Pursuit of Excellence

I used to work for a mathematical software company that had some core values which were taken very seriously by everyone in the company, from upper management and experienced programmers to the newly hired tech-support specialists and office-services staff. They were listed on the company’s website, they were brought up in company meetings, printed on T-shirts, on company stationery, in our quarterly and annual reviews, and they were followed by all the employees of the company. We adopted them so thoroughly, they were not just a way of working, they were a way of life. One of them was “Continuous improvement and pursuit of excellence”: you should strive to become better at your work every day, try to be a better person every day, and always try to do your best; the goal is excellence, you shouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than that. Even if you can’t always achieve it, you should at least try to get as close to it as you can.
When I started studying translation, I kept following this core value and tried to achieve accuracy and fluency and produce the best translation I could. My professor clearly was trying to convey to us this same mentality, with her immense patience for correcting our errors and explaining even the most tedious differences between alternative translations and why we should opt for one over the other. “Attention to detail” was not just a skill as is typically mentioned in job descriptions; it was built in our work method. It was not an extra but a necessity. My classmates adopted this way of working as well, and I was in an environment of people who were trying to do their best, not in order to get a good grade but because they shared this passion for language, for accurate passage from one language and culture to another. 


As this had become a way of life for me, like for many of my then classmates too, as a professional translator I strived for excellent quality from the very beginning. I became a member of online forums and saw that my colleagues did the same. We were consulting each other on the best possible equivalent of terms we were to translate, we talked about the nuances and connotations and the most fluent structure and what would sound best to a specific target audience. If you are a translator you know exactly what I mean. We strive for the most accurate and effective communication. We pursue excellence.  


One fine day I began to see that my profession was starting to get infiltrated by people who didn’t share this mentality. I discovered to my horror that some people claimed that quality has become of lesser priority, that it is OK if communication is not 100% fluent and accurate and error-free, that it is not up to us language professionals to decide what translation quality means and how high the quality of translation (read, the quality of our own work) must be. This is not just irrational and surreal to me, it goes against everything I have learned as a student, everything I have been practicing as an engineer and then a language professional, and against a core value I follow in every aspect of my life. It goes against what the translation profession stands for and it goes against what we translators stand for. The irony of it all is that it is some businessmen who are defending that low-quality concept, businessmen who apparently saw a niche, a goldmine, and decided to exploit it. And that’s not all, those non-translators, those money-oriented businessmen, are shameless enough to try to convince US, the translators, that what we have stood for from the beginning of our careers is useless, non-efficient, or simply wrong. They even come to translators’ conferences to give speeches as authorities in the field, and bluntly offend professional translators and try to convince them to become worker bees while they can enjoy the honey. 


So after striving for years to be the best we can be, to achieve excellence, now we find ourselves in a position where we have to focus our efforts on defending our work methods and philosophy, on defending not the quality of our work, but the fact that our work should be of high quality. Let me impress upon you the absurdity of this: we are finding ourselves having to defend the fact that we should be doing our job well. 


We often compare translators to lawyers; let me make yet another such comparison. Saying that quality is not top priority and that we should work towards wholesale translations at low prices is like telling lawyers that they shouldn’t lose sleep over not defending a client very well, it’s OK if a few mistakes are made –so what if a few people are sent to jail unfairly?-, what’s important is having a lot of clients and working on a lot of cases because that would qualify as efficient. Legal defense is a commodity.  


Frankly I am starting to have enough of this wholesale mentality. I am getting extremely fed up with being insulted to my face. I am an advocate of “Pursuit of excellence” and so are my colleagues. “Pursuit of mediocrity” has never been in the curriculum or in any code of ethics I have ever seen. If some businessmen prefer mediocrity over excellence, they can do that in their own business, not in mine. They can adopt that philosophy and use it in their way of working and in their way of living if they so choose. Each one chooses his own goals. Some choose the easier ones (mediocrity is much easier than excellence, after all). But trying to convince one that quantity is more important than quality and that it’s better to be mediocre than excellent, is pointless, a waste of time, and it causes quite a bit of damage in the process.