17 September 2019In Transcreation, Case studies7 Minutes

Superheroes, series, and advertising translation: The Boys case study

From satellite to digital terrestrial, we’ve never had a wider choice of video content. When on demand and streaming platforms came along, we cast aside the shackles of the TV schedule, choosing what we want to watch, when we want to watch it, at the touch of a button. And what could be better than following our favourite characters’ exploits at any given moment, from any device?

There’s no question about it: TV series are having a moment. And ecommerce giant Amazon certainly knows this. Its subscription service Amazon Prime doesn’t just allow its subscribers to smash delivery timings and costs. Among numerous other benefits, they can enjoy its streaming service Amazon Prime Video. It also distributes original Amazon productions including The Boys, which had its world premiere on 26 July 2019. Based on the eponymous comic book series by Garth Ennis, in this series the superheroes subvert our usual expectations. Idolised by the public, their behaviour is beyond reproach when all eyes are upon them. But away from the spotlight, they are guilty of the most horrendous crimes. Luckily, there’s a group of ex-CIA agents (the ‘boys’) to punish them for their misdemeanours.

The advertising campaign for The Boys

Given the enormous success of the comic book The Boys, this was inevitably one of the most hotly anticipated TV series of the year. The advertising campaign for the Amazon Prime Video production launch focused on the image of Homelander – one of the seven corrupt superheroes – accompanied by the headline “Never meet your heroes”. I was hired to create an Italian version of the headline.

As you will undoubtedly know, “Never meet your heroes” is a very common phrase in English, and is often followed by “they’re sure to disappoint you”, “you’ll only be disappointed”, or another similar idea. It’s a warning to be careful about never meeting your idols, because once you do, they’ll just disappoint you. The fantasy will evaporate once you realise that they’re just normal people, warts and all. In The Boys, the “superheroes” are the Seven: superheroes gone bad.

As you can see, there were a lot of considerations before I could even begin to create an Italian version of this headline.

The transcreation challenge

For me, translating advertising copy means transcreating. In other words, producing an advertising or promotional text in Italian inspired by one written in a foreign language (i.e. “Never meet your heroes”), in a way that is appropriate and engaging for an Italian audience. The transcreator needs to judge how far they should move away from the original on a case by case basis: sometimes, a faithful rendition of the original text maintains the impact of the source text. In other cases, the transcreator needs to go in another direction altogether, creating a completely new original. In this specific case, I offered two different options: one which was closer to the original and one which was freer in its interpretation. In my opinion, both worked well, although I can’t lie and say that I didn’t find the second option more compelling!

Although “hero” tends to be translated into Italian as mito (“he’s my hero/è il mio mito”), since The Boys is about superheroes, or supereroi, it made more sense to use the closer Italian word eroi. Nevertheless, there is no Italian equivalent for “Never meet your heroes – they’re sure to disappoint you”. Yet “Mai incontrare i propri eroi” (literally “one should never meet one’s heroes”) felt apt: it sounds like a proverb, a warning, an all-Italian saying. And it hits the sweet spot between concise and evocative. Meeting your heroes could actually be very dangerous, especially if those superheroes rape, murder and pillage.

The other headline I created was further away from the original, but only in appearance. The true meaning is exactly the same. If the superheroes that everyone loves and worships are actually criminals, then they’re not the people we think they are. Perhaps we don’t actually know them that well after all. Therefore, I suggested Conosci davvero i tuoi eroi?” (literally ‘do you really know your heroes?’). This is particularly effective; it is unsettling and puts doubt in the reader’s mind.

Thus, “Conosci davvero i tuoi eroi?” was chosen for the Italian advertising campaign for The Boys.

Transcreation pubblicitaria headline The Boys

The moral of the story

You don’t even need a dictionary to translate “Never meet your heroes” into Italian. Every ten-year-old Italian child knows those four English words.

But to create an advertising translation of the headline “Never meet your heroes” for the launch of the TV series The Boys? You need to know a transcreation superhero. A poor Italian version of this headline could have jeopardised the effectiveness of this campaign, which the client had heavily invested in.

Even if you’re not a big company like Amazon, you should never undervalue your marketing communications and advertising campaigns. The most seemingly simple phrases can hide the thorniest translation traps. And an uninspiring translation could ruin your brand more than you might care to imagine.

If you need to translate advertising and promotional texts, get in touch with a transcreation expert like me.