A little bit laid-back, a little bit OCD

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So do you have to be just a little bit OCD to succeed as a translator? Not to make light of the actual disorder, but I’ve wondered more than once, while triple-checking a term I’ve translated before but can’t say for absolutely sure will fit in this exact context, how obsessive you have to be, or rather, how non-obsessive you can get away with being and still deliver a quality translation.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve learned the hard way to listen to every little nagging thought telling me to check that fact or at least add a note in the margin, because the client is guaranteed to come back to me with a comment on that very issue whenever I think, “good enough” and move on.

In many ways, I am a pretty laid-back, “good enough” kind of person. If you ask me to help you decorate the house for your very special party, I think a couple of balloons and some streamers are going to be just fine and I really can’t get excited about whether the cups match the tablecloth. Similarly, every spring I have great ambitions for a beautiful yard, but invariably I end up spending one hurried afternoon throwing plants in pots and by early June my horticultural prowess is pretty much measured by how many of them have managed to  survive.

But translating is different. Why? Because I get paid for it and unhappy clients are not returning clients, sure. But also because I’m passionate about what I do. I love it, and I want what I produce to be good. I don’t care enough about interior decorating or gardening to make any real effort, but I do care about creating a fantastic translation that reads like an original.

Another reason is that in the eyes of the client, one tiny error can sometimes outweigh all the other good things you’ve done, so you have to be able to account for your choices.  Just the other day I received an e-mail that a client was not happy about one particular term I’d used. Fortunately for me I had done my research so I was able to offer four good reasons for using that specific term, not the least of which was the fact that this was the official term used on the company’s own website.

Still, I do drive the laid-back part of me a little nuts sometimes and I’m curious whether any of you have similar experiences, or does it come naturally and you don’t worry about it? It seems to me it’s hard to deliver quality work without a little bit of obsessive-compulsiveness, but it would be interesting to hear some different perspectives.

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11 thoughts on “A little bit laid-back, a little bit OCD

  1. Oh, I wholeheartedly agree! I tend to be a perfectionist in many aspects of my life, but translation surely does take the top prize. And I don’t have much of a green thumb, either, so my plants rarely survive. I do give it the good old college try, though! And I think all translators definite have a perfectionist streak, which is a good thing.

  2. You summed me up nicely here! Outside of my home office, I’m not a major detail person. But give me a translation to work on, and make room for the perfectionist side of me to swell up.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one like this!

  3. “The official term used on the company’s own website.” Now that’s funny! I am not a translator but a numbers geek, and i believe that anything we are passionate about, the picky side just naturally bubbles to the top. Artistry in its own way, I suppose.

  4. ‘So do you have to be just a little bit OCD to succeed as a translator?’ Yes, definitely. Always striving to find that perfect word, making sure all the commas are in the right place and all those little details that make a good translation could count as a form of OCD. And certainly in a good way too.

    Outside work, I still have my OCD moments, but I am more laid-back, as it seems to be the going trend among our profession from what I see the comments here.

  5. In a nutshell: If you’re good, you’re good. I can see being meticulous when you’re starting out. Much of the terrain is unfamiliar, and you need to be much more careful in your research than if you are an old hand. I say this because once you’ve reached a critical mass of knowledge, and you specialize in one or two fields, you pretty much have the translation composed in your head beforehand. I would venture to say that our brains are living corpora, and I find it easy to relate to something I’ve translated before and type it out quickly and move onto the next segment.

    I even think that being to meticulous could invite errors. If you move too many phrases around to rearrange a sentence, you could easily omit or add words. Second-guessing could also lead you to insert the wrong term. As for your clients’ complaints, how do you know that they wouldn’t complain about something even though you spent three extra hours on the translation?

    The last thing I want people to think is that I’m trying to convert them. Whatever works for you.

    • Hi Reed, thanks for commenting! It’s been a while since I wrote this so I had to go back and reread it before replying 🙂 Looking back now, I would take out the phrase “triple-checking a term I’ve translated before”. I may have been going for comic exaggeration there, but that is obviously overkill. I may check a term once but when that’s done it’s done.

      I also agree that the more experience you gain, the faster you can translate in your head and keep it moving. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it best with his concept of “flow”: when the task is not too boring and not too frustrating, but just challenging and energizing enough. I love that feeling and it’s what makes the work so enjoyable. So no, I don’t arrange and rearrange every sentence (with the exception of some sentences in legal documents that are a half a page long and consist of 8 subordinate clauses with poor grammar; those are definitely like a puzzle and take some careful analysis to figure out). Another translator I know argues passionately that a slow pace is best for translating, but that’s not for me; I enjoy a faster pace.

      But, as I go along I do keep mental track of things I need to verify, and I do that during the proofreading phase. Also, when a passage is very standardized and familiar, for example in clinical trial documentation, it’s easy to overlook the variations and nuances that do inevitably occur, so I do take extra care when proofreading that I didn’t miss any small changes.

      As for client complaints, you’re right; in the end you never know what will set them off, but at least I don’t want it to be because of an objective error on my part.

      I guess it’s about finding a balance between the joy of driving fast and the need for the occasional stoplight.

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