10 Things Marketers Need to Know about Transcreation

The term “transcreation” describes the process of adapting content for a given target audience to make sure that it resonates with the intended effect. The process may or may not include translation. Now that we’ve shared a clear localization definition for people who are not from the localization industry, let’s take a closer look at transcreation. Here are 10 things every marketer should know about transcreation.

1. Transcreation usually (but not always) refers to marketing content.

The basic goal of transcreation is to make sure that content you’re creating for a different audience resonates with your target audience similarly. Transcreation enables the campaign or content to achieve a similar impact on the target market. You can transcreate many types of materials, especially where culture plays a role.

For example, one project I once worked on entailed creating sample menus for diabetic patients in the United States. In English, teaching about white bread and sliced ham might have been fine, but for Spanish, this wasn’t really what people were going to eat. The content didn’t just need to be adapted, but rather, rewritten with the original purpose in mind, of educating the patient to control their blood sugars through diet. Otherwise, the patient’s health outcomes were at stake.

The idea with transcreation is that you’re not exclusively translating, and you’re not only adapting either. You’re doing more than that. In many cases, you’re rewriting from scratch to get the same concept or message across.

Many definitions of transcreation will have you believe that it sits at the intersection of culture, translation, and emotion. I disagree with this. Not all transcreated content is designed to evoke an emotion, and to cast it in that light is really too limiting. In fact, very few of the transcreation projects I’ve seen in my career actually are about the emotion. Transcreation is required when the people creating the source content have a specific purpose in mind that cannot be accomplished through translation alone. For this reason, the content must be transcreated in order for it to achieve that purpose.

Another project I worked on, also for an audience of Spanish speakers in the US, was for a major pharma company launching a bilingual website for a popular birth control medication. Among English-speaking women, the main value they wanted to convey was the convenience of the medication and how easy it was, less hassle for busy women.

In Spanish, the company also had to consider many beliefs at play about birth control affecting fertility as well as different pressures and religious aspects to consider. As such, the goal of the campaign for English was to convey convenience, whereas the goal of the campaign in Spanish was to educate patients about the safety of the drug. In that particular project, the goal was not to replicate a similar emotion in the other market. What we had to do was actually take emotions out of the equation for a market where the topic was more likely to be a tricky one for many women.

2. Transcreation may or may not involve translators.

Usually, these services are performed by a combination of native-language copywriters (also known as transcreators) and designers in the event of any design work. However, are the transcreators also translators? Not always. They might be or they might not be. Here are some of the differences:

  • A professional translator usually has training and background in the fields of translation and localization. The translator must understand the source language well enough to ensure accuracy and completeness in the target language. A professional translator may or may not offer transcreation services, but it depends on the individual. Translators frequently, but not always, tend to specialize in certain areas, such as legal, medical, or tech. Nearly every translator can support cultural adaptation when asked to do so. It just depends on the degree of transcreation required on a given project, and whether they have experience in this area.
  • A professional transcreator is usually a copywriter who specializes in the target language and in writing creatively in that language. Their understanding of each and every word in the source language is not really as important as their ability to achieve the desired impact in the target language, depending on how they are used and what job they are being asked to carry out. In some cases, the transcreator actually doesn’t speak the source language whatsoever. Some agencies employ people who speak the target language natively but have very limited knowledge of the source language. In some cases, they might not even look at the source text to ensure they can let their creativity fully bloom without “contamination” from the version in the source language.

3. Transcreation is billed on a per-project or hourly basis.

Most commonly, transcreation is priced like the services of most marketing agencies. You’ll need to pay for the time of all the creative services folks involved. Copywriting services are usually billed by the hour, as are those of graphic designers. The more creative work your project requires, the more costly it will be.

The project-based or hourly pricing model that is more common with transcreation is a really important distinction from translation. Almost every translation vendor on the planet bills for their services on a per-word basis. I’m actually not a big fan of the per-word pricing model that pervades the translation industry, because once you start digging into it, you realize that it doesn’t make much sense.

Not all words have equal value, and no translator actually translates “by the word” but “by the unit of meaning” instead. Words in isolation have no value when translated. It’s almost like compensating a programmer based on the lines of code they write, or paying a designer based on the number of virtual brush strokes, as opposed to the quality of their end product.

4. Transcreation services can get pricey.

Most transcreation projects cost a lot more than “straight translation projects” do — ones that have minimal copywriting and creative work requirements. Of course, you can get transcreation services from some translation providers, and some might even charge you by the word for it. But if you want a good end product, you will likely be paying more than you’d pay if you “just” request translation on its own.

Remember, creative work simply costs more. Human creativity can’t be automated. So, if you need highly creative copywriting, you’ll need to pay for it as if you would pay for any other highly creative service.

5. Transcreation projects often include translation services.

Here’s the confusing part. Transcreation projects might include translation services. In fact, in my experience they frequently do. For example, let’s say that you have a web page that describes a software product designed to help consumers do their personal taxes. Perhaps the tagline is something like, “Taxes, without all the effort.” But the body text is descriptive and simply explains how the software works and. what its benefits are. The more creative the content, the more you’ll need transcreation. The drier and more descriptive it is, the easier it will be to translate and the more likely you can use “regular” translation for it.

However, don’t let this tempt you to dilute your source content. One mistake I’ve seen is that when marketers finally understand this, they try to neutralize their English message. Don’t remove the impact of your words in English! You might be making it easier to translate, but you’ll be diminishing the effect in all languages if you totally remove the zing from the English.

If you really want creative services on some parts of your project, make sure to specify that this is what you want. Ask for the project to be quoted to include creative services.

6. Many marketers don’t realize they need transcreation.

Very often, marketers will send a project over requesting translation and don’t even think about the fact that much of their copy might actually require transcreation or creative adaptation. Just remember that if your project has certain elements to it that are highly creative, you’re likely going to require this service.

A good rule of thumb is to think about how long it took you or how much care and thought went into your copy in English. If the copy took some consideration and creativity, it’s likely going to require transcreation. Most advertising copy will require it, for example. But in the world of digital advertising, it really depends on the copy. Sometimes, paid ads are intentionally designed to look like organic results. It’s helpful when the translation provider knows this, and understands the marketer’s goal.

7. Transcreation takes longer to plan and pull off than translation.

If it took your marketing agency two weeks to come up with the right product positioning statements and refine them down to one page, don’t expect your translation agency (or freelancers or internal team) to turn that page around in one day.

Human translators can deliver up to 2000 to 2500 words per day as the industry standard (the higher end of the range is for languages that use Roman characters; the lower end is for languages that don’t). But that doesn’t apply to most marketing content, because marketing content is more likely to include copy that requires transcreation. It’s much more time-consuming to deliver.

8. Transcreation is often used as a synonym of “free translation” and an antonym of “literal translation.”

Translation happens on a spectrum. On the one hand, you’ll see translation that is extremely literal and word-for-word. Machine translation is notorious for this, although thanks to neural MT technologies, it’s improving. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find translation that gives the translator a lot of creative freedom, which is sometimes referred to as free translation.

The idea of free translation (or maybe it should be freeing translation or “translation that frees the translator”) is in the vein of transcreation. But in my opinion, it’s not entirely the same thing, but the two bleed together at the end of the day. In academic theory and the field of translation studies, “free translation” is meant to be similar to transcreation. But out there in the business world, no one really talks about “free translation” unless they are talking about machine translation, in which case they mean “free of charge.”

So yes, in an industry that is designed to enable communication, transcreation has a synonym that implies it doesn’t cost anything, even though it’s actually one of the most expensive types of translation. This is what can lead to a lot of confusing conversations like this:

Translation agency: “Trust us, we’re really great at getting your message across!”

Marketer: “Really? Could you help me understand what you’re saying in English first?”

Marketers are right to doubt translation agencies that can’t clearly explain this stuff. It’s confusing, and our industry doesn’t do the greatest job of making itself easy to understand. We trip everyone up, including ourselves, with our own jargon.

9. There’s a lot of debate about transcreation and what it means.

I wish marketers did not need to care about this, but in reality, you can’t assume that every translation agency out there really understands, or even cares about, transcreation. Most translation agencies you speak with will know what transcreation is, but they might not actually provide this service very often. So, if you really want this service, you’ll need to ask for it.

Some people in the translation industry will say, “but that’s just the same as localization.” Well, not exactly. The term localization comes largely from the software industry. But with more and more digital marketers needing web localization, you can have transcreation needs within a localization project. To me, not all localization projects require transcreation, but more and more of them do. And many transcreation projects have nothing to do with localization. Often, they are for offline advertising campaigns, and there is no need to consider a user experience, which is, for me, the end goal of localization. Also, until recent years, the concept of localization marketing didn’t really exist.

You’ll also hear many people say that transcreation is just another form of translation. That’s true as well, to a point. But, that’s a bit like saying “but an orca is really just a whale” is if that takes away the need for a word to refer to the orca separately and in addition to the term “whale.” Specificity does matter. Yes, transcreation is one of many linguistic services that a translation provider can offer. But it doesn’t mean we don’t need a term for it to differentiate it from other services.

What concerns me about transcreation as a term is that it’s yet another example of the industry lingo that people in the translation world use, which means it’s not very inclusive language. Most marketers don’t know what it is and therefore don’t even know how to talk about it or ask for it.

This isn’t their fault. Most people working in digital marketing are seeing their work unfold at a faster pace than ever. Their own profession is changing at a faster pace than ever before along with its own specialized terminology. They have very limited time for learning the jargon of another industry. This type of bridging communication gaps across two different professions takes time. Translation providers need to find more ways to reach marketers and communicate the value of translation services without shoving this jargon into their faces.

10. Transcreation helps marketers reach hearts and minds.

Of all linguistic services that can help marketers really reach an audience properly, transcreation is chief among them. Transcreation is a tool that truly enables marketers to reach more hearts and minds — minds that think in another language, and hearts that beat to the rhythm of another culture.

For this reason, while I don’t necessarily love the term transcreation, I do love what it enables businesses and organizations of all kinds to accomplish, for the same reason I love localization. It’s all about replicating the experience a person has when they interact with a brand, whether it’s as part of their product experience, their website experience, or simply their experience as a member of a given audience that someone is trying to reach. It’s another way to bridge gaps and get messages across, and in my opinion, a really important one for more people to know is possible.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

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