Saturday, January 20, 2018

L’imparfait de subjective

Perfection is a concept that is useful for comparison but futile for satisfaction.  An example is the mythical concept of a perfect translation. Like Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10, there is a belief that a flawless version in another language must exist. Alas, the path of improvement never ends. It is always possible to find a better word or phrase the sentence just a bit better.

The explanations for this inevitable failure to reach perfection in translation include the lack of skill by translators, the uneven quality of the original text and the nature of the improvements themselves. Depending on the case, any or all may be relevant. However, I see a bigger problem: Perfection in the case of translation is an impossible level to define and reach.

First, the ideal, the modal of perfection, is subjective. There many ways to translate a phrase. Each is different but each has its charm and strength. The assessment of better and worse quickly approaches the level of a matter of taste, referred to as preferential in the profession.  Pick up a few different translations of Don Quixote or War and Peace and compare. Can any specific one be qualified as the absolute transmission of the original?  The answer is explicitly negative as each translation both subtracts and adds to the original merely by the nature of target language.

However, even if the masterpiece did exist, few if any translators have the skill to reach that Mt. Olympus goal. Good translators have thorough knowledge of the target language, generally their native tongue, great familiarity with the target language and culture, two inseparable elements, impeccable work and quality control techniques and mastery of the technical means to apply all those. Clearly these skills are not incompatible with each other. Yet, few of us can honest claim to be experts in all. Most of strive for improvement to become solid and hope for excellence in one or more of those skills.

Assuming that the translator has these skills, one of the great difficulties of reaching perfection in anything is the lack of proper conditions. Most translators work at home, are female and freelancers. This means the translators have to balance many time demands, including cooking, cleaning, children, home repairs, friends calling and, last but not least, making a living. According to the 80/20 rule, the last 20% takes as much effort as the first 80%.  For an example, professional sprinters practice thousands or hours to reduce a tenth of a second from their time. So, in an ideal world, perfection is possible. Practically, there is a deadline for this project with more on the way.  Perfection is as far away as a week in Tahiti.

This leads to the fundamental conclusion, applicable to many fields besides translation. Perfection is not a required result in almost all cases.  In business, it is called good enough, a flexible term defined by customer needs and demands. A translation for internal consumption must be accurate and reflect the original; it does not have to be a masterpiece of literature.  It is generally clear a week later that the phrasing could have been improved here and there or another synonym would have been better. In practice, all the interesting parties were able to read the document painlessly and effectively and may even have not noticed the minor error. A webpage must be clean of all errors but does not have to be literature. Each case has its parameters.

That said, I do not intend to say that mediocrity is acceptable in anything. As the expression goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well. A mythical state of perfection spurs professional to strive and improve.  Yet, taken too far, the search for the ideal only frustrates people and makes them feel bad for no reason. The human language as the human body has countless forms, each with its own good and bad points. It is natural to strive to enhance the first and minimize the second. It is harmful to throw out the baby with the bath water, especially in reference to subjective concepts. It is the nature of the imparfait du subjunctive.

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