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Transcreation: when exactly do you need it?

By Josian Phillips, 

If you’ve committed to moving into a foreign market, and are now being asked if you need straight translation or transcreation, you may be uncertain of which route to take.

If you aren’t entirely sure what transcreation is, let alone when to use it, we’re here to help you out.

What is standard translation?

Standard translation is the obvious choice for an instruction booklet where the last thing you need is nuance, and straight-down-the-line clarity takes precedence over style.

Any cultural differences between the texts or idioms in the text are not really considered – only on a superficial level. Even some sales and marketing text is purely descriptive, and for many clients an excellent option might be a translator specialised in marketing.

What is transcreation?

Transcreation refers to the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. For global marketing, highly branded materials will often need the process of transcreation, such as product names, slogans and advertisement copy. Translation, or specialised translation, just isn’t enough here. It’s crucial that you carefully consider this when preparing your content for global campaigns.

Taking any sort of humour from one language and culture to another is extremely tricky, and puns and other wordplay are usually impossible to translate. This is why knowing how to approach marketing transcreation can be difficult. Transcreation then, which uses fully-fledged copywriters working in their native language, will allow the creation of humour which is entirely appropriate for the new market.

For example, In France, Belgium, Denmark, and Spain, the humour is commonly dark, surreal, and self-deprecating. They like jokes about serious subjects often associated with stress. Whereas in North America these jokes might seem like they “bring the energy down”.

Occasionally it may be that any jokes are considered inappropriate for a particular product category in the target culture, and that is the sort of question which transcreators, rooted in that setting, will answer.

Slogans, straplines or taglines are often risky to translate

HSBC is known for its powerful marketing and advertising, but on one occasion its private banking division appeared to display a lack of “local knowledge”, to paraphrase one of its famous campaigns. In 2009, a $10 million global rebranding operation followed the revelation that its “Assume Nothing” slogan (which had been running successfully for five years in the UK and US) was being translated into “Do Nothing” in many languages. The fact that this unfolded in the wake of the international banking collapse, when many felt that doing nothing was indeed the best option for their money, only added to the embarrassment.

The abstract quality of many slogans makes them impossible to translate literally. One route often taken by big, well-known businesses with short, snappy slogans is simply to leave the message in English. But there are some markets where that isn’t a viable option, even for Nike and their “Just do it” slogan. Without a meaningful Chinese translation, the company used transcreation to produce a line which sounds slightly strange in English (“Use sports” or “Have sport”) but in Chinese has a similar type and strength of impact as the original.

One option which is often chosen by a client who isn’t familiar with transcreation is to use translators followed by target-language copywriters to revisit the text. A rather long-winded approach, it’s at least safe for descriptive messages, but for anything else there’s the danger of a Chinese whispers effect. Any loss of nuance or slight change of emphasis – sometimes unavoidable in translation – isn’t picked up by the target-language copywriters.

Your copy is a precious asset

Transcreation is all about preserving a client’s message in a new environment. Which means that if a company’s ethos is reflected in its words, if it has a distinctive tone of voice, transcreation is the only option. An investment in well-crafted copy should never be put to waste just because the market is different.

To sum up, the use of translators followed by target language copywriters can work, but is laborious and can lead to subtle changes of meaning. On the other hand, choosing a translation agency which specialises in marketing, is a good, efficient, and reliable choice for any marketing text. Transcreation is the only safe option for humour, abstract slogans, and any text which has a distinctive tone of voice.

If you’re still in any doubt at all about which route to take,  get in touch or request a quote today. We specialise in marketing translation and cover the full range of global marketing communications.

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