The term "transcreation" has been around for decades, yet you will not find it in the dictionary. Even language industry professionals often have a vague idea of what this language service actually is about. In my view, the term itself is misleading and those who think that transcreation is all about creativity and playing with words cannot be blamed for misinterpreting its meaning. In practice, there is more science to transcreation than meets the eye.
I am currently working on a consulting assignment to implement transcreation best practice within a company that operates in over 35 countries, so I thought I would look for a good definition of transcreation. But guess what, I am still looking for it.
Top 10 definitions of transcreation
What follows is an overview of transcreation definitions from top 10 organic search results for my Google Search query "what is transcreation" from 18 September 2020.
As you will see, the definitions of transcreation that people are most likely to come across can be extremely confusing. They seem to be written by those who have never done it themselves or might not even be qualified to work in the language industry. Some of them even discourage potential clients from ordering transcreation services.
# 1. Transcreation means ‘translating’ and ‘recreating’ the original text in a new language whilst making sure it is still appropriate in the context for which it is intended (LondonTranslations)
If you are curious about what a new language could sound or look like and why anyone would need it, you might find interesting this video from David J. Peterson who creates new languages such as Dothraki.
The second thing that strikes me in this definition of transcreation is that it implies that translation—which the author says is "the process of translating what is being said in one language into another"—is not supposed to be appropriate for the intended context.
Should legal translators get more creative when interpreting the law so that the outcome is more suitable for the context?
# 2. Transcreation is the process of adapting content from one language to another while maintaining the existing tone, intent and style (Smartling)
Although the author does not explain how transcreation helps maintain the tone, intent and style (of a piece of content?) and for what purpose, she/he mentions that transcreation is about "creating new content that captures the brand voice and message in an entirely new language". If you want to know more about new languages, ask Emily from Roll for Fantasy who has created 25 of them and even built a language generator.
Smartling warns that transcreation "will often be a complete reimagining of your content so that it better resonates with a different culture". While translation "focuses on replacing the words in one language with corresponding words in a new language", "transcreation services are focused on conveying the same message and concept in a new language".
# 3. Transcreation is a concept used in the field of translation studies to describe the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone, and context (Wikipedia)
"A concept to describe a process used in the field of translation studies" is not extremely helpful for anyone who might need transcreation as a service, but the article contains information that is worth our attention.
According to the author(s), "a successfully transcreated message evokes the same emotions and carries the same implications in the target language as it does in the source language". I doubt this is possible even within the same language context. What emotions does Nike's "Just Do It" evoke? What implications does it have for you? I am sure that if we try to describe them and compare our notes, we will see that "the same" is a huge overstatement.
What we also learn about transcreation from Wikipedia is that:
Not all language industry professionals agree that transcreation is a form of translation
Transcreation often involves adapting video and images (which, if true, makes it rather obvious that transcreation is not translation—you cannot translate an image)
Transcreation was first used to refer to the job of contemporary translators of Sanskrit classics
Before joining a transcreation agency as a project manager, I used to translate Sanskrit texts. Should I combine these experiences under one transcreation umbrella?
# 4. Transcreation takes the original message and conveys it in another language, making sure that the text in the target language keeps the original style, vocal tone, intent, and emotional salience (Language Reach)
Vocal tone is the sound of your voice as you sing. And emotional salience, in case you are wondering, is a biologically adaptive cue that influences episodic memory processing through interactions between amygdalar and hippocampal activity.
If this is what transcreation is about, which Language Reach also describes as "a combination of discipline and art, translation and interpretation", I wonder what the result of this process actually looks (or sounds?) like.
# 5. Transcreation is an intricate form of translating that preserves the original intent, context, emotion, and tone (Terra Translations)
According to Terra Translations, the product of this process "should give the audience an identical emotional experience as the source message". To illustrate how transcreation works in practice, the author explains that McDonald's changed the slogan "I'm lovin' it" to "I just like it" in China because "love" for Chinese is a very serious word. But what about preserving the emotions? Is it a good transcreation example after all?
The author also says that the goal of transcreation "is to duplicate the message thoughtfully and seamlessly, without audiences realizing a translation ever occurred". Is translation supposed to make the audience realise that a message has been translated?
# 6. Transcreation refers to creatively translating marketing materials [and] involves translating with more artistic licence (The Translator's Studio)
Elsewhere on the same website, transcreation is explained as "a combination of translation and copywriting" and as "creatively translating advertising and branding materials". For the authors, who provide great insights into a translator's thinking process, the difference between transcreation and translation "lies in how much freedom the translator is given to be creative". They say, "when I’m wearing my translator’s hat, it isn’t in my gift to make significant changes to your text".
# 7. Transcreation is the act of changing a text to make its meaning culturally appropriate for a target market (United Language Group)
Although I do not disagree that this is what can be achieved through transcreation, I cannot support this definition of transcreation. The same is true of copywriting in the languages spoken in the target markets if it is used for the purpose of communicating with the audience in a culturally appropriate way.
According to the author, transcreation implies that "clients work with native speakers and creative copywriters to get their message across" and it "takes more time and resources than a word-for-word document translation, but the extra work can pay off". It sounds like a lot of work for uncertain results, doesn't it?
# 8. Transcreation is about taking a concept in one language and completely recreating it in another language – it is normally applied to the marketing of an idea, product or service to international audiences (Articulate)
This is a bit closer to what transcreation is about in my experience. I would not add "completely" here because it is not always possible to fully convey a concept in a language where such concept does not exist or cannot be expressed concisely, but that does not make transcreation something else or less successful.
The goal of transcreation, according to the author, is not "to say the same thing in another language" but "to get the same reaction in each language", which translation might not be able to achieve. How the audience reacts to the message or concept can, indeed, be more important for marketing purposes than what is actually being communicated, but the meaning of the intended and the resulting messages should never be ignored.
# 9. Transcreation is one of the most widespread translation techniques, especially in the field of marketing and advertising translation (Creative Translation)
If this was the case, there would not be so many different definitions of transcreation out there and I would not be writing this article.
For Creative Translation, transcreation "is translation taken a step further". It aims at translating and adapting "a concept, wordplay, pun, etc. from one language into another without losing any of the freshness, effect and power found in the original source text/line". They say that transcreation is "somewhat related" to copywriting but the difference between the two is that "copywriting starts from only a brief, while transcreation relies on a source text as well as a brief".
In this process, "the writer combines their linguistic and creative abilities harmoniously and seamlessly to produce a natural and meaningful message that does not sound translated at all". Do they also take a dig at translation or is it just me?
# 10. Transcreation is altering content to create a better translation result, instead of translating "word for word" (Bureau Works)
Here we find out that the term "transcreation" is "overused and outdated". It is "mainly intended to manipulate LSP [language services provider] clients into purchasing higher-value services", because "when most clients ask for transcreation, what they really need is high-quality translation". The author warns that one should never pay a premium for transcreation where "excellent localization would do".
According to Bureau Works, transcreation is "performed primarily by in-market writers, not linguists". As a linguist—with a degree in foreign languages and another one in linguistics—who has managed 2,000 linguists to deliver the same number of transcreation projects for 50 brands across 60 markets and languages, I can assure you that this is not true. Being a writer, or a copywriter, does not make anyone a transcreator, but anyone doing transcreation certainly needs to be a linguist.
Bureau Works explain that "transcreation could be seen more as copywriting than as translation" and a good alternative to transcreation would be "creative target language copy-editing".
According to them, one of the best examples of successful transcreation is Spider-Man India. In that "reinvention of the original Spider-Man comic", Spider-Man is a native-born Indian by the name of Pavitr Prabhakar who "wears a dhoti and battles man-eating Rakshasa demons". I wonder how anything similar could be achieved with copy-editing.
This is actually an example of localisation as a strategy which is not (as Bureau Works define it) "a multifaceted approach to translation, where linguists combine cultural relevance with technological function to produce translations that are more effective in a digital context". By the way, this adaptation of the Marvel comic has nothing to do with translation or transcreation as a language service.
In my experience as a transcreation manager, there is no one-size-fits-all service that can be called "transcreation". Transcreation agencies themselves, including the one I worked at, sometimes refer to the service they provide as "adaptation".
In my view, the best approach to navigating the confusing world of language services is to ignore existing service names and define them, for your specific initiative, once you and the service provider are aligned on both the expectations and the process.
Define the objectives you expect your content to achieve.
List anything you are willing and not willing to compromise in order to achieve them.
Ask the language services provider for a detailed plan that would not use service names but show how they would meet your objectives and requirements.
If what the service provider offers you is confusing and not convincing, chances are that so will be the content they will produce for your international audiences.