On decision, perfection, and better translations

Daniel Benneworth-Gray, writing about the classic Voltaire quote “The perfect is the enemy of the good” and how his own decision process relates to it:

This is how I spend my days, in a state of constant indecision. The debilitating belief that all options but one are incorrect could generously be called perfectionism, but a more accurate term would be option paralysis — the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. An interminable mull over whatever trivial options lay before me, every action bogged down by a fear of choosing unwisely — what to write, what to wear, what to watch, what to eat (my sincere apologies to anyone who has ever sat with me at a sushi conveyor belt), what to anything.

Despite hearing it a lot at work, I believe it is the first time that I encounter this quote attributed to Voltaire in English. I became rather intrigued by the translation as the French sentence would translate as “The best is the enemy of the good,” but I personally always understood it as something more in the likes of “The better is the enemy of the good.”

In French the two words “le mieux” indeed translates as “the best.” The translators were absolutely correct obviously, but I cannot help but think that my wrong assumption, where the use of the single word “mieux” — the one that would translate as only “better” and not “best” — is closer to the reality of it all, as “better” clearly implies an unfinished process of improvement, whereas “best” sounds like the project or product is already finished, which in my mind1 kind of goes against the meaning of the aphorism.2

Browsing on Wikipedia, I found another quote on this topic from Robert Watson-Watt, which I absolutely love:

Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.

  1. If I understand well, the “best” in this quote doesn’t apply to the end result, but to the goal of the process itself, which indeed is a, well, better way of thinking about it. My mind more easily thinks about the end result, hence my preference to the “better” — albeit wrong — translation.↩︎

  2. I learned this expensive word earlier today, so I might as well use it now: “An aphorism is a concise, terse, laconic, or memorable expression of a general truth or principle.”↩︎