15 October 2019In Transcreation13 Minutes

Transcreation: translation and copywriting combined

Transcreation sits at the intersection of translation and copywriting

As a transcreation expert, I argue that the transcreation of advertisements is a mixture of translation and copywriting. It takes a translator to fully understand the meaning of source-language copy as well as its cultural implications. But it takes a copywriter to write marketing and advertising copy that is unique in its wording, true to a brand’s tone of voice and impactful on the target-language audience. Combine both professions and you get a real transcreation specialist.

As a matter of fact, in transcreation I write copy in my own language (Italian) based on copy provided to me in a foreign language (English or German). I said write because, more often than not, I have no other choice but to re-create the copy if I feel that a straightforward rendition wouldn’t make sense in Italian or would not be the most effective way to convey the original message. While I’m aware that a lot of people simply call it ‘creative translation’, ‘marketing translation’ or ‘advertising translation’, I regard such labels as somewhat reductive, not to mention potentially misleading.

In 2018 I was invited to present on transcreation at the Translating Europe Workshop titled “Specialized translation, interpretation and creativity: skills, tools, approaches” which took place in Rome. Organised by Directorate-General for Translation representatives in the EU Member States, often in cooperation with universities of the European Master’s in Translation, the workshops are part of the Translating Europe project, created to bring together translation stakeholders in Europe. At this event, I showed a few examples taken from my own professional experience to prove that transcreation sits at the intersection of translation and copywriting.
Despite a few technical hiccups, I think I managed to drive the point home!

Click on the video below to watch my presentation (in English).


Is transcreation a synonym for ‘creative translation’?

It’s common belief that transcreation is all about being creative per se. I for one think that transcreation is about adapting one’s creativity to a brand’s intended message and tone of voice so that the target copy can resonate with the target audience.

Based on the brief and on the source text (written in English or German, the languages I work out of) I receive from the client, I will establish whether a faithful rendition of that text retains the original effectiveness and provokes the intended reaction, or whether I have to re-write copy in Italian to achieve that end.

Therefore, in my opinion, the traditional ‘faithful vs free’ dichotomy is none other than two different strategies within transcreation. Bearing in mind that the end goal is writing copy – although from a source text – that truly resonates with a certain target audience, transcreation professionals are hired precisely because they have the expertise to decide how to go about it. If a 1:1 transposition will do, there’s no need to subvert the original copy, as long as the faithful approach is the result of a professional evaluation, not of a lack of writing skills. In fact, copywriting skills are essential both to assess whether a close rendition of the copy will prove effective in the target language and to succeed in recreating the copy based on the brief, if need be.

I believe transcreation is a different service than translation – it’s halfway between translation and copywriting. Let me try and explain why, using examples taken from my own experience as a transcreation specialist.


1. Transcreation and translation follow different rules and are judged by different criteria, which to me means they are not one and the same.

If we take the typical translation evaluation grid used by professional reviewers (including error categories like wrong term, syntactic error, omission, addition, word structure & agreement error, misspelling, and miscellaneous error) and apply it to transcreation, we’ll notice that those errors are errors only in translation. In transcreation, ‘breaking the rules’ (i.e. committing such errors) is in fact considered a plus, and transcreation is to all intents and purposes a convention-defying practice. As a case in point, I’d like to consider a newsletter I adapted for the American clothing and accessories retailer Banana Republic. To promote a special offer, the headline said ‘Invest in our best’, which was both succinct and catchy. The challenge for me was to come up with something as punchy as the original. Instead of focusing on the rhyme, which is the most striking feature of this English-language headline, I took a different direction and went for ‘In-vesti meglio’. While it literally means ‘Invest better’, which somehow retains the original meaning, my Italian headline has an ‘unorthodox’ spelling that makes it particularly interesting. ‘Investi’ is the imperative form of ‘investire’ (to invest), but ‘vesti’ is the imperative form of ‘vestire’ (to wear, to dress). By writing ‘in-vestire’, I am in fact adding two layers of meaning to the Italian headline – it both suggests ‘invest your money better’ (i.e. take advantage of our special offer) and ‘dress better’ (i.e. purchase our clothes).


2. Transcreation is a balancing act between the source text, visual, and brief, which automatically makes it a more complex process than ‘plain’ translation.

Yet this doesn’t mean that, when it comes to marketing and advertising copy, a client can choose between a translation or a transcreation service. Transcreation is not an alternative service to translation, but rather the only way to handle foreign-language copy. The link between copy and visual is particularly clear in the following Accenture advert (publicly available here and provided below), which also features a considerable constraint.

‘Woohoo’, an exhilarating response to ‘After examining the critical elements of their business, we’re helping Dow save $2.5 billion’, is written using elements of the periodic table, because Dow is in fact a chemical company.

When adapting the copy into Italian, I first asked myself whether ‘woohoo’ could stay in English for the Italian market. While it’s a common exclamation in movies dubbed in Italian, I was afraid it wouldn’t resonate with an Italian audience if put in writing. So I came up with a different remark which could also be written by using elements of the periodic table – ‘benissimo’ (very well). Although it is not as exhilarating (and informal) a reaction as ‘woohoo’, it does sound natural in Italian, and it also retains the link with the world of chemistry that is crucial to the advert (publicly available here and provided below).


3. Certain practices can only be found in transcreation, not in translation.

When adapting copy for global brands, transcreation professionals are usually required to provide multiple creative options so that their clients can choose the one they prefer. While this practice is rather common in copywriting, the provision of more options for the same sentence is certainly not usual in translation. Transcreation professionals are usually required to also back-translate their transcreation options into the source language in the most faithful way possible, and – just like copywriters – to illustrate the rationale behind their creative and stylistic choices. These two practices (backtranslation and comments/rationale) have to do with corporate levels of approval. In the case of global brands, the transcreation must first be approved by the global client (i.e. the headquarters of a multinational company), who has no other way to assess the adaptations than by reading the backtranslation and the comments. Only after the global client has given their sign-off can the local client (i.e. the target-country branch of the multinational company, who obviously understands the target text) evaluate the transcreation.

My Italian transcreation of the following advert for the international chain of fashion retail clothing stores C&A is also the result of a process which includes the delivery of multiple options, a backtranslation, and rationale.

The original German video features both supers and voiceover lines but, as the Italian version was to be used on Facebook alone, only the supers had to be adapted.

To really capture the emotions women feel in circumstances such as these, I wanted to come up with expressions anyone could relate to – catchphrases, if you wish. After I provided a couple of different options, the hashtags that were approved and made it to the video are #peroggihodato, #maiunagioia, #orasiragiona and #voilà. ‘Per oggi ho dato’, which means something like ‘I’ve had enough for today’, sounds very colloquial, much more than ‘endlich Feierabend’. Ruling out a close rendition of ‘Scheisstag’, which would put the Italian audience off (the word ‘merda’ being perceived as vulgar and unpleasant), I took a different route and came up with ‘mai una gioia’ (literally: ‘never a joy’), a humorous catchphrase which originated in Rome and is now used all over Italy to mean that nothing goes one’s way. ‘Ora si ragiona’ could be translated as ‘that’s more like it’, which conveys a subtle sassy feel to the sentence, and ‘voilà’ also sounds somewhat cheekier than the original German.

4. The fact that transcreation is different from translation is also reflected in the non-transcreation tasks that may be performed within the general framework of a transcreation project.

Before adapting copy, for example, the transcreation professional may be asked to check whether a brand name has negative associations in the target language, or whether a certain creative concept is used by a brand’s competitors. After adapting a TV or radio commercial, the transcreation professional may have to direct the voiceover recording session in the recording studio (read the Avon case study). I consider these tasks to be an integral part of transcreation as a service, which in view of all of the above turns out to be more of a consulting service than a language service strictu sensu.

Have a transcreation project you’d like to discuss? Contact me with no obligation.