passage.
- Perfectionism can make us focus on avoiding negatives rather than achieving positives. If our primary concern is that we haven’t got anything wrong rather than that we have produced something good, it can distort the kinds of texts we produce. This tendency will influence the sorts of changes we make during checking, as we may be excessively attentive to potential mistakes at the expense of other features that stand in need of improvement, resulting in merely “adequate” translations passing muster because they aren’t “wrong”.
- Perfectionism can spoil our enjoyment of creativity and writing. Perfectionism is an attitude of self-martyrdom: driving ourselves hard to eliminate mistakes, and beating ourselves up over mistakes we discover we have made. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Taken to extremes, that’s not conducive to a creative process of writing texts that we can take pleasure and pride in.