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What Is Transcreation? 6 Differences from Translation that Matter to Marketers

Is transcreation just a fancy word for translation? Is it a new trend or just another buzzword used by translators to sell their services? Even though transcreation is a relatively young term, the practice itself has been around for decades – as long as marketing for international audiences has existed.

Transcreation is a form of translation, i.e., a translation technique, but it’s important to understand transcreation as something very distinct from regular translation. Let’s address some basic concepts and explore six ways in which transcreation is a different approach to translation in the traditional sense of the term.

In this post:

What is transcreation?

The truth is that there isn’t consensus yet on a clear definition for transcreation.

However, transcreation is commonly understood as one of the two below concepts:

  • A subset of creative translation that concerns marketing texts. In other words, transcreation is, for some experts, a discipline within creative translation that deals with international advertising and marketing copy.
  • A translation technique applied to content designed for marketing purposes, where the focus isn’t so much on the meaning of the source text as on its intended impact in the target audience.

We favour the second definition of transcreation. Transcreation differs from traditional translation by reaching for resonance rather than equivalence.

The result is closer to a completely new text that’s been tailored specifically to resonate with the target audience. Transcreated texts, therefore, may have their own tone or style that’s different from the source text as long as they produce the same emotional effect on the target audience.

What is translation?

Differently from transcreation, translation is the direct conceptual transference of information from one language to another. Translation means re-expressing meaning – normally, this is usually done phrase-by-phrase o sentence-by-sentence.

However, the common assumption that translation is literal by definition is a misconception. The focus of translation work is the transfer of the meaning or the message of a source-language text into an equivalent target-language text. Depending on the syntax and grammar of each language, this might require significant adaptation –e.g., in punctuation, sentence length, and style – to produce natural-sounding text.

What is creative translation?

A simple definition of creative translation is the application of creative methods to translate creative content, without going to the extent of re-writing it from scratch like transcreation sometimes does. Creative translation includes, for instance, the strategic use of humor and metaphors to convey a specific message or the adaptation of literary devices from one language to another.

Traditional translation can involve different subject fields: technical translation, legal translation, medical translation, literary translation, marketing translation, etc. Some of these fields can be grouped under the umbrella term “creative translation”.

Creative translation concerns disciplines where the source text includes creative devices whose literal translation would result in a text that is awkward or incomprehensible. In these instances, the translator has to take creative licenses and come up with equivalent target-language devices so the target text will work for its intended purpose.

For example, they might:

  • Change the structure of a sentence in a poem or a song in order to make the verse rhyme in the target language
  • Add or omit source-text information in order to make it more concise in the target language
  • Come up with a completely new metaphor in the target text
  • Find an equivalent pun in the target language if one has been used in the source text
  • Swap a noun phrase for a verb phrase to enhance the target text’s readability

Creative translation is common for literature, film, music, the arts, marketing, and even political texts such as speeches designed to influence or inspire an audience.

What is the difference between translation and transcreation?

To put transcreation into perspective, it’s important to understand that transcreation and translation have different focuses. The following six points provide a framework for transcreation vs translation:

Transcreation strives for resonance not accuracy

Transcreation strives for resonance, not accuracy

Transcreation is all about evoking the same emotions in the target audience that the source text evokes in the original audience. Because transcreation deals with marketing copy, and copy – by definition – seeks to persuade the reader so they will take the desired action, transcreation puts a strong emphasis on reaching and resonating with the target audience.

This means that transcreated texts might – and often should! – deviate from the source text in order to make the transcreated text more effective at converting the reader. For example, film titles are often transcreated in a way that appeals to the target audience, with an aim to increase international box office grosses.

Unlike transcreation, translation can sometimes be performed by machines

In the last few decades, machine translation has evolved significantly. Since 2015, neural machine translation (NMT) has been promoting a paradigm shift in the way we think about translation.

Today’s NMT can now deal with syntax, grammar, and even colloquialisms, and can often produce very accurate translations – as long as the text is relatively simple and straightforward. It’s the case of some contracts, certain types of medical and legal documentation, and even some texts that are of a technical nature.

Transcreation, on the other hand, is about human creativity. As a result, machine translation isn’t really up to par with humans yet – and probably won’t ever be. If transcreation is about resonance and it’s all about emotions, then we need to understand that transcreation is ultimately an artistic task. This means that transcreation requires great imagination as well as a good understanding of the target audience in order to transcreate texts successfully.

Transcreators usually work with a brief

Much like copywriters, who need to understand the product and the brand in order to produce compelling copy, transcreators need to understand the client’s business and market, as well as the desired emotional effect, in order to transcreate a text successfully.

This means that transcreation is rarely performed as a one-person job – it’s usually part of a larger global marketing campaign that involves meetings and briefings with the client’s marketing managers, designers, and other creatives in order to establish some transcreation guidelines. If the chosen technique is blind transcreation, a detailed brief is even more crucial.

Translators, on the other hand, don’t normally get a brief of the same kind a copywriter or transcreator receives. Translators can get down to work pretty independently after receiving some basic translation guidelines such as the target locale, previous reference projects, the desired tone and register, and any terminological issues that might need to be addressed.

Translation can leverage translation memories; transcreation cannot

Translation memories (TMs) are databases of previously translated texts. They allow translators to reuse parts of the text that they’ve already translated in previous projects when working on new ones, thus saving time and money. This is particularly helpful in fields such as the legal, medical, and financial industries where terminology typically remains unchanged from project to project.

TMs are of great value to translation agencies, as they allow them to maintain big databases of reusable translations and provide clients with lower rates and faster turnaround times. For transcreators, however, TM technology is not as helpful – and can, at times, even be counterproductive. This is because transcreators need to produce texts that are original and unique each time.

Moreover, a lot of transcreation work needs to be SEO-optimised, and the use of synonyms is key to producing SEO-friendly assets. This makes the primary purpose of translation memories, i.e., the creation of reusable texts, incompatible with transcreation.

Transcreators charge by the hour, while translators tend to charge per word or per page

Translators and transcreators have different billing rates. While charging the translation of a 2000-word contract by the word makes a lot of sense – it’s easy to estimate how much time it will take –, transcreators tend to get paid by the hour or project.

One reason is that transcreation requires a lot of imagination, brainstorming, creativity, and research. These tasks are not easy to quantify in terms of word count or page count.

Moreover, transcreators might need to spend countless hours trying out different versions of a translation in order to come up with the perfect transcreated text. Think of a slogan: a simple three-word phrase can take a transcreator days to finalise.

Transcreation projects are more expensive than regular translation projects

For the same reason transcreation is usually paid by the hour, and because of how long transcreation can take, transcreation requires a significantly bigger budget than regular translation projects.

However, the benefits of transcreation usually outweigh its hefty price tag – they can lead to fruitful payoffs for the client in terms of branding and positioning as well as a significant increase in sales.

A great transcreation example to consolidate the theory

Now that we’ve established the differences between transcreation and translation, let’s take a look at an amazing transcreation example that hit the nail on the head:

The Asterix comics

There is no better place to end a discussion on transcreation than with the English translations of the Asterix comics. The names of all the characters are puns, many of which can’t be translated – but they can be recreated.

The English versions that Anthea Bell created were often cleverer than the French names. For instance:

  • The tone-deaf village bard was originally Assurancetourix, a play on ‘assurance tous risques’ – ‘full cover insurance’. In the English, he became Cacofonix, a wordplay on ‘cacophony’.
  • The insalubrious fishmonger was Ordralfabétix, playing on ‘ordre alphabétique’. He became Unhygienix.
  • The cantankerous pet dog of the lead character Obelix was called Idéfix, a play on the French phrase ‘une idée fixe’ meaning a stubborn obsession. He became Dogmatix – which is a delightful translation, since Idéfix is indeed a dog, and he is also dogmatic.

The French originals are funny because they are absurd. The English names actually reflect traits of the characters, and make the cast that much more vivid.

Source: Today Translations

How to transcreate

You might be wondering exactly how transcreators come up with transcreated texts. The main thing to keep in mind, as we have previously mentioned, is that transcreation requires a lot of research and brainstorming.

We have put together a series of steps transcreators follow when transcreating texts.

Step 1: Ensuring the brief is clear

Transcreation briefs need to be clear from the start. They need to answer questions such as:

  • What does the client want to achieve with this transcreation?
  • What’s the main feeling the target text needs to evoke?
  • Where is the target text going to be published?
  • Who is the target audience for the transcreated material?
  • What is the timeframe for the transcreation?
  • Is there a style guide or brand bible the transcreator can refer to?
  • Are there any other transcreated versions of this piece, or any transcreated material in the same sector that transcreators can use as inspiration?

The clearer this information is, the easier it will be for transcreators to deliver their best work.

Step 2: Research

Once transcreators have clarity on their brief, they need to start conducting research.

Research is an important part of transcreation work because transcreators need to ensure that they understand the original material in depth. If they don’t, there’s a risk that their transcreation will lack authenticity or fail to resonate.

When conducting research, transcreators look at how marketing collateral has been transcreated in the past, what the company’s competitors are doing, what kind of language is commonly used in this industry, what successful transcreation has been done for the target market in the past, etc.

Step 3: Chewing on the source text

Before starting the transcreation work per see, most transcreators will read the source text a thousand times. This chewing on the source material is a transcreator’s way of letting it permeate their mind.

Ideally, some time should elapse between this step and transcreators starting work. In other words, they need to take a break from the source text so that when they come back to it, their minds are fresh and unbiased.

Step 4: Brainstorming and sketches

Once transcreators have done their research and taken a step away from the source material, they can start brainstorming ideas for transcreation concepts. Brainstorming is a creative process that will generate ideas for transcreated versions – which transcreators can then flesh out and turn into transcreation sketches.

Step 5: Hiding the source text and producing the transcreated text

Wait, what? Yes, that’s right. At this point, transcreators don’t need the source text anymore. Now that they’ve read it a hundred times and understood the main concepts and message, it’s time to work only with their notes. It’s now time to let creativity do its job!

Hiding the source text helps transcreators avoid working sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph (if you do that, you will be translating, not transcreating, however much you distance yourself from the source text).

Step 6: Feedback

Deliverables usually include several potential transcreation concepts that the client will go through with their team before choosing the one they like best.

Feedback is an opportunity for transcreators to ensure that they haven’t missed anything, and it’s also a chance for them to improve their transcreation concepts.

A word of warning…

While this article has aimed at providing a definition of what transcreation is and what it isn’t, the language industry still bears witness to countless debates over transcreation.

No two definitions are the same, and no two transcreation experts seem to agree on how transcreation should be executed.

What the industry can do is discuss transcreation in an open dialogue, but ultimately, transcreators and clients alike must do their own homework and research to come up with a transcreation strategy that works for all parties.

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