The Art of Translation

The art of translation covers the fusion of technical accuracy and creative messaging. Admittedly, it’s strange to see ‘art’ combined with translation that strives for factual accuracy and meaning over anything else. But through art, we strive to reveal deeper meanings beyond our literal reality, and in many ways, great translation does the very same. Both are master crafts that require a high degree of technical skill and human insight.

Our blog post will explain why and when translation becomes a creative process. We will look at 5 key creative translation practices to follow:

  • A highly specialised skill set required
  • Creative translators live and breathe the target market
  • In-depth research skills
  • Working with translation tools
  • The collaborative work plan

Transcreation: The creative art of delivering a consistent concept and message around the world

Of course, transcreation is no ChatGPT in terms of current buzzwords. But it’s interesting that this combination of translation + creation first slipped into mainstream use in the sixties when marketing and advertising wanted to connect with a global market. That in itself explains what the art of translation is about. Advertising aims to make an emotional connection, persuading people to feel a certain way. Word-for-word translation is not enough. It needs more. And the art of translation, or: transcreation has exactly that same goal today.

Transcreation can be described as conveying a concept rather than just words. The words might have to be adapted or even changed in the new target language translation. The original concept has to be clearly understood by a different culture. The process sometimes involves creating entirely new content because a literal translation might be misunderstood or cause offence. The translation is instead adapted in voice and tone to comply with the target market’s expectations and norms in terms of culture, customs, sayings and sensitivities. It is more akin to copywriting, from where the term originated.

Most importantly, the original intention of the message must be upheld. The messenger ideally wants global audiences everywhere to all have the same response to it, wherever they are. No wonder the term was first adopted by marketing and advertising agencies wanting to ‘capture people’s hearts’ over minds.

Localisation is, of course, a major part of transcreation but is specifically related to adapting to different cultures. Transcreation on the other hand has to be used when certain slogans, taglines or even products simply cannot be translated into anything like the same meaning. That is where the creative translator/copywriter steps in to find another way of conveying the concept but always guided by the original intent behind the text. Transcreation is not as unstable as it sounds. The stability is in the concept and intent remains unchanged.

And the technological revolution of digital communications around the world has made it more important than ever. Global brands have to provide different language options for their websites, social media, international e-learning platforms and gaming, and video subtitles expressing the appropriate emotions. A reported 85% of Facebook users watch videos without sound.

Meanwhile, consumers today expect a more personalised and engaged conversational experience, and progressive companies want nothing more than to engage with their target clients around the world. US News uses a scorecard that includes future growth. They ranked interpreters and translators as sixth in their Best Creative and Media Jobs list. A 2023 Association of Translation Companies (ATC) report found for the first time that all of the 64 UK language service companies surveyed now offer translation, while 60% offer more specialised transcreation, up 6% in 2022.

Creative practice 1: A highly specialised skill set required

Many transcreation skills apply to all levels of translation. Providers will often have industry-specific knowledge ranging from pharmaceuticals to food. They need to be able to understand the original message. Successfully translating can require specialist copywriting skills, and a good understanding of marketing and advertising. They need to understand the objectives of the client’s global marketing campaign and be able to tailor the message to their local market so those outcomes can be achieved. It has been said that a translator translates from one language to another, while a linguistic copywriter transforms content from one culture to another.

Writing skills and attention to detail in the target language are given. The classic “let’s eat, grandma” and “let’s eat grandma” shows the consequences of a tiny lapse in punctuation.

An example of going up against AI demonstrates the true art of creative translation. AI can translate but is as yet unable to understand layered, nuanced copy that needs to evoke feeling and provoke a reaction. Instructions and particulars of language and culture were entered into the system to see how AI fared. The onomatopoeic effect of ‘sizzle’ as a cooking headline was reproduced in Simplified Chinese as requested, but unfortunately with the sound of a snake’s hiss. AI was eventually able to produce the same effect with some human coaxing.

However, the transcreation process became more sophisticated when AI translated the golden, buttery image of the food into a ‘golden stone’ in Chinese. The human translator took a different approach. They recognised straightaway that culturally, Chinese marketing prefers a more direct tone outlining product benefits. They knew to introduce the concept of the intricacies of cooking earlier in the piece and were able to maintain that sentiment and feel through the rest of the copy.

Idioms are perhaps the most obvious example demonstrating the translator’s knowledge. They will typically recognise that an idiom in one language can actually match the meaning of a differently worded idiom in another. Ich habe Hummel im Hinterm literally means ‘I have bumble bees in the bottom’, but “I’ve got ants in my pants” conveys the same meaning.

Getting over the idiom hurdle might entail coming up with a completely different idiom that still conveys the same meaning. The sentiment behind ‘a leopard can’t change its spots” is conveyed better by “chassez le naturel, il gallop” or “chase away the natural, and it returns at a gallop” than any non-sensical literal attempt.

There are numerous examples of translation gaffs but they also illustrate the depth of cultural knowledge and attention to detail that is required. After all, major corporations have been caught out by the smallest oversight resulting in a wild deviation from the original message. The results can be having to suffer reputational damage, or even exiting the proposed new target market. KFC was lucky to survive its “finger-licking good” campaign in China when it was translated to “eat your fingers off”.

Even brand names are not necessarily a safe bet. Mercedes-Benz’s Benzi brand translated to “rush to die” in Chinese.

And unchecked imagery can be just as disastrous. Gerber baby food was launched with a baby on the label. The company had been unaware that picture labels were used to display the contents of jars in certain countries where a vast amount of the population is illiterate.

Creative practice 2: Creative translators live and breathe the target market

It is not enough to be proficient in both the source and new target language while translating from the other side of the world. Transcreation should be provided by someone who was born into and thinks in the target language. They should be living amongst the target audience, immersed in the local culture and context of the target language. The language service provider should ideally have a global network of certified linguists.

Even the nuances of how other cultures react to foreign languages is something that only a skilled local translator will detect. Companies like Apple are so world-famous that they sometimes retain their English slogans when advertising abroad. McDonalds’ “I’m Lovin’ It” had mixed results, but a 2022 study on advertising in Russia concluded that some chose to retain phrases in the original English because the “foreign” element of certain brands indicated to the target culture that the product was of high quality and world-famous.

Creative practice 3: In-depth research skills

A good transcreation provider will understand how to resonate with the target market. They will also be aware of local advertising regulations, media and other relevant local legislation such as privacy laws and content restrictions.

Translators have historically been up against distrust of creative licence. Don Bartlett, translator of Nordic noir authors like Jo Nesbø, recalls publishers telling him that translations of fiction just don’t sell. The public did not trust them. But starting in the nineties, and coinciding with the internet opening up the world, the current UK appetite and explosion of world literature in the UK has since proved that theory wrong.

Some translators are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to conduct research. Bartlett hopped over to Oslo to climb a hill in snow or fog to be able to describe the literal translation of Nesbø’s, “ski mast”’. He had had no idea what a “ski mast” looked like.

Unfortunately, translating in-flight travel magazines is not as glamorous as it sounds. The translator does not typically accompany the travel writer to sample the destinations, yet the translation can be anything but straightforward. The Spanish description of Spanish trees and rock formations needs to match what the visitor sees at that location. A straight English translation could present a completely inaccurate scene. After all, montaña in Spanish might just be a gentle hill. Describing the scene accurately required extensive research of detailed maps, website photos and even social media comments.

Creative practice 4: Working with translation tools

Translation project managers are currently one of the most in-demand roles in the language services industry, and for good reason. Language provider project managers will have the most up-to-date knowledge on whether AI processes, LLMs and Machine Translation (MT) can speed up or initially help the process. For example, using Translation Memory (TM) style guides and glossaries learnt from previous translations can help businesses preserve their brand’s voice and tone across multiple markets. Tools can also be useful in localising search engine optimisation, hashtags and being aware of local search terms when translating for digital marketing campaigns.

Creative practice 5: The collaborative workplan

Transcreation involves close collaboration with the client to maintain that all-important alignment of messaging. The provider’s project manager will assemble an expert team in the target market locations. They need to oversee the process through the various workflow stages:

Decide on content, images and delivery platform: It is important for planning and budgeting to understand what translation services are required. High-impact content needs to be polished and refined, while social listening might just require machine translation to understand the gist. Any transcreation process will be influenced by the content’s distribution channels, whether in print of over mobile devices. That will also determine if images, designs or colours need to be localised to avoid being offensive to some local markets.

Define the objective: The impact of the message is expected to be the same across cultures. Understanding it is critical to know how it can be re-engineered to initiate the same response from each new location. Put simply, the process is the alignment between objective and adaptation.

From the beginning, the language service provider and the client have to work towards a common goal: the desired user experience. Transcreation requires re-engineering of the content. The process doesn’t start from a source-language file to translate. Instead, it begins with a brief that gives pointers on what needs to be achieved when the target language is delivered. It might entail a complete change of tone, style and structure.

Ensure consistency: The creative translator has to understand the tone of the brand voice which needs to remain consistent across markets. Questions and feedback between provider and client should be encouraged to ensure it stays on track.

Proofread, edit, test and review: This part of the process might entail a second linguist and editor, A/B testing and review for improvements.

Back-translation: This can be used to show a verbatim translation back into the source language, explaining to the client exactly what is being conveyed to the target market and the rationale behind it.

Quality control: Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and tests can identify potential issues. A digital campaign can easily provide data analytics to evaluate messaging outcomes. Always use a provider with a robust quality assurance (QA) process. Linguistic Sign-Off (LSO) should be offered on the final text and redesigned format above and beyond routine QA.

The art of translation summary

The number of different types of translation stretches out to a long list of terms, direct and paraphrasing being just two examples. We have zoomed in on transcreation here because it requires the most skill and in-depth knowledge. It needs the most human input in the translation spectrum spanning from MT through to transcreation. The fact remains that many of those transcreation skills are regularly applied to any form of translation. Medical, technological and certified legal documents obviously cannot embrace completely new content, but there is a lot to learn and apply from transcreation best practices. Some even argue that every good translation is an act of transcreation.

The art of translation: Next steps

Participate in online translators’ groups such as ProZ.com to brainstorm translation issues.

Research the best-qualified translation service providers. For example, ATC/EUATC members have undergone background, financial, operational and quality assurance checks while following a Code of Professional Conduct. ISO 9001 certification will ensure that their Quality Management System (QMS) is monitored.

To explore your translation and localisation options further, contact Global Lingo for a free consultation via telephone, email or online.

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