Lost in Translation? Try Transcreation

Transcreation blog graphic - multi-colored speech bubbles with Hello written in several languages

The shrimp that falls asleep, the stream takes away. That is the English translation of the Spanish idiom, “Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente.” Translated word-for-word, it doesn’t make much sense. But through the practice of transcreation, we can express the same sentiment in English with a more familiar phrase—“You snooze. You lose.”

Transcreation is defined as the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone, and context. The concept of transcreation first surfaced in the mid-20th century in the field of literary translation. Though the origin of the term is debated, Indian scholar Purushottama Lal is credited with coining it in regard contemporary translations of the Sanskrit classics, that “the translator must edit, reconcile, and transmute; his job in many ways becomes largely a matter of transcreation”. The practice has since been adapted for use in the global marketing, advertising, and gaming industries.

While Montage might not be a global firm (yet), we work extensively in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. That, of course, means we must ensure that the marketing and communications we produce are meaningful, appropriate, and actionable across multiple languages. As such, transcreation has become an essential part of our creative practice.

So, what is transcreation, how does it differ from translation, and when should you use it? Today, on National Translation Day, we explore these questions and share insights on our transcreation process.

How do translation and transcreation differ?

Translation is a trade. Both a practice and a profession, translation can be done by one individual with a strong command of two or more languages. It is offered in person (i.e., an interpreter at a conference) and in print (i.e., a user’s manual for a household appliance). Thousands of companies and independent contractors offer translation services with average rates ranging from $30 to $70 per hour.

Transcreation is an approach to translation. Most often employed by marketing, advertising, gaming, technology, and publishing industries, transcreation requires multiple perspectives and reviews to ensure the intended meaning is accurately conveyed. The process often begins with translation before being evaluated and revised.

Translation emphasizes precision. Translators apply a literal interpretation when converting one language into the next. Where possible, this means using the exact same word in both languages, i.e. green (EN) à verde (ES). When a word doesn’t exist in the second language, a translator will opt for the closest possible equivalent.

Transcreation emphasizes meaning. While word-for-word translations are often adequate for relaying common knowledge, a word in one language may not exist in another. If it does, the word may not mean the same thing. The process of transcreation involves first assessing the intended meaning of any text, then identifying the words needed to communicate the message to that effect.

What are the benefits of transcreation?

Let’s revisit our initial example. In Spanish, “Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente” is imparted as wisdom from one generation to the next. Offering the same sentiment verbatim in English only wrinkles foreheads. The advantages of transcreation are obvious in examples like these. But there are many other reasons why it is beneficial.

Words mean different things in different languages. When we first started supporting transcreation for the All of Us Research Program, for example, we immediately realized that the Spanish word for research, “investigación,” sent the wrong message to some audience segments. The word investigación can be associated with policing or crime—neither of which represented the program as intended. So, we knew we needed a different name for Spanish-speaking audiences. We evaluated several options, and ultimately decided to change “research” to “scientific.” Now, as the Programa Científico All of Us, people understand right away that it has to do with science.

Meanings vary even in the same language. At Montage, we primarily conduct Spanish transcreation. But the Spanish language varies significantly depending on the country of origin. Someone whose family is from Cuba may interpret a word or phrase differently than someone from Argentina. Transcreation addresses regional differences and looks to maximize understanding. For a nationwide campaign like All of Us, this means we often go back and forth to achieve the greatest common denominator – the most widely understood meaning of a word or phrase. In other cases, it means adapting language so it speaks directly to a specific audience. For the New York market, we might use phrases common in Dominican and Puerto Rican Spanish. In Los Angeles, Mexican Spanish.

Tone matters. Imagine writing like Shakespeare in a social media post. You wouldn’t do that in English. You shouldn’t do it in Spanish, Russian, or Tagalog either. Most languages, including Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin, have formal and informal variants of the same word. Transcreation accounts for these distinctions and involves identifying and selecting words that carry the appropriate usage, tone, and intention.

Relevance yields results. It’s only natural—we pay more attention to messages intended for us. Ensuring relevance is part and parcel of the transcreation process. It’s an opportunity to think about the purpose of the communication itself and the people receiving it. Transcreation asks: How literate is my audience? What do they already know about this topic? Are there cultural sensitivities I need to account for? Would this message be better delivered by one medium or another? By answering these questions during transcreation, we produce messages that are relevant, resonant, actionable, and effective.

What is the process of transcreation?

Process is the key word here. Transcreation takes time, conversation, and consensus. It’s best conducted by a group of people who share a language but have different perspectives or origins.

Step 1: Translation. We start transcreation with a word-for-word translation of the given text. The translation may be produced by a member of the team or a third-party service. It then serves as a baseline for all transcreators to work from.

Step 2: Review. Members of the transcreation team pour over the translation and flag words, phrases, or sometimes whole paragraphs that don’t convey the desired meaning. Here, we’ll highlight text, add comments, or make notes for further discussion.

Step 3: Conversation. Once each person has had adequate time to review the text, we come together to talk through our findings and red flags. This is a time for honest feedback and healthy debate. We raise what changes we each think need to be made and how to best communicate the intended message. Oftentimes, what makes perfect sense to one team member doesn’t land for another. We go back and forth until…

Step 4: Consensus. Whether we agree or agree to disagree, the goal of the transcreation process is to find consensus. We frequently look for the greatest common denominator—a way of saying something that will make the most sense to the most people. Other times, we go back to the drawing board and make sweeping changes or develop additional framing language.

Step 5: Test. The best way to make sure a communication resonates with people is to let them tell you themselves. We test key messages with audience members. Ask people to relay back the information provided. Is what they say what you want them to know? Onboard their feedback and make any necessary changes.

Step 6: Build a Glossary. This step, while optional, pays dividends. We highly recommend documenting all the agreed upon language in a glossary for future reference. Having a glossary at our fingertips has made our transcreation process smoother, faster, and easier, especially for ongoing projects. It is also useful when communicating brand standards and style guidelines to partners.

The number of U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled since 1990. That’s 67.3 million people whose interest and understanding may be won or lost, literally, in translation. As such, transcreation continues to prove itself the best option to ensure the communications we produce make an impact.

We practice transcreation to help our clients convey meaning, realize relevance, create connection, drive action, and achieve results. If you’re interested in learning more about Montage’s transcreation services, please contact us at info@montagemarketing.flywheelsites.com.

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