When good is never good enough How to deal with perfectionism in your translation job?

Greater than 7 minutes, my friend!

Perfectionism is a habit many translators and other freelancers seem to have. In their work they strive to deliver the best quality possible and even try to supersede that demand by doing even better. Although it is good to aim to deliver the best translation time after time, aiming for perfection can eventually derail work and leave the translator with an ever growing feeling of guilt for not having delivered the best translation and a great darkness of increasing workload. How can translators (and other freelancers) deal with perfectionism?

What is perfectionism?

Searching Google for “Perfectionism” returns a great many search results about the phenomenon. If it indicates one thing, it is that many people experience it as a sub. The variety of results also suggests that perfectionism is a psychological evil that afflicts many people worldwide. Citing Wikipedia, perfectionism can be characterized as “a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”[1] Wikipedia adds that psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects.[3] The worst form of perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal. When perfectionists reach their goal, they feel happy but when they do not they often fall into depression.
In short, for perfectionists life is an endless report card of accomplishments. While excellent results are great, the continuous striving for perfection often leads to unhappiness, and sometimes even depression.

Signs of perfectionism

Striving to deliver the perfect translation can be a great attitude: it enables you to look critically at your work, which can be motivating and enables you to deliver outstanding work – a guarantee of further work in the future. When aiming for perfect work is getting out of control however, in the end you will no longer be satisfied with your work, and it can also annoy your clients.
For the persons involved, the dividing line between good and perfect can be small. Here are some red flags to tell you that your aiming for good work is becoming a danger to you and your health (please note that these signs are not all signs of perfectionism, and having some of them does not necessarily mean that you are a perfectionist):

You fear failure

There many popular quotations that tell us that every famous entrepreneur, scientist, or sportsman first failed before they succeeded and that you cannot succeed without failing, or that nothing teaches us more than failure, and failing is not funny (although it is not difficult either). Failing can exhibit your flaws and limits to others and failing in a task can ruin your business or your professional relationship.

You know that there is no use crying over spilt milk, but you do

No translator or interpreter is error-proof. Even the best translators make typos, misinterpret sentences, or fail to meet a deadline. While some translators can get over that easily, a perfectionist can hardly get past the feeling of having failed. In some cases missing a deadline can be critical, and typos should by no means be promoted among translators. In many cases, clients understand that on a large text a single typo may be found and that there are circumstances in which you did not perform the best job ever. There’s no excuse for being sloppy in your work, but obsession with every little mistake makes even the slightest typo unbearable.

You take everything personally

As a freelance translator you are responsible for your own work. Taking every setback and feedback personally, however, makes perfectionists less resilient, less flexible and more fearful while it can also result in a poor relationship with customers.
Perfectionists are beaten down (or let themselves be beaten down) by every setback and take every misstep as evidence for the deepest fear that continuously haunts them: “I’m not good enough.”

You cannot live with an average translation

Every job should be better than the previous one: if not, you’re not learning anymore. However, for perfectionists every translation should be utterly perfect. A good translation is poor and an average translation is a catastrophe.
Whenever you see an error you have made, it feels like having committed the worst sin possible. There is no room for mistakes.

You spot mistakes where others don’t see any

An eye for detail is not necessarily an evil thing. Spotting mistakes, be it in your own work or in the work of others, where others don’t see any can make your life more difficult than it has to be. Perhaps you remember situations where you spotted an error that others did not see or at least did not emphasize it as you did. Of course errors don’t create pride in yourself or in your job, but sometimes it is better to take them for granted. Noone will ever be perfect and mistakes in texts and translations are not necessarily deadly.

The bright and dark side of perfectionism

Frankly speaking, I am a perfectionist – at least in my work as a translator. And sometimes it is unbearable. Always striving to be the very best, feeling guilty for a single typo and having translated the second best translation feels as much of a burden as performing at the top in sports. It happens frequently that clients are satisfied with my work while I am not or that I feel down because I made a single mistake. Something needs to change, but how and what?

Fortunately more can be said about perfectionism than that it only results in bad feelings. The single best feature of perfectionist translators is that they always tend to deliver a top-notch translation within the deadline. For customers it means that they do not need to complain about quality or reliable deliveries. They are happy to choose the same translator time and time again, which for a perfectionist means that securing business is not too difficult.

However, that is the only bright side of perfectionism imaginable. The continuous praise from clients doesn’t make perfectionists happy. Instead, it adds an ever greater burden on them to perform according to the high standards already set. According to research, perfectionism also has its drawbacks with respect to health: studies even revealed a 51-percent increased health risk for perfectionists compared to “normal” patients.[2]

How to deal with perfectionism - Pieter Beens

How to get rid of perfectionism

The greatest fear for perfectionists is to lose their perfectionism. Indeed, in their work it can mean that they will perform averagely, one of the things they fear most. Furthermore, there is the fear that they lose the satisfaction of their clients, which in the worst case will mean the end of their business. Of course there are many types of therapy to overcome or at least control perfectionism, but in the end it all requires a change of attitude. If you’re a perfectionist translator you can at least try to follow the steps below to control your perfectionism:

Accept your shortcomings
Nobody is perfect – not even you. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Of course you should strive for a good translation, but accept that not every project will be flawless. There are always reasons or explanations for a failure. Failures can be improved, but first and foremost they should be used for self-reflection. Did you deliver a translation with errors because of personal circumstances or “simply” because you skipped a checking and editing step? Accept that the project cannot be done again now and that this is how it is. The reflection can help you to stay aware in the future.

Distinguish objective from subjective judgments
How you feel you perform is not the same as how you perform. For lazy translators feeling good doesn’t mean that they are good, but for perfectionists the contrary is true: feeling bad is different from doing badly. Do not let your work be dictated by how you feel or by fear of others’ judgments.

Accept a broader form of excellence
A translation should be good, but when is good, good enough? For perfectionists even perfect translations are to be improved. Stop that and accept that a good translation is good enough. Your narrowly defined band of good work is great for your customers, but poor for your health. Accept that a not so perfect translation still is an excellent translation and that an excellent translation is still good. The difference between a quality score of 95 and 97 is not so dramatic to be ill for a week.

See the beauty in imperfection
Okay, an imperfect translation leaves you with bad feelings. Nevertheless, try to see the beauty in the imperfection. Not able to? Consider the perfect sides of your imperfect translation then. There is always more to say about a translation than that the small flaw makes the whole translation poor.
A typo, spelling error, or grammar mistake is poor – but it happens to others as well.

Use categories to prioritize failures
Normally, a typo will not mean the end of your business – let alone the end of your life. Of course translators can get hung up on the smallest details, but perfectionists do that without any exceptions. Make your life somewhat easier and make categories to prioritize failures, based on their impact on your business. A single typo can mean that you feel bad but when the client forgives you, you shouldn’t think about it any longer. Categorize any feedback and prioritize it to bring structure to your response and your attitude towards it. Doing so will really make clear that something you feel so badly about is a really small issue on your scale of priorities and hence not worth destroying your day (or life).
It might also help you to see failure in a broader perspective. Will the failure of a project impact your life forever or does your life largely remain unchanged? Even when a failure steers you into a whole different direction than you might have expected, it does not necessarily mean the change will be bad. As long as a typo is not a matter of life or death, you shouldn’t consider it as such.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/perfectionism_(psychology)
[2] http://www.livescience.com/6724-dark-side-perfectionism-revealed.html

Pieter Beens

About Pieter Beens

Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

3 thoughts on “When good is never good enough How to deal with perfectionism in your translation job?

  1. Great post, Pieter! It’s funny, I actually was going to write something similar. I have a list of blog post ideas and a few drafts, but due to me being spread too thin, I never had the chance to get back to writing them. Mine was titled “Fuck your inner critic” and was all about moving forward and letting your brain stop you from being creative.

    I think perfectionism is some sort of occupational hazard for professional translators. Many of us are overachievers. Some of us expect the same from the others. As a result it puts unnecessary stress and pressure on our work and as a result affect our productivity and well-being.

    It’s not an excuse for sloppy job, of course. But there’s fine line between being perfect and being stressed out. You just have to figure out how to find a balance.

    This is where the support of the loved ones really matters. My wife always helps me get though those stupid depressing thoughts of me not being good enough. It would be much harder for me to work and be productive and happy with my work if it wasn’t for her.

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    1. Thanks Dmitry!
      It seems to me an occupational hazard as well, although I think that many of us say “speak for yourself”: some of them are perfectionist but don’t see it as such, while others (like me) are really struggling with it. And the pressure of colleagues and clients makes it even worse.
      Frankly speaking, I can’t much with feedback from others that I shouldn’t see feedback or errors as almost deadly. First I need to overcome the problem before I can see them in the right perspective.

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