What is Transcreation?

Translation vs. transcreation

Let us begin by clarifying what translation actually is. After all, understanding what transcreation means makes much more sense once this has been explained.  

The process of translation means that what is said is translated from the respective source language into the respective target language. This sounds obvious, and it is what most people would say when asked to describe translation.

What is not as obvious, however, is that in all translations, except the most basic ones, the translator must use their own skills and judgement to best capture the essence of what the author of the original text meant.

Unlike mathematics, where there is usually a right and a wrong answer, language is much more subtle and nuanced, and it impossible for two translators to produce exactly the same translations, even though the source text is the same in both cases.

In general, the more abstract the original text is, the greater the differences between the two translations, even though both are “correct” or even “exact”.

For example, the translation of a poem will have many more differences than the translation of a toaster manual. The former is full of emotion and personal interpretation, the latter is a set of instructions with fewer ambiguities.

In summary, without wishing to seem pretentious, translations are closer to works of art than to mechanical equations from one language to another. This is also the reason why machine translations and retranslations should be treated with caution.

But what is transcreation and how does it differ?

Transcreation means “translating” and “re-creating” the original text into a new language while ensuring that it is still appropriate in the context for which it is intended. The person making the transcreation must have a thorough understanding of the desired outcome to not only translate the original, but also to make substantial changes to the text in the process.

Most transcreation projects are carried out in collaboration with marketing teams.

To give you an idea of what this means in general, here’s an example of transcreating a sales headline from US English to UK English – believe it or not, we’re often asked to work between US English and UK English (and vice versa). Although most transcreation projects are done between very different languages, I can demonstrate the challenge by keeping everything in English.

“Don’t run amok” under the picture of a stressed office worker holding a pile of urgent letters in his hand was the proposed slogan for a new super-fast fax machine at a time when fax machines were just becoming affordable.

In the US, “running amok” is generally understood to be freaking out because of a series of unfortunate incidents that occurred when stress became rampant among some US postal workers at the end of the last century.

The intention of the slogan was to suggest with dark humour that it was better to fax the documents than to send them by post. There would be a risk that they might arrive too late, which would have negative consequences. The slogan was never really used, as it was, in our opinion rightly, considered to be in bad taste.

So how would one creatively adapt it in British English? It’s only three words, but it’s not about the number of words, it’s about how to get the same message across when there is no direct translation or there is a so-called cultural catch.

The client liked our suggestion of “fax and relax”.

Although the words are completely different, the advertising slogan managed to convey the meaning of the original slogan without relying on a cultural reference that would not have been understood by a British audience.

This is a very simple example that hopefully demonstrates the difference between translation and transcreation, and the services we at London Translate offer.

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