As a practice within the problem-driven field of applied linguistics at the intersection of multiple business disciplines that is meant to solve international marketing communication challenges, transcreation can do pretty much anything.
Caveat: Transcreation is a different thing for a linguist who works on what could normally be a translation task and decides or is paid to do transcreation instead. From what I have seen as a transcreation manager, transcreation for a transcreator is more likely to be something at the intersection of translation and (copy)writing.
Saying what transcreation means or entails, and thus what it can or cannot do, is impossible outside the context of a specific challenge.
Transcreation is problem-solving using language as a system, holistically and strategically, within the broader context of communication and culture to enable brands to implement their communication strategies as they intend to.
Transcreation can also be a lot of things—a service, approach, practice, project, process, and outcome. But in my 15 years of experience with it, transcreation is not an action, technique or procedure because there are no defined rules of transcreation, nor there is a definition of transcreation with which everyone would agree.
To me, saying "transcreate" without referring to a specific process that produces a solution to a specific problem is the same as saying "strategise", "use marketing" or "use your brain".
Transcreation can do anything within the limits of the transcreation project brief.
A transcreation deliverable is anything that solves the challenge as defined by the client, supported by any information that they might need to understand how the proposed solutions address their problem. "Solutions" because usually at least two options are provided—there is never just one way to solve a problem and no solution is right or wrong.
The outcome of transcreation as a process is typically a piece of marketing or advertising copy that communicates the brand’s message to native speakers of another language in a way that (a) is relevant to them, (b) does not compromise the stylistic appeal of the brand message in its intended form, and (c) is meant to maximise the brand’s potential to achieve its communication and/or marketing objectives.
"Typically" because transcreation can be used to adapt or originate names. "Communicate" , "message", and "another language" should be understood in a broader sense because transcreation can be done in the same language, without a source copy, and the process can include design.
It is possible to transcreate any message or just an idea of something that is meant to be understood, perceived or used in one or several specific ways.
One of the brand name transcreation projects I have led had as a requirement for the name to be of a particular shape so that it, as a logo, could be incorporated into a packaging where two of the name's letters (two "o"s in the original) could be used as handles. The name was intended to communicate in each target language the meaning of being tasty but also convey the idea of being healthy.
Transcreation can be done in the language of the original message.
Transcreation does not always involve translation in the most common sense of the word. For years, I have been transcreating headlines from "International English" into "English for Germany". Strictly speaking, these are not even languages. It's English used to appeal to different groups of English speakers.
Transcreation can mean using more than one language within the same message.
It can mean translating everything within a campaign but keeping the tagline as is and rewriting the headlines in English. An example are Nikon's "I am Nikon" campaigns for some of the EMEA countries including Germany and Italy.
The result of a transcreation is not necessarily a message in a language that the audience can understand.
An example is an Arabic name that the team I led originated following the transcreation approach. The name for a new property belonging to a chain of luxury hotels needed to sound Arabic to non-Arabic speakers and they were not expected to understand its meaning.
Transcreation is performed within the framework and conventions established by the client.
If the client decides that it is fine for the target message in "English for Germany" to bend the rules of English grammar so it can be more easily understood by the audience, so be it.
If the client decides that a word's grammatical gender in the target language should change from feminine to masculine because the message has to sound more masculine in order to appeal to the male audience, so be it.
Esso transcreated their campaign tagline "Put a tiger in your tank" for Italy in 1960's. In the Italian version ("Put a tiger in the engine"), "un tigre" (a tiger, masculine) is grammatically wrong because the grammar dictates that the word's gender is feminine ("una tigre"). "Engine" is also misleading because it is not where the customers would put the advertised product (i.e. petrol).
The campaign was a success nonetheless, or most likely because of this kind of transcreation (which, by the way, is not a common practice). This example shows that a straightforward translation can constrain the execution of a brand's communication strategy, and how transcreation allows to convey brand messages within those constraints.
Transcreation allows to implement communication strategies that might seem impossible to execute—this is exactly why it exists.
For example, the Arabic hotel name mentioned previously was developed in such a way that it would resonate with non-Arabic speakers, native speakers of one of the eight languages shortlisted by the client. In each of those languages, the name was meant to evoke a narrow range of associations related to the hotel, its location, and the brand including the group brand's essence and status, the idea behind the new hotel's particular architecture, and a sense of Arabic hospitality.
As a transcreation manager who led this and several other name development projects for the hotel group and other global brands including Sony and Carlsberg, I can tell that a typical name generation process could never achieve that.
Transcreation does not assume that the resulting message must sound native to the target culture because the audience is expected to recognise it as coming from a global brand.
It is supposed to sound relevant which can mean easy to pronounce and evoking positive associations of a certain type. If the purpose is to make the target message more relevant than the intended message, for cultural or market differences, the approach to take is localisation. It can be implemented within the scope of a transcreation project but this requirement has to be made explicit because transcreation follows the globalisation approach by default.
Transcreation can make the resulting message more appealing than the intended one, which means it can be used to fine-tune global brand messages.
Taking transcreation routes from one language and applying them in another with the intent to improve the outcome is a standard procedure on any transcreation project involving multiple languages. But the same can also be done to improve the original.
It happened on one of the projects I led for Tuborg's new product launch in Russia acting as both the project manager and the transcreator. The campaign was still in development and transcreation was used in part to help the agency shape it.
The client changed the global tagline following the Russian transcreation I provided which was more concise and masculine than the original—hence more appealing to the target audience—and more closely related to the new brand essence and the product itself.
All this is possible because transcreation implies following a specific brief, similar to what copywriting does. The general assumption for transcreation is that the client believes the original is crafted in a way that enables them to achieve the same objectives in every market. The purpose of transcreation is to help the brand communicate that original message to international audiences and achieve those objectives.