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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

5 Common Myths About Translation and Transcreation

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Curious what others were saying about transcreation, I typed the word into Google one day. It was with dismay that I discovered translation agencies perpetuating myths about translation and transcreation at the top of my search results. How could they? They should know better! Clearly they didn’t. Clearly none of these authors had ever even attempted to translate something themselves. Once the initial shock wore off, I resolved to educate the internet. Knowledge is power and today I will give you the power to accurately differentiate between a translation and a transcreation by busting five of the most common myths. As a translator and transcreator with over 10 years of experience, I know exactly where these myths go off the rails. Let’s take a look!

Myth 1: “Translators are not writers.”

The Myth

Many believe that translation and writing are two very separate professions. Translators are not writers.

The Truth

Good writing skills are an essential skill for a skilled translator. In reality, translation is a type of very challenging writing that demands fluency in two languages and an outstanding ability to express oneself in a sophisticated, coherent manner in the target language.

What REALLY makes transcreation different?

Transcreators are allowed and perhaps even encouraged to deviate freely from the source text to achieve a result in line with the client’s goals. They engage in much more abstract, creative writing projects. Translators must stick more closely to the source text, but it is still important for the translation to read fluently and coherently. Anyone who has read the so-called “translationese” produced by translators who are poor writers would likely agree.

Myth 2: “Translators just replace the words in one language with the same words in another language.”

The Myth

Many explanations of transcreation state that translators simply replace the words in one language with the words from another language. Supposedly by contrast, transcreators take the cultural context into account for their translations, writing a text that is culturally appropriate and will be well-received by the target audience.

The Truth

Both translators and transcreators take the cultural context into consideration for their texts. Both translators and transcreators write texts that are culturally appropriate in their respective languages.

What REALLY makes transcreation different?

The difference is in the type of texts translated. There are two different types of texts: ambiguous texts that rely heavily on cultural context for meaning and those that are more literal. Transcreators work mainly with texts that rely heavily on cultural context for meaning. These texts will often use idioms that cannot be translated directly and much of the meaning will be indirectly implied by double meanings, cultural connotations, images, and overall context. Translators work primarily with texts that are more literal. Although these are less ambiguous, cultural interpretation and adaptation still come into play. Let’s briefly analyze two examples to get an idea what this means.

Transcreation Example

“Are you ready to throw in the towel on this project?”

This is an English idiom meaning to quit doing something or bring it to a close. Copywriters might play around with double meanings involving “throw” or “towels”. They might also add images or change the text layout to create a certain mood.

“Bist du bereit, das Projekt an den Nagel zu hängen?”

This is an equivalent German idiom. It literally means to “hang it on a nail”. Here, the core meaning remains the same, but the translation has nothing to do with the literal meaning of the original. Things become even more complicated if the original copywriters played around with the meaning of “towel” or “throw”. The transcreator may have to find a towel-themed or throw-themed German idiom with the same mood, but with a slightly different core meaning to replace the original English idiom.

Translation Example

In Germany, there is a system called “Pfand”. This system allows consumers to return plastic and glass bottles to specific collection points in exchange for payment of a few cents per bottle. Such a system is nonexistent across most of the United States. A translator would have to be aware of this difference and find a way to seamlessly incorporate a culturally appropriate explanation of “Pfand” into the English-language text.

Myth 3: “Cultural adaptation is not involved in translation.”

The Myth

Some posit that translation does not involve cultural adaptation, but transcreation does.

The Truth

Both translation and transcreation require cultural adaptation to ensure the message is well-received and readily understandable by the target audience.

What REALY makes transcreation different?

Cultural adaptations regularly made by translators are more subtle, which makes them difficult to detect. Transcreators, on the other hand, make much more dramatic adaptations that change many of the most obvious superficial characteristics of the source text while leaving the core message intact.

Myth 4: Usually copywriters perform transcreations, not translators.

The Myth

Some claim that translators do not perform transcreation, copywriters perform transcreation. Proponents of this myth believe that translators are “only skilled at translating” and “someone who writes well” is needed to perform the transcreation.

The Truth

Being able to write well is a core skill that all successful translators must have. Saying you cannot hire a translator, because you “need someone who writes well” is like saying you cannot hire a pizza delivery person, because you need someone who is good at delivering pizza.

Furthermore, copywriters are usually only familiar with one culture. Translators specialized in copywriting, also known as “transcreators”, are profoundly familiar with two languages and cultures in addition to possessing all the same skills a copywriter has to offer.

What REALLY makes transcreation different?

Just as there are writers specializing in technical writing, fiction, poetry, medical writing, copywriting, and much more in the English-speaking world, there are also translators who specialize in different kinds of writing. If you hire a translator specializing in medical writing for a transcreation project, you will get bad results. There are many translators, however, who specialize in copywriting. Not only are transcreators highly skilled copywriters, but they are also fully bilingual and well-versed in the cultural background of the source and target language. So don’t hire a copywriter, hire a translator specialized in copywriting. Hire a transcreator.

Myth 5: “A transcreation does not start with a source text, it starts with a creative brief.”

The Myth

Many claim that a transcreation does not start with a source text, but rather with a creative brief. The transcreator is then tasked with creating fresh new copy from scratch.

The Truth

The word “transcreation” is a combination of the words “translation” and “creation”. As such, translation must be involved in order for the process to be termed “transcreation”. If you do not have a source text, there is nothing to translate and you will be unable to “transcreate”. At that point, you are merely “copywriting” in the desired language.

What REALLY makes transcreation different?

It is true that many transcreations start with a creative brief. A translator must know the desired tone and message of the transcreation in order to be successful. In order for it to be called a transcreation, however, there must also be a source text for the translator to work from. Writing straight from a creative brief is simply copywriting.

I hope this has helped you gain a better understanding of the differences between translation and transcreation. If you have any questions or would prefer that I transcreate something for you while you are away at the beach, contact me.

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