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Untranslatable Wordplay

What is transcreation and why the translation of a few simple words sometimes requires a whole team of experts

By Liudmila Nikerova and Igor Linnikov

When faced with a good translation, the reader can effortlessly understand the information presented in the target text. However, the moment he or she has to pay the slightest attention to the translation itself, rather than the meaning it is trying to convey, that is a sure sign that there are problems afoot. This is a somewhat ironic situation — when localization is good, people tend not to recognize it, but when it is bad, it has an immediate impact on a brand’s reputation.

Every year our company holds a competition that attracts up to 1,000 linguists from Russia and neighbouring countries. Last year, one of the translation tasks was to localize the slogan of a fictitious Italian company called Segretti, which read "Best kept secret." The brief stated that the company produces men’s shoes that help them appear taller than they actually are. We knew that a literal translation of the phrase would sound unnatural and that conveying the meaning in a more aesthetically pleasing way would require outstanding creativity on the part of the competitors. One of the contestants came up with the idea of using the image of the famous actor Adriano Celentano with a creative reference to his Italian origins. The resulting transcreation ended up something like “Celentano’s Secret.” In real life, however, the actor is actually 5 foot 10 inches tall, which means he is unlikely to ever need shoes of this kind. We can say for sure that an advert like that would never work.

An inappropriate metaphor, a translation that is too literal, an incorrect communication of the original message — these are but a few of the most common errors that occur when localizing marketing content. So, why is it so hard to translate an advertising slogan that consists of just a couple of words? That is the question we will try to answer on the basis of our own experience. But first, let us give you a little insight into our interpretation of the concept of marketing localization and the most difficult part of this process — transcreation.

The Art of Transcreation

Marketing content localization encompasses a whole range of linguistic activities that facilitate the promotion of a product or service in foreign markets. Modern consumers are overloaded with information and they: a) want to spend as little time as possible reading information; b) are not supposed to be aware of the translation standards to make a successful purchase; and c) spot translation errors instantaneously and respond to them mercilessly. To ensure the target audience receives the intended message, localized materials must sound natural and harmonious to the ear.

When working with promotional leaflets and detailed product descriptions, a linguist has at least a couple of minutes of the reader’s attention to count on. When it comes to slogans, product names, titles, and short advertising messages, every second counts. As a result, the translator’s objectives are to make the text catchy and to ensure it has the same impact on the foreign target audience as the original source text does on the client’s domestic audience.

Transcreation is a process that requires the re-creation of a text with due consideration of the target audience's cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies. In a word, transcreation is not about translating words into words, but about translating ideas into ideas. This involves not only conveying the meaning of a text correctly but also its rhythmic and visual qualities. A linguist not only communicates the idea articulated by another person, but also rethinks the text on a certain meta-level thus becoming co-author of the message.

Transcreation pays close attention to context. If a source text contains cultural references, it is crucial to investigate the meaning of each joke, Internet meme, metaphor, orcharacter name. We once had a project that made reference to "Smokey Bear," an advertising mascot created in the U.S. for a campaign to fight forest fires. Needless to say, this name meant absolutely nothing to the audience in Russia, where wildfire prevention campaigns are limited to rather boring and uninspiring warning signs. So the decision was made to omit the reference to this character in the translation and to use a descriptive structure instead. If there is a lack of context, we often have to carry out web research or ask the client to clarify any ambiguities. On one occasion, we spent about two hours racking our brains over the translation of an emoji emoticon called "Hairy Heart." After surfing the web, consulting our friends on social networks and pestering family members, we finally came to the conclusion that the only solution was to translate this name literally. At the end of the day, this is something they just don’t teach you in college. These are things you have to learn from books, movies, blogs, and people.

This is a Team Game

A transcreator has to be a seasoned professional with a deep and subtle sense of both the source and target languages. It should be taken as read that transcreation takes a lot more time than regular translation. Some types of content like slogans or product names require the expertise of more than one person. They involve a lot of brainstorming, which usually means using a whole team of highly skilled and therefore more expensive experts. Besides, marketing localization cannot be automated. CAT tools break the text down into segments, which prevents the linguist from seeing the whole picture. Also, traditional quality evaluation methods simply don’t apply when it comes to transcreation — it’s much more a matter of personal taste and instinct. So you can tell that transcreation goes beyond common localization industry standards, where low cost and deadlines tend to be the top priorities. This means that a totally different organizational approach is required.

Like most companies, we had to climb many mountains and make a lot of mistakes before we mastered the art of transcreation. Our marketing projects used to be assigned to in-house translators according to their workload, meaning they were done by anyone available at the time. But we have come to realize that not every linguist is good at this kind of task. And at some point, we understood that you cannot treat these kinds of projects in the same way as continuous localization jobs, because sometimes going through the briefs, context and references can take longer than the actual translation itself. Moreover, we learned that marketing localization requires a very specific management strategy and highly developed customer communication skills. This is why, in late 2012, we decided to build a team that would specialize in marketing translation and transcreation.

The team now consists of two in-house linguists (one of them is also the team’s vendor manager), a proofreader and two project managers. The in-house linguists take care of EN>RU translations, while other language pairs are covered by a wide range of external vendors. The latter are carefully tested, trained and monitored by the company and the team’s vendor managers. The project managers are responsible for planning as well as for prompt day-to-day communication with clients. It is their job to find out what the client needs before the project starts, explain how much work is required and why, and be in constant touch with the client in case the linguists have questions about the job in hand.

The time and space to think about the consumer

We are located in Siberia, which is about as far away as you can get from almost everywhere. Sometimes, due to regional time differences, we aren't able to reach our customers immediately. When we start our working day, folks in New York are usually just about to go to bed. In cases like these, we always try to think three steps ahead. And in order to better understand what really drives consumers to buy things, we put ourselves in their shoes. This helps a lot because we are a part of the same consumer environment and we do use most of the products and services that we transcreate. This approach can be tricky though — you have to constantly repeat the mantra that what is paramount is not the linguist’s personal opinion but the customer’s goals and requirements. And this is exactly where the ability to tap into common sense is so priceless!

Incidentally, for the curious among you, the winning transcreation of the fictitious Italian shoe slogan was: “Top Segretti.” As smooth as that! Some of our male judges were so taken with it that they even admitted some regret that they were too tall to be a target audience for the shoes!


Liudmila Nikerova is a translator, reviewer and vendor manager in the Palex Business Translation team. Liudmila joined the company in the spring of 2011. Initially she worked on all kinds of projects, but now she focuses on marketing content localization. Liudmila has a degree in computer science and economics. She also spent almost a year in the U.S. during her student years and says that this experience has helped her work enormously.

Igor Linnikov is a translator and editor in the Palex Business Translation team. Igor joined Palex in the spring of 2012 after winning 3rd place in the company’s translator competition before then. Having initially worked on a broad range of projects, his main field of expertise is now marketing localization. Igor has a degree in international relations and considerable experience in freelance translation and interpretation, along with some journalism training and experience. He is also an active member of the Tomsk and Siberian Flying Disc (aka Ultimate Frisbee) community.

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