The language, or the message… Why not both?

I’ve just read an opinion piece on transcreation by Steve Puttock of Schawk, Inc. in the PopSop brand magazine.

The article begins:

The global marketplace is providing businesses with fantastic opportunities but also, inevitably, moving into new markets can cause headaches! One area for particular concern is around the creation of international advertising and marketing campaigns. For the sake of efficiency, it makes sense to create a master campaign that can then be adapted and deployed across local markets. […]

The key to getting this right is to think in terms of ‘transcreation’ rather than translation. This means looking far beyond changing the words of your campaign into different languages. Instead, you need to reinvent, or ‘transcreate’, the campaign’s key messages to take into account the nuances of the language and culture of each country/region you are in. This is essential if you want to ensure your message connects with your target audience—whilst still keeping the integrity of the master campaign.

To do this, the article suggests that companies should:

Use copywriters, not translators. Translators will get the language right word for word, but you need a multilingual copywriter to understand how to get the message across in the right way. [the emphasis is mine]

This last sentence raised my hackles a bit. Good translators would say their job is all about getting the message across in the right way. But maybe Mr. Puttock has never worked with good translators.

Transcreation does require special skills and not all translators will be good at it. But some are experts in the field and possess both copywriting and translation skills. Percy Balemans illustrated this beautifully at her transcreation workshop at the ITI Conference in May 2011. In Percy’s words:

I chose to become a translator because I enjoy being creative with language and juggling with words in order to convey the same message in a different language and against a different cultural background.”

And I wonder how many multilingual copywriters there are — surely the best solution is for client, copywriter and translator to work together?

I’d love to know what you think about this, translators, copywriters and readers.

Note: PopSop’s introduction to the opinion piece states that You are welcome to share your thoughts on this article but I couldn’t find anywhere to leave a comment, hence this post.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more Marian. I often get asked to “correct” marketing material sent back to an agency by a client who isn’t happy and I basically end up rewriting it. However, this confidence to move far enough away from the words on the page to get a marketing “buzz” whilst retaining the original meaning comes with experience. A good creative translator can do this and I’m sure every creative translator has his/her own method (I wouldn’t like to share mine on a forum 🙂
    I was so sorry to miss Percy Balemans’ talk at the festival.

    1. Absolutely agree, Marian. Someone who gets “the language right word for word” is not a translator, because that is not what translating is about, regardless of your area of specialisation. After all, who would want a technical text that is translated “word for word”? 😉

      Allison: yes, I think it’s all about confidence to let go of the source text and I agree that this comes with experience.

      I tend to call myself a “creative translator” by the way.

  2. I’m also in complete agreement with you, Marian. In fact the comments made in the article seem quite insulting to good translators. As a literary translator, I like to think what I do is an act of transcreation — I do a lot more than just get the words right!

    While I acknowledge that not every translator will make a good marketing translator (or any other specialty, for that matter), those who do work in this field are in fact “multilingual copywriters”. But why the need to always call a good translator something other than just “translator”? Perhaps to distinguish from what it is others perceive we do? I’m not sure.

    Great discussion! I brought the topic up on my own blog not that long ago so it seems to be on many of our minds. 😉

  3. Interesting post, Marian. I can see why your hackles were raised.

    Steve Puttock’s article seems to reflect the common perception that a translator is simply someone who owns a ‘good dictionary’ (whatever that might be).

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments from intralingo and Alison Hughs. “Creative translators” and “multilingual copywriters” are the same thing.

  4. Indeed Marian, it’s likely that Mr Puttock has never worked with good translators i.e. those who ask all the right questions when doing a piece of transcreation (what type of music will be playing in the background to this radio ad? Any other sound effects?)

    Mr Puttock is right, there is much more to transcreation than simply translation but he is rather short-sighted in dismissing translators and perpetuating the “word for word” perception we fight so hard against.

    In my experience, it is often the end client and sometimes the copywriter who is not aware of what transcreation entails. Same end client is then amazed, followed by grateful, for all the questions asked and the reputation saved by the one professional translator who knew what s/he was doing! Like this French translator I know 😉 who yesterday suggested that potential sexual connotations in a French advert for hotels may not be such a great idea right now!

    You’re so right, the best way is through collaboration and communication between all involved.

  5. Thanks to all for your comments – I think I’ve hit a nerve here!

    Like Lisa, I found Steve Puttock’s comments a tad insulting. I’m trying to contact him to put our collective message to him directly.

  6. A very interesting post, Marian! I’m a copywriter who’s currently learning more about translation (Spanish>English) to be able to add another layer of understanding to my ‘usual’ work. I have a massive respect for translators and have a long way to go before I can call myself one!

    But copywriting and translation has always seemed to me a natural fit, and I completely agree that working together is the way forward! Combining our individual valuable skills to create one great piece of communication.

  7. I’m pleased to see that my comments have stimulated such passion on the subject!
    To put my article in context, I am aware that there are indeed good translators out there who have the skills & experience to transcreate copy very successfully.

    For a global brand to transcreate an advertising campaign across regions & countries many with multi-dialects I would advocate the use of a professional network that has copywriters in place in country. For who better to understand and advise the client what will connect and be impactful to the intended audience.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I didn’t like having this discussion “behind your back”, so to speak, so I’m glad you’ve chipped in. It’s very brave of you to risk a verbal biffing on the nose from a bunch of seriously miffed translators.
      I think copywriters and translators both have their place in the process. As Helen Baker put it in her comment, “Combining our individual valuable skills to create one great piece of communication”.

    2. re: in place in country. For who better to understand and advise the client what will connect and be impactful to the intended audience.

      I don’t wish to be too controversial but this part of your post to me– as a native English speaker- contains some contentious issues-
      1. in place in country -I think this lacks a pronoun or two
      2. Impactful- does not to my knowledge exist– I understand what you are trying to say but the word is an invention – – and I understand the idea that language is an evolving entity but nevertheless . . .

      yours , a linguistic fascist,

  8. Lots of good food for thought here. You are right — not all translators are the right linguists for creative-type translations/transcreation projects. There are, however, many outstanding colleagues who specialize in the creative fields. I happen to be both translator and copywriter, and I’d say the colleagues who have focused in the marketing/advertising fields are usually the right folks to work on these projects. On the other hand, many translators wouldn’t touch these fields with a ten-foot pole, and it’s good to know that we don’t all excel in the same areas. And of course I could not agree more: there’s no such thing as a good word-for-word translation. 😉

    @Percy: love the “creative translator” description.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Judy.
      We all need to work out what we enjoy doing, and what we’re good at — hopefully the two will coincide! I get job satisfaction out of grappling with Italian “bureaucratese” and turning it into much more readable English but loathe technical translations, for example. It does indeed take all sorts.

  9. A lot of the times it is meaning for meaning, not word for word, particularly when localizing and translating cross-culture.

  10. A very interesting discussion. We are Ger-to-Eng translators/copywriters and when recruiting, we look first and foremost for outstanding English writing skills. Much of our work involves transforming rather dull source text into interesting, readable English (without going overboard). We are also famous for asking searching questions about the accuracy and logic of the source text. All part of the job, to our way of thinking.

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