5 Tales of Transcreation

To date, there has been little headway on proposals for a Schengen zone for jokes. The sad reality is that along with idioms and cultural references, they are nefariously bad travellers. How, then, can we get our content to resonate across cultures? Here we introduce the noble craft of transcreation.

1) The History of Transcreation

Google suggests that this is just the sixth time that those words have been put together in that order online. Which suggests the history of transcreation might be a short one.

Translation has a tradition stretching back millennia. And in the scholarly figure of Jerome, they have their own patron saint. Transcreation rarely even features in official dictionaries, and its earliest recorded use, at a push, came in the marketing-speak of the 1960s. It’s fair to assume that whatever this mysterious thing *is*, it is an offshoot of translation and its associated professions.

It is a term that was almost certainly not coined by actual translators. It was first used with reference to the translation of creative ad copy. By the 1990s it had been fully adopted into the jargon of ad agencies to distinguish it from ‘normal’ translation services. “Creative Translation” – the implication being that it is a translation with added value. Within this world at least, it has become a mainstream term.

In a way, the history of the term is less significant than the concept itself, which seems universally recognised and timeless. Take this verse of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792-1822) floweriest language, the final line of which sums up the concept.

“It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible

that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour,

As seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.

The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower.”New word, old idea.

In sum: ideas and feelings get lost in translation, and people have known that forever. To overcome this problem, you must create something new in its stead.

2) Meanings of Transcreation

The pseudonyms that transcreation goes by are telling: “creative translation”, “international copy adaptation” and “free-style translation” all make the picture clearer.

The purpose of transcreation is to carry the intent, style, and tone of a message across cultural barriers, with particular attention paid to maintaining the emotional reaction it creates. Because of this, it goes beyond just appropriately translating linguistic messages – visual ones must often be ‘translated’ too.

A lot of basic translation theory is couched in terms of the opposition between metaphrasis (word-for-word or literal translations) and paraphrasis (recasting the same idea in a different form). People are often trained not to translate too freely. But in some cases that freedom is your only chance of making the content resonate in translation.

It is really a question of the details contained in the mission brief. There are projects where a poker-faced translation that transmits details in a teutonically efficient way is the only safe way to go. And other cases where the spark and atmosphere of the text must be maintained at all costs. What is sure is that with transcreation, fidelity to the text is always secondary to the elicitation of the same responses.

The reality is that the majority of translation jobs are quite prosaic in their content. Demand dictates the jobs that translators undertake, so rather than doing leisurely translations of James Joyce into obscure dialects, translators are more likely to spend their time wrestling with hydraulics manuals and kitchen appliance brochures.

The jobs that typically require transcreation are those which are designed to leave an emotional mark or spur people to action. Examples of these are web campaigns in new countries, ads that are designed around humour and wordplay, and products that are meant to appeal to different demographics within a single market.

The key to a transcreation job is the mission brief. There must be a clear vision of what identity and what message should be transmitted. It is far better to begin with a specific brand promise and then work towards an evocative strapline, than to translate the original strapline and hope that it corresponds to your brand’s identity.

3) Neglecting Transcreation

The value of transcreation to your business becomes obvious when you glance at the Hall of Shame of companies who decided not to concern themselves with the cultural sensibilities of their target market. Puma experienced the pitfalls of poor awareness when in 2011, they launched a shoe to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates.

The product provoked a furious response. Putting the country’s flag on the shoe was perceived as trivialising and disrespectful – shoes touch both the feet and the ground, and so are considered very dirty in that culture. If you want to build brand loyalty, it’s advisable not to disgrace the symbol of their nation.

Transcreation clearly goes beyond language. Even the most carefully worded campaign can fall flat when the imagery isn’t vetted for its cultural sensibility. For example, in the 1970s, Pampers Nappies had a successful campaign which used the image of the stork. In western cultures, there is a strong association because of the legend where the stork delivers babies to expectant parents. However, when launching in Japan, the firm tried to use the same recipe, and were met with a mystified Japanese public rather than commercial success. The market research of some good transcreators could have saved them: there is an analogous Japanese legend in which babies are delivered to parents on giant peaches that are ferried down rivers and streams. This tiny tweak in imagery would have cost little and resonated greatly with consumers appreciative of Pampers’ cultural effort. They would have reaped the benefits without the embarrassment of rebranding.

4) Abject Failures of Transcreation

Is blind negligence worse than making a concerted effort and still messing up? Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a firm that wasn’t savvy to the value of carefully crafted variations in international ad campaigns. Yet clownishly awful mistakes still occur. From the smartphone-stoneage of 2005, we introduce the Motorola Q.

Motorola knew the importance of a good strapline, so when it was released in French Canada, they tried to invest wisely. The results were the catchy rhyme ‘C’est important pour vous, c’est important pour votre Q.’ (‘It’s important for you, it’s important for your Q’) and the bold proclamation ‘Mon Q. L’intelligence renouvelée.’ (‘My Q. Renewed Intelligence.’)

This was all fine and dandy until an actual French speaker heard them. It transpired that the pronunciation of the letter ‘Q’ in French was rather too much like a rude word meaning ‘bottom’. Substitute that (or any synonym you like) into the slogans above, and you can imagine what happened.

By the same token, advertisers can sometimes be too keen to chop and change when leaving something as it was would be best. The German car manufacturer Volkswagen is hardly the flavour of the month after their emissions rigging scandal, but this story shows they are no strangers to PR disasters.

VW uses its ‘Das Auto’ strapline in many countries, keeping the foreign language element which successfully plays on Germany’s reputation for quality manufacturing.

But in fact, the VW Beetle was for many decades made in Brazil. The Brazilians were quite fond of its status in their country, to the point that it was considered an ‘honorary Brazilian’. It had a long-standing Portuguese slogan that reflected this: ‘Você conhece, Você confia’ (‘You know (it), you trust (it)’)

Volkswagen shifted their strategy by trying to replicate the foreign-language success they’d had in other markets with ‘Das Auto’. But by emphasising the car’s foreign design in Brazil, it came off as pretentious and damaged to the bond of recognition and acceptance that the firm had enjoyed for so long.

As ever, the only option was an awkward retraction of the slogan. Curiously, the German line continues to be well received elsewhere, like in a new Russian campaign – which shows just how much good transcreation depends on thorough market research, and repeated trial, failure, and testing.

5) Triumphs of Transcreation

Copy that is foreign in origin needn’t seem foreign to the audience that reads it. One of the most recognisable jingles linked to any product is Haribo’s “Kids and grownups love it so, the happy world of Haribo.” It grates, but it also resonates. It tells you how wide their appeal is. It rhymes. It sticks in your head mercilessly. It’s a good slogan. But this is not, in fact, an originally English phrase. It’s just a spectacular translation of the original German jingle.

To take the phrase and to translate the tone of the message along with the rhyme, metre, and cadence is a rare skill. It is the translation jackpot.

Yet with transcreation, fidelity is not the priority. Accordingly, the best case scenario is not just perfect preservation – it is to actually improve upon the original. A transcreation brief provides the freedom to do this.

One example of transcreation improving a marketing slogan is Proctor & Gamble’s 1999 campaign in Italy for their Swiffer dusting products. The original English phrase was “When Swiffer’s the one, consider it done”. A direct Italian translation would have ruined the flow, and so they came up with “La polvere non dura, perché Swiffer la cattura.” (‘The dust doesn’t linger, because Swiffer catches it.’) This solution not only creates a different rhyme and metre, but it mentions the benefit – eliminating dust – and the way it does this – by catching it – whereas the English original mentions neither of these two elements. This is widely regarded as one of the best ever examples of creative slogan translation.

But there is no better place to end a discussion of creative translation than with the English translations of the Asterix comics. Many might quibble and say that this is translation pure and simple. When Anthea Bell was translating all the puns and nuances within those strips, she certainly wasn’t thinking “I am transcreating”. The difference is academic, but few other examples quite capture the joyous spirit of creative translations that improve upon the originals.

The names of all the characters are puns, many of which can’t be translated – but they can be recreated. The English versions that Bell created were often cleverer than the French names. For instance, the tone-deaf village bard was originally Assurancetourix – a play on ‘assurance tous risques’ – ‘full cover insurance’. In the English, he became Cacofonix, a wordplay on ‘cacophony’. The insalubrious fishmonger was Ordralfabétix, playing on ‘ordre alphabétique’. He became Unhygienix. The French are originals are funny because they are absurd. The English names actually reflect character traits of the characters, and make the cast that much more vivid.

Other name translations hit the nail on the head in most perfect way imaginable. The cantankerous pet dog of the lead character Obelix was called Idéfix, a play on the French phrase ‘une idée fixe’ meaning a stubborn obsession. He became Dogmatix – which is a delightful translation, since Idéfix is indeed a dog, and he is also dogmatic.

Sometimes the translations hint at new nuances in the story that might have been absent in the original – a liberty that a less accomplished translator might not have been afforded. The village druid who distributes the mysterious magic potion that allows a few Gaulish villagers to keep the mighty Roman Empire at bay is called Panoramix in French. This is just a light play on the word Panorama. Bell’s masterstroke was to call him Getafix, thereby suggesting the bearded old man who allowed the Gauls to get their fix was up to something a bit more cheeky with his ‘potion’.

When given artistic license, the linguists you hire can be capable of amazing feats. This creative intelligence can transform the marketing fortunes of your firm in foreign lands. Think globally and act locally; transcreation services can spread your brand’s identity in the exact way that you want.