13 November 2023In Copywriting, Transcreation10 Minutes

Quality in copywriting and transcreation

Take a piece of promotional copy (a newsletter, a brochure) or advertising copy (a billboard, a TV commercial).

This might be a piece of copy created from scratch (copywriting) or adapted from copy originally written in a different language (transcreation).

How can you tell if that copy is any good?

Do we have objective criteria to assess it, or is it just a question of personal taste?

This is the topic Sarah Fasoli explored in her final dissertation for her MA in Audiovisual Translation at the University of Roehampton. Her work “Evaluating transcreation quality in the advertising industry: An empirical comparative analysis with copywriting” won the university’s Gerhard Weiler prize for best overall performance.

Quality criteria for copywriting and transcreation

Fasoli starts with the assumption that transcreation is a hybrid service halfway between translation and copywriting, like I wrote in this paper published on JoSTrans in 2018. However, while most academic research has studied transcreation from the perspective of translation, Fasoli aimed to investigate transcreation quality through a comparative analysis with copywriting.

Based on what emerged in the thematic analysis, Fasoli identified six quality evaluation criteria that apply to both copywriting and transcreation:

  1. Accuracy: the copy must have no grammar or syntax errors and must fulfil certain “technical” requirements (e.g., for digital marketing copy, it should not exceed a certain number of characters).
  1. Adherence to the brief: the copy must be on-brief, e.g. it should convey the right message.
  1. Fitness for purpose: the copy must achieve the desired goal.
  1. Target audience: the copy must be suitable for the people it’s intended for.
  1. Brand personality: the copy must reflect the brand’s style and tone of voice.
  1. Rationale: the copy must be accompanied by an explanation of the reasoning behind it.

Fasoli then interviewed nine people — four for copywriting and five for transcreation — who work in companies and translation or transcreation agencies respectively.

Main findings of the research

  • Only participants from the transcreation group acknowledged rationale as a tool to evaluate quality. Yet it should be noted that the copywriters interviewed for this research all work in-house. It is safe to assume that, when developing an advertising campaign, creative agencies do provide multiple options and explain them with a well-thought-out rationale.
  • Copywriting places more emphasis on brand personality than transcreation does. For the copywriting professionals, respecting tone of voice guidelines and brand principles is paramount. In transcreation, because of cultural differences in communication and advertising, this aspect may be more complex to identify.
  • Transcreation participants referred to the target audience as a quality criterion more often than copywriting interviewees. This result is due to the fact that brands operating in a single country, which was the case for three out of four copywriting interviewees, may invest less in targeting their content to their diverse audiences.
  • Interviewees from both industries referred to adherence to the brief as an important evaluation criterion, although some contrasting perspectives emerged in this regard. For transcreation interviewees, the more detailed the brief, the better. Otherwise, they end up having to search for additional information themselves. For copywriting interviewees (like I said, mostly working in-house), an over-detailed brief may stifle their creativity.

So, everything can be assessed objectively using well-defined criteria?

Not quite.

A great deal of subjectivity emerged from Fasoli’s interview, most notably in the way copywriters convey brand personality. This criterion depends on how they interpret the guidelines, their writing style and their idiolect. According to Fasoli, providing a localised brand guide could be a useful way to assess the “brand personality” criterion and objectively evaluate the transcreation quality. Nevertheless, although both copywriting and transcreation is writing for a brand, the copywriter and the transcreator’s individual styles will never disappear.

My two cents as a copywriter and transcreation expert

Working both as a copywriter and a transcreation expert, I wondered whether Fasoli’s research findings matched my own experience. Here are my instinctive reactions.

Accuracy: in the JoSTrans paper I wrote that in transcreation you sometimes “break the rules” (grammar rules, syntax rules, terminology rules) which you wouldn’t break in other translation sectors.

  • I highly doubt that, in the law sector, one would write a dependent clause without a main clause, like L’Oréal’s famous “Because you’re worth it”.
  • I also doubt that, once again in the law sector, “selling” and “putting on for sale” would be regarded as synonyms… and yet, for an advertising tagline, I chose to render Vinted’s “Don’t wear it? Sell it!” as the Italian equivalent of “Don’t put it on? Put it on sale!”.
  • I doubt even more strongly that, in finance, one would write “In-vesti meglio”, like I did when I transcreated a newsletter for Banana Republic (the explanation for non-Italian speakers is in this blog post).

The reason is obvious: advertising copy can afford more “poetic licence” than texts in other sectors, and this inevitably affects transcreation. But if by “accuracy” we mean writing “I is” or “your welcome”, well, this is a problem both in copywriting and in transcreation.

Adherence to the brief: it’s a key criterion, but I still remember a client who, after receiving a few transcreation options from me, asked me to explore routes that were clearly off-brief. I wonder if this has ever happened to other fellow transcreators?

Fitness for purpose: I find it hard to believe this evaluation criterion truly is objective. Who’s to say my work is fit for purpose? On what grounds? I suspect a certain degree of subjectivity comes into play.

Target audience: as far as I know, my copywriting or transcreation work is not tested in focus groups. Maybe A/B tests are performed for my newsletters, but I don’t really know.

Brand personality: I fully agree with the findings of Fasoli’s research. In my experience, brand personality matters more in copywriting than in transcreation. And both copywriters and clients have their own way of interpreting brand guidelines (when they exist!).

Rationale: in general, it seems to me that both my copywriting and transcreation clients are eager to know why I made certain choices. However, if they don’t like my work for whatever reason, I’m not sure explaining my rationale can change their minds. And – alas! – they may not like my proposed copy even if I respect the brief, take into account both target audience and brand personality, don’t make any grammar mistakes and believe I produced a text that’s fit for purpose. In other words, clients may not like a piece of copy for totally subjective reasons.

Many years ago, I dreamed of researching quality evaluation in transcreation with a PhD at the University of Roehampton. When I found out this would require a full-time commitment over three years, I felt I shouldn’t even submit my application… this is why I’m chuffed to bits that Sarah Fasoli set out to explore this topic and produced such a brilliant dissertation at my favourite university.

As a practitioner, I think that proposing a common evaluation model for both copywriting and transcreation makes a lot of sense. And interviewing practitioners, although small in number, does help reduce the gap between academia and the real world.

However, I still feel that subjectivity and personal taste play a more important role than Fasoli’s research suggested.

So here’s hoping we can all work with clients who like the way we think and write. In other words, clients who are on our wavelength. If this is not the case, no objective criteria will come to our rescue and we should all be prepared for endless rounds of revisions!

Need copywriting or transcreation services and want to see if we’re on the same wavelength? Read my other blog posts about copywriting and transcreation and don’t forget to check out my portfolio.