Every translation requires it: the essential balance between the two basic impulses governing our profession, and probably many other lines of work. On one hand there is the urge to do the best possible job – the perfectionist desire to check everything and make no mistakes. Getting things right is important, of course, but if we’re not careful this drive can make us take longer over jobs than is strictly profitable. The other, opposing impulse is the imperative to hand in the completed work on time as long as it’s “good enough”, even if it’s still well short of perfection. An ability to do this is absolutely essential and I have often been grateful to my “survival override” that will get me out of trouble and finish the job by the deadline if I see I’m running out of time. But too much looking at the watch and I could end up handing in sloppy, half-finished work that won’t satisfy the client.
Every translation is some kind of a compromise between these two tendencies, but it goes further than that – our businesses are too. There are those of us who concentrate on being reliable and on always meeting the deadlines but don’t worry so much about quality and others who do a wonderful job but work so slowly that we will always struggle to make ends meet unless our rates are very high.
One of the effects of the pandemic, it seems to me, has been to throw us all out of balance. As work has dried up in many cases there have been those who have thrown themselves into self-improvement: online courses and conferences or webinars. When precious work has arrived, they’ve found it impossible to go at a normal pace, using the unaccustomed time available to polish things to such an extent that their hourly rate has plummeted.
Others, meanwhile, have dropped standards and tried to suck in as much work as possible. A job outside your specialist area? Not a problem, times are tough. Work from an unknown agency? Take it, they’ll probably pay and there’s nothing else to do anyway. A translation at below your normal rate? Well, it’s better than nothing. It’s what I call “survival mode”.
I recognise both tendencies in myself because I probably belong to a third group – those who veer between the two extremes. I’ve certainly been short of work at times over the past three months and tempted to take whatever comes. But I’ve also found it difficult to work as I normally do, knowing I probably have twice the time I’m used to for doing any given job.
One of the things that’s kept me on track in recent weeks has been putting the finishing touches to my new-look website (take a look here if you haven’t come in that way). It’s not so different to the way it was before, but I’ve tried to sharpen my focus on the kind of translation I want to do and the kind I’m best at. Having that to think about has helped me remember where I want to go with my business and keep my mind off short-term distractions.
But at the same time having less work than I’m used to had reminded me why I came into translation in the first place – and it wasn’t to do the perfect job, it was to make a living. In journalism, my previous career, perfectionism is the enemy. If you didn’t get your story finished in time it didn’t matter how good it was, no-one would read it because the newspaper wouldn’t get on the streets. I remember a colleague who wrote wonderful, thorough investigative reports. But he was a nightmare to work with because he couldn’t get them finished on time, putting colleagues through all kinds of unnecessary stress.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s the balance between the two sides of the work equation that’s difficult to find in these strange days. But I think it’s vital that we look for it, because without it we’re going nowhere, except possibly round and round in ever decreasing circles.