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Getting Creative with Transcreation

Language and culture are intertwined like the double helix of DNA. We think of language as a medium of communication, but under the influence of culture, languages evolve over time – meanings shift, new words and expressions are coined, others fall out of fashion. Culture on the other hand could never have spread without language, and of course some aspects of culture, such as literature, poetry and even gossiping, are purely language. Language is an integral part of culture . . . is an integral part of language.

It’s a rabbit hole. And the reason why that makes sense to you not literally as a hole in which rabbits live is because of a shared cultural context and understanding – an understanding that would have been absent in 1864, before Lewis Carrol published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

What does this all have to do with transcreation? And what does the word even mean?

Transcreation is the realization that you cannot ignore the cultural component of language.

Of course, translators have always known this. They know that translation is part technical process and part artistic endeavor that relies on an understanding of the ‘target’ culture as well as the target language.

Transcreation is about giving the translator the creative freedom to reinterpret text in such a way that it elicits similar emotions in the target culture as the original text did in the ‘source’ culture.

In the real world of global business and global brands, ‘culturally appropriate’ marketing and branding is a must. That much should be obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is that the message also needs to be ‘culturally effective’.

Whether you’re bringing your brand to Japan, Jamaica or Jordan, it’s important that you’re speaking to your customers and other stakeholders not just in language that they understand but in words that move them because the message feels relevant and resonates with their culture.

When to transcreate

Wondering when you might need transcreation over translation or localization? If your marketing copy features any of the below, it could be a good candidate for some transcreation love:

  • Specific tone of voice
  • Puns and other wordplay
  • Cultural references
  • Humor

Tone of voice may need some special handling if it’s highly specific. For example, the tone of the English original might be very casual, perhaps using slang. In some languages, such as Japanese, copy written in that style could seem very odd – not so much quirky and cool, but just weird and out of place. Part of the transcreation process here would be to work with the client to decide on an appropriate tone of voice for the language in question.

Puns and wordplay in general are hard to translate in such a way that preserves the spirit of the original. It’s usually better in these cases to get creative and transcreate the copy into something that captures some of the spirit of the original but is possibly quite different – see below for an example from Apple.

Cultural references aren’t limited to literal references to films, books, etc. It can be anything that requires a shared cultural understanding to appreciate. An example might be a reference to talking about the weather – something that British people do a lot of and recognize in themselves, but something that people who live in more predictable climates might do much less of. Again, during the transcreation process, the cultural references are identified and creatively transplanted to work in the target language.

Humor is notoriously difficult to translate because what’s funny in one culture often just isn’t in another. Humor generally requires a very high degree of shared cultural understanding – and the more shared cultural understanding is required, the more difficult it will be to translate successfully for a different culture. Transcreating humor in marketing copy may be the trickiest of all, requiring extra special care to get right.

Transcreation in action

Apple provides many good examples of transcreation because its marketing copy is full of wordplay and cultural references, and they do a great job of transcreating it. Here’s a simple one from the Apple website.

For the iPhone 12 Pro, launched in 2020, Apple used the copy “It’s a leap year,” a play on words because 2020 was indeed a leap year, and because we also often speak of ‘leaps forward’ in technology.

Any native English speaker would immediately get the pun.

If we just translated that into Japanese (let’s use Google Translate), we get 閏年です (leap year).

Guess what? Most native speakers of Japanese would be scratching their heads wondering what that had to do with the new iPhone.

This is what Apple went with in Japanese: 飛ぶように、つぎの次元へ (‘Like a leap into the next dimension’), followed by: どんなスマートフォンのチップよりも飛び抜けて高性能なA14 Bionic (‘A14 Bionic – performance that eclipses all other smartphone chips’)

The Japanese copy works partly because of the verb 飛ぶ (to leap or fly) is echoed in the second line by 飛び抜ける (to surpass) – creating a little bit of wordplay quite distinct from the English original.

The bottom line

While translation and transcreation both require language skills, the demands of transcreation are greater. The successful transcreator will be a creative copywriter in his or her own language in addition to having the strong second language skills needed for all translation.

Compared to translation, transcreation usually requires closer collaboration with the client to agree on a strategy. It also requires time for creative thought and working through several ideas. For these reasons, transcreation is often charged on a time basis rather than on the basis of word counts.

Successful global brands are increasingly looking for talented transcreation specialists who can help them truly connect with local customers by creating an authentic and effective brand voice.