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Transcreation – the art of creative translation

You don’t need to look far to find examples of advertising slogans that simply don’t work in other languages. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s invitation to Chinese customers to “Eat your fingers off” shows attempting to translate an English slogan doesn’t always send the right message.

It’s a common problem for global marketing companies. A carefully polished slogan, advert or web page is designed to resonate with the target audience, tapping into their cultural knowledge. How do you recreate this in another country, where not only the language, but also the culture, are different?

Transcreation is the art of copywriting in a foreign language. Like translation, the aim is to communicate a message to an audience across the language barrier. But while translation is designed to be faithful to the original, transcreation is recreating and adapting the message to fit the new audience. The aim isn’t to use the same words, but to create the same reaction in the target audience.

It’s certainly not a new idea. For example, an Inuit translation of the Bible replaces “lamb of God” with “seal of God”. There aren’t many lambs frolicking around the Arctic circle, while the seal is considered a cultural symbol of innocence.

One common example of transcreation is movie titles – which are often changed with greater or less success! For example, publicists thought that the idea of a “hangover” might be less familiar to some foreign audiences than American and British ones. The film is marketed as “Before the Wedding We Stop in Vegas” in Israel, and “What happened yesterday?” in Spanish.

In advertising slogans, jingles, or PPC campaigns, you only have a few words to capture a reader’s attention. This is where transcreation comes in – to make those few words count. Haribo’s German slogan “„Haribo macht Kinder froh/und Erwachsene ebenso“ translates directly as “Haribo makes children happy, and grown-ups as well“. This sounds rather flat in English (and doesn’t rhyme). Instead, copywriters came up with “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo”.

Transcreation also requires a knowledge of cultural differences. McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it” is used consistently across many cultures, including “Me encanta” in Spanish. But in Chinese, the word “love” isn’t used casually, and is reserved for a more deep, meaningful love. In China, fast food fans say: “I just like it”.

Of course it’s not just about advertising slogans. We recommend transcreation for marketing materials launching new products, as well as websites and brochures where it’s important to adapt the message.

Find out more about our transcreation services here. We’ll be taking a further look at the art of creative translation in future blogs.

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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