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Transcreation: when do you need it?

By Josian Phillips, 

You are committed to moving into a foreign market, and are being asked if you need straight translation or transcreation, but you are uncertain of which route to take. Indeed, you aren’t entirely sure what transcreation is, let alone when to use it…

Do you need standard translation, transcreation or specialised 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. Even some sales and marketing text is purely descriptive, and for many clients an excellent option might be a translator specialised in marketing.

At the other extreme, taking any sort of humour from one language and culture to another is extremely difficult, and puns and other wordplay are usually impossible to translate. 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. 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 is at least safe for descriptive messages, but for anything else there’s the danger of a Chinese whispers effect, where 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 then, the use of translators followed by target language copywriters can work, but is a rather long-winded approach and can lead to subtle changes of meaning. On the other hand, translators specialised in marketing are a good choice for descriptive marketing text. But transcreation is the only safe option for humour, abstract slogans, and any text which has a distinctive tone of voice.

If in doubt, give us a shout!

If you’re still in any doubt at all about which route to take, you can get expert advice from a translation agency like Brightlines that specialises in marketing translation and covers the full range of global marketing communications.

For further reading on Transcreation, please visit Transcreation: what is transcreation?

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