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Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin reference library):
"The best is the enemy of the good - people or achievements that are good are made to seem inadequate by those that are even more outstanding. The phrase is attested earlier (18th cent.) in French as le mieux est l'ennemi du bien, and in Italian (quoted by Voltaire) as il meglio e l'inimico del bene. [...]"
Literary quotations are interpreted / translated in the context of the entire piece from which they are extracted, and when translated like that, their sense becomes very clear, never vague.
So, who read La Bégueule here ?
Also, we haven't been told if this will be used as a quotation or a proverb, because it also grew into an independent proverb over time.
An excerpt :
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien ;
Non qu’on ne puisse augmenter en prudence,
En bonté d’âme, en talents, en science ;
Cherchons le mieux sur ces chapitres-là ;
Partout ailleurs évitons la chimère.
Dans son état, heureux qui peut se plaire,
Vivre à sa place, et garder ce qu’il a !
La belle Arsène en est la preuve claire.
Elle était jeune : elle avait à Paris
Un tendre époux empressé de complaire
It is better to be satisfied with " optimum, something ideal " , than to strive for better which you cannot handle. " The better " may be " too much " to handle and therefore the better can turn into the worse.
optimum = it is not either good or bad or better, it is simply something that suits you perfectly, although it is not "the best" by objective standards.
Is this interpretation complicated enough ? :)
I believe that the sense of " the good" here is " one's own optimum "
Btw, isn't there an official authorized literary translation of this famous Voltaire's quotation ?
Did he mean you should leave something that is already working alone (cf Matthew's suggestion) or did he mean that you should do something and be satisfied with a less than perfect solution because otherwise striving for perfection may result in nothing being achieved (my suggestion)? Or did he perhaps mean both?
Automatic update in 00:
45 mins confidence: peer agreement (net): +3
better to do something even if it is imperfect than striving for perfection and achieving nothing
Explanation: Usually translated as “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” this remark from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique has been used again and again to express the general notion that striving for perfection can obscure or overcome the need to accept a good, if imperfect, solution that is nearer to fruition. Though the literal French could be taken to mean "The better is the enemy of the good," the sense that it may be better to do the possible than strive for something more (nearly) perfect remains. http://csanet.org/newsletter/fall08/nlf0803.html
Alain Pommet Local time: 04:46 Native speaker of: English PRO pts in category: 4