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“Less is more” – finding the body and soul of transcreation

By Josian Phillips, 

Browning (one of the most important British poets of the Victorian period) penned the famous phrase “less is more” in his dramatic monologue Andrea del Sarto – also called The Faultless Painter. This phrase captures the essence of what Browning admired in the painter that he wanted to recreate in his verse: art that portrays body and soul – not just one or the other. He rejoices how such “a little thing like that you smeared” could burn so brightly.

The same is true for the art of transcreation – or creative translation. It isn’t enough simply to take the body – or form – of translation copy and match it to similar in a given language. Experts in transcreation push the words creatively so that the soul of the marketing / advertising campaign, message or brand shines just as brightly in different languages. Using the “less is more” principle they can bring out the zeitgeist of the message.

Take the translation of the Coca Cola brand, for example. Through extensive research of 40,000 Chinese characters, Coca Cola was finally able to find a phonetic translation for “Coca Cola” – “kekoukele”. And the soul part? It means “happiness in the mouth”. Body – tick! Soul – tick! Good transcreation.

And a lot better than their first attempt, by the way… Depending on your dialect, when ‘Coca Cola’ is literally translated it means ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax.’ I should think the business felt the sting of that blunder pretty hard. What George Orwell’s Newspeak would’ve called “double-plus ungood”.

Small, but perfectly formed

But whether we choose to or not, making copy volume small but perfectly formed is being forced upon us more and more. Small screens, Twitter and Instagram copy parameters, hashtags. Our world is becoming a lot more condensed. At the same time, of course, attention spans are growing still shorter – the luxury of time the highest commodity.

Copy must be concise, timely, relevant and easy-to-ready if it is to be read at all. This applies as much to social media platforms and news feeds as it does video translations and all content forms.

So, what other guiding principles are there to help transcreation experts show the body and soul of global marketing and advertising campaigns?

People to people

Audience profiling is key. Gone are the days of shouting at crowds or considering ‘business to business’ or ‘business to consumer’ instead of considering communications as ‘people to people’.  A transcreation expert – just like a marketer or advertiser – needs to be able to get inside the audience’s head and write purely with them in mind. What are their pains? Are they looking for specific information? How do they talk or write?

Format – mainly digital

As we touched on earlier, these days we’re all mainly digital, and we’re mainly mobile. Transcreation needs to allow for this. So, sentences should be short and easily digestible. Language should be direct with active verbs instead of passive. Keep copy more alive by using the present tense even though events you’re describing may’ve happened in the past.

Cultural nuances

David Armano, global strategy director at Edelman said: “So what is value in today’s connected marketing and media landscape? Culture.” I struggle to imagine this not always being true, but think maybe today we’re more awake to it from a business perspective.

Each market has its own cultural sensibilities, which transcreation experts must take on board. Getting the right message for the right audience is critical in any communication. Word play and humour can work, but can be equally risky – so it’s all down to the transcreation expert on the ground. They need to know their onions from their artichokes, their wasabi from their Wotsits.

Brevity is the soul of wit

As the ironically rambling Polonius said in Hamlet: “brevity is the soul of wit”. So I’ll bang this blog on the head. Please get in touch with Neil or me if you’d like to discuss your transcreation needs with us. We’d love to hear from you.

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