Why transcreation is the biggest lie ever sold to the translation world


Transcreation is the term used in the translation community to refer to marketing translations that are less literal and require a higher level of adaptation and creativity to satisfy target audiences. The term is catchy, trendy, romantic and a big fat lie.

My take on it: as the translation/localization industry took form in the 80s at the rise of global software and content that had to be available in dozens of languages. The surge in demand for global content resulted in a far greater need to translate content than enough talent available. Add to that equation that translation was -and still is- seen as a second-rate profession in most places. Unlike lawyers, doctors and engineers translators do not make top dollar money for their work. The result is that most translators in the marketplace are not equipped with the necessary tool set and not paid enough to have time produce nuanced translations that adjust themselves to the discourse needed. Under-valued talent breeding underpowered talent creates a vicious cycle because it is hard to attract and retain top translation talent when pay is not commensurate with the responsibility of re-authoring critical content in other languages.

So we are left with translators who can fly under the radar when it comes to more technical discourse but who lack the skill-set and time/compensation to craft enough their work to the point where it truly translates the original meaning. Agencies then had clients who were unhappy with the translation result whenever it required more adaptation and creativity to meet expectations and the easiest route was to blame the product: undermine translations as a non-creative base exercise and have clients pay more for a fancier product.

So the catchy name stuck. Transcreation became the holy grail of translations for many, regarded as translations that are nuanced, refined and adapted to target audience and purpose while translation, its foil, became degraded as a more thoughtless relaying of meaning without any creativity.

In my opinion, even the most technical of translations require thought and creativity as translators must go beyond the words and consider context and purpose for documentation, manuals, and UI. "Logout," "exit," "end session," "leave" are all choices for the same concept and yet each of them is deeply woven within a linguistic corpus. This discursive body must be considered not just concerning a glossary or of consistency but in contextualizing the overall brand experience for the end user.

Translating well and transcreating are all the same thing. A good translator will know when to be more creative to reach the required ultimate goal of the text they are working on and even if the do not know, they will know how to ask the right questions. Each text will implicitly call for the appropriate level of adaptation to succeed.

So rather than recognizing the value in the profession or charging in an unstandardized way, according to actual effort vs. word count, it was easier and less disruptive to single out only a few kinds of texts, typically marketing, that truly required creativity to succeed.

In the end, for me, every good translation is an act of transcreation, and there is nothing special about a transcreation other than a fancy name. By not recognizing and appreciating the real value of translation talent, the translation industry becomes fundamentally flawed. So rather than repairing its core, it is cheaper and easier to patch it up with "transcreation."