Translation vs. Transcreation

Keyboard button labelled 'translate'

In this final guest post, Christian Arno from Lingo24 explains the difference between translation and transcreation. It’s an important distinction.

Translators should only ever translate into their mother tongue, regardless of how fluent they are in another language. This ensures that the linguistic nuances of their native language are respected.

Furthermore, many linguists have qualifications in other fields, such as accountancy, engineering or law. This means that they are in a good position to translate documents from these industries, as the often highly specialised, technical terminology will preclude other translators from fully understanding the texts.

Some translators are more inclined towards creative writing and hence translation companies are more likely to use these linguists on projects such as marketing, advertising and media texts.

For truly creative pieces, translation needs to be taken a stage further, which is where transcreation comes into play.

Transcreation is about taking a concept in one language and completely recreating it in another language – it is normally applied to the marketing of an idea, product or service to international audiences. The language, therefore, must resonate with the intended audience.

The best way to distinguish transcreation from translation is to completely forget about translation for a second.

Imagine you work directly for a company that has a new product or service that they wish to launch, and you are charged with creating and manipulating the promotional text that will not only introduce this to the target (domestic!) audience, but bring it to life and make people really believe in it. It should intrigue them, beguile them and, ultimately, prompt them to buy into the concept. This is what is known as copywriting.

But how does this work when you are asked to convert an existing set of promotional messages from one language into your mother tongue? Well, this is where transcreation comes in and it requires a different mindset to that of translation.

With translation, words such as ‘faithful’ and ‘accurate’ are normally used to describe the quality. But with transcreation, you should be thinking more along the lines of ‘creative’, ‘original’ and ‘bold’. And a translation will normally be carried out by a single linguist (even though a proofreader will be used later), whilst with transcreation, a team will normally be involved in the development of the text – the transcreator will have to work very closely with the client to ensure their brief is met.

Grammatical correctness is crucial to translation and there is never any room for error, which is why a translator should only ever translate into their native language. But fluency in a foreign tongue and an in-depth understanding of one’s own language doesn’t automatically qualify someone to transcreate. They must have conceptual and linguist dexterity too.

You may wonder why a company would want transcreation at all: why don’t they just hire a team of copywriters in the target country who can produce the text from scratch? Well, most clients will want the ‘feel’ of the original text to be maintained, which requires someone who has an intimate knowledge of the source language – they will have to understand why the message works and produce something that is localised for the target language.

The goal of transcreation isn’t to say the same thing in another language. Indeed, it is often not possible to say exactly the same thing in another language. The aim of the game with transcreation is to get the same reaction in each language, something that translation in itself won’t be able to achieve.

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31 Responses to Translation vs. Transcreation

  1. Guy says:

    Dear Matthew,
    Right what you said, I use to say that a “transcreator” is basically a bilingual copywriter, who transcreate into his own mother tongue, as you rightly said. Recently I started reconsidering a multi phase process, where and English “plus” an Italian copywriter are able to come to a creatively better solution, together. Problem is you don’t often have the needed budget to approach the issue this way. Compliments for your blog.

  2. Guy says:

    “… an English “plus” an Italian …”

  3. Einat Adar says:

    Interesting concept.

    I agree about the need to have a high proficiency in both languages.
    However, a translator translating into a non-native language is not always a bad idea. Think of a company who wants to translate marketing materials into English. Their market is not necessarily the UK or the US, but rather international audiences. In this case, the translator should be careful to choose words and phrases that will be easily understood by 2nd language English speakers.

    I’ve seen many examples of phrases that looked perfectly clear to British or American English speakers, but baffled my Israeli colleagues. I think a 2nd language English Speaker is more aware of these differences.

    I’d guess similar problems arise in Spanish, French, Russian and other languages spoken in multiple countries.

    • Native English-speaking translators can still be aware of the kinds of construction and phrasing that are challenging to non-native speakers. If the intended audience includes non-native speakers, then Global English is the order of the day. This is a well-documented area.

      Second-language speakers may well be naturally aware of the kinds of difference to which you refer; however, they are not best placed to choose wording that actually works both for them and for native speakers.

  4. Claude says:

    Dear Matthew,
    It is a very interesting concept and very well put.

    I am a professional Translator since … and am a bit concerned.

    Frigidaire was a household name while I was growing up in Uruguay, of French parents. My father was convinced it was a French product. My teacher was convinced it was Uruguayan. Everyone knew IBM was from the US, yet, there was never a problem or laughter about the instructions or the specifications.

    In the past 10 years, there has been an avalanche of non-trained Translators and Interpreters on the US market, what is called by some the “grey market”, fed by companies who are too stingy to pay for professional work.

    This has also had direct consequences on our profession:

    1. It has undermined the respect for our profession which has led to lower rates (lower than 15 years ago);
    2. A profusion of mistranslated documents -whether ads in the local supermarket, published materials, etc. (some countries still laugh about the Mitsubishi “Pajero”, the Ford “Pinto”, the Chevy “Nova”, and so on)

    Trained professionals pay hefty University tuition fees for 2 to 4 years to become professionals. Imagine a self-proclaimed mechanic repairing your car, with no prior training.

    Translating involves more than replacing a word with its equivalent in another language; sentences and ideas must be manipulated to flow with the same coherence as those in the source document so that the translation reads as though it originated in the target language, respecting any cultural references that may need to be adapted to correspond with those of the intended audience. Colloquialisms, slang, and other expressions do not translate literally. In all cases, the message must be kept with the same connotations: humor, instruction, threat, etc.

  5. Ziv Lazar says:

    Funny enough.. I was doing Transcreation for the past 5 years and didn’t even know that there is a name for it! It was obvious to me that the translated technical content I received from the translation agencies didn’t quiet cut it and some horrible /funny mistakes would happen which I had to sort out. Being a native Hebrew speaker I usually made a list of the reoccurring mistakes and ran a find/replace on the whole document, but sometimes a completely new approach was needed, as you said, a creative one.

  6. Good for you, Matthew,

    You were doing a true professional Translation. As we have for several millenia.
    Transcreation is only for untrained Translators: the ones who do literal translation because they have not learned the techniques of Translation.

    One of the techniques IS to choose the words according to the messge and the intent of the message. Bad translators abound, i.e., the gey market, because Agencies want to make profits rather than pay trained Translators.

    Translation and Interpreting are professions – Trained Language Specialists pay high tuition fees at various Universities to get their diploma.

    Agencies are feeding the grey market and companies, who do not know the difference. As comparison: we all know how to cook but few of us ever become Chefs. Chefs learn, among other techniques, the chemical reaction of one food element with another, etc.

    As for Localization: it is not Translation of the text, it is the translation of the graphical and technical elements. Problem is, computer lingo had assigned the term Translation to something new, from one computer language to another. So, they could not keep the original term and meaning of Translation. Now, Localization means both — to them.


  7. Julie B says:

    Translation vs. Transcreation

    I’m a professional translator (qualified too….) and I’d never heard of transcreation until today.

    Personally I would view this as doing your job properly if you are a translator specialising in marketing.

    I have done marketing text translation before and was allowed to “edit” the text – ie take some liberties to make it look better/more appropriate in the target language, which is the only appropriate thing to do with some marketing.

    Thanks for the explanation though! I’ve learnt a new word for my own work.

    Best regards


  8. TransABC says:

    A very good article on the differences between translation and transcreation.


  9. David Parry says:

    To comment on the comments; it is a good idea to have a non-native speaker of English look at a document to find things that are mystifying to him, even though they are clear to a native, but I would never recommend anything other than translating into your own language.
    “Transcreation is only for untrained Translators: the ones who do literal translation because they have not learned the techniques of Translation.”
    Not true. What is called transcreation here is really no more than copywriting based on an original idea. In my own translation work I have done some of this – albeit reluctantly, but in every case I have pointed out to the client that they need to start over. In many cases the original theme just does not come over, or is too culturally specific to the original language.

  10. Ute says:

    “… most clients will want the ‘feel’ of the original text to be maintained.”

    Of course there is also the case where the original message is considered so strong that it does not need to be translated for an international audience. Certain German car manufacturers run ads on Irish TV (and perhaps in other countries too) that end with phrases like “DAS Auto” or “Vorsprung durch Technik”.

  11. Kyoko Atsumi says:

    Dear Mathew,
    I just wanted to leave a little comment on translation.
    “Translators should only ever translate into their mother tongue, regardless of how fluent they are in another language. ”

    I agree with your comment above to some extent. However, when a Japanese document was translated into English by a native English speaker, it is often not translated in a correct sense. Japanese language can be very vague and subtle. You need to read not only between the lines but between words. Only native Japanese speakers can detect the hidden meanings in a word or sentence. For translating Japanese into to English (or any other languages), I think it would bring the best result if a native Japanese speaker with a good command of English (or other languages) translates the document and a native speaker of the target language proofreads the translation.

    Please do not get offended. It is not criticism. It’s just something I noticed from my experience.

    Kind regards,
    Kyoko Atsumi

  12. In 2011 I came to what is called as transcreation.
    In general we learn many things during all our life in order to adapt to the markets. And I think that here one must not classify the translators. For more than 10 years I have been working as the translator of various subjects from technical up to financial having linguist’s higher education and then graduated from MBA in Economy, Finance and Marketing, but we get all interesting experience with our web customers, who require the newer and newer solutions. What I am doing at the moment it is called SEO translation and the term of transcreation I have heard recently. Maybe SEO translation can be a subcategory of transcreation. I learned all things that are connected with web analytics and SEO copywriting. And it is very interesting to observe, how your translated text is not only present statically on the website, but it attracts customers in search engines! That was awesome for me for the first time. Apart from being creative you schould learn and know principles of websites promotion and it opens many new niches for you as a translator. Your work adds value to each website and it is a real ”bread” for translators on the one hand and on the other hand it is a higher step in the language services in such language improvisations, and this work adds to your own linguistic value.

  13. Great post and interesting comments. I would add that the reason we need a term like “transcreation” is not for ourselves, but to better communicate to clients that not all translations are equal. Even more importantly, it is important to talk the client through the aspects of the source material that often cannot be translated, such as wordplay (puns, rhymes, alliteration, etc.), cultural references unknown in the target market (local foods, clothing, music, films, celebrities, TV characters, etc.) and familiar idioms. It is rare for a client to understand these difficulties without them being explicitly pointed out.

    Of course, this is where you run into the budget issues Guy mentioned above.

  14. Iveta Kopankina says:

    In my view a flat rate for each transcreation project is a good idea, taking into account that possibly there is more to it than just being a professional translator, it is still better if the person has relevant education also in psychology, cross-cultural communication, marketing, etc. The list might include more things than that. However, and here comes the interesting part, how to negotiate the price? Any ideas as to how this will work best with the client? Specifically, how to make the client recognize that the professional’s work is an asset and the professional should not receive peanuts in response? I have had very bad experience with local Latvian managers, some of them ruin their own reputation by publishing faulty texts on websites, in marketing materials and so on. When the consequences set in they just say they do not have time for the whole thing, a student did everything for much less, etc. Sometimes it seems that they simply do not want to know what they are doing to their own reputation.

  15. ulatus says:

    I completely agree to this, Language translation companies must strictly adhere to this principle.

    “Translators should only ever translate into their mother tongue, regardless of how fluent they are in another language. This ensures that the linguistic nuances of their native language are respected.”

  16. Very well said! I totally agree!

  17. Sergio says:

    Transcreation knows that good marketing copy is more than a series of words intended to convey information. Good marketing copy must establish trust. It must convey empathy and convince the target that the voice behind the words understands their unique situation. It should be full of emotion, nuance and colloquialism that cannot be translated directly. All that creates a challenge when branding across borders.

  18. Nadja says:

    I like your post. I am just missing a few more details about the visual part of transcreation. From our perspective, transcreation is not just about the linguistic part. The visual context plays a major role in the entire transcreation process. All too often tag lines or other creative content make us of idioms and puns that also refer to the visual context. So, dropping certain words from the idiom during transcreation for the sake linguistic requirements might not be an option if we lose reference to an image. This is where the true art of transcreation begins. Conveying the same message with the same impact whilst considering the visual context. Sometimes we might even have to change a visual if it would not work in the target market for cultural reasons. If we are talking about a 30 second TV ad we stumble across an extra layer of complexity, i.e. length restrictions and synchronicity. As transcreation specialists we have to consider all media and production disciplines involved in the international roll-out of a marketing campaign, we have to look at the end product (claim, print ad, billboard, cinema ad) and make sure that the local versions we produce stay true to the global message and the client’s brand image whilst resonating with the local target audience. And we will have to make sure that our transcreation can be used across all required media and contexts. This entails a lot more than bringing a written message across. We need to keep the client’s need of a consistent global campaign in mind and still deliver local versions that will trigger the desired reactions with the consumers within the respective media.


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