Interview with an Expert Transcreator
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Interview with an Expert Transcreator

Interview with an Expert Transcreator

You are a global marketer trying to embed your brand in new markets. You keep hearing about transcreation as a way to do this. But when do you use it? How is it different from translation? And why does it cost so much? I spoke to an expert transcreator, Ellen Bonte, to clear some things up. Here’s the conversation.

Lee: There’s confusion about the difference between transcreation and marketing translation. Can you speak to that?

Ellen: Think of a continuum. On one side there’s translation and on the other side transcreation. You have meaning on the translation side, and effect or emotion on the transcreation side. Marketing translation is in the middle.

Translation is a word-for-word correspondence. In marketing translation, you also have a certain amount of creativity to find equivalent idioms and puns in the target language. You can deviate from the source but it’s still a translation activity; you are finding equivalents. In transcreation it goes deeper: you decompose a text and rewrite it so the emotion and message fit the language or culture. It’s less about words and more about concepts. In transcreation, you detach yourself from the source and rewrite the text. You may end up recreating everything.

Also, transcreation is more for brief, short copy like headlines and slogans. This copy is typically quite a bit more creative than longer-form copy like web content.

Lee: You used the word ‘decompose’ which is a great way to explain transcreation. To me that means you break it apart and recreate it.

Ellen: Yes. But it’s important to understand that sometimes the line between transcreation and marketing translation can be very blurry. One job can be a blend of the two. For example, I handle websites. That work can be transcreation but it’s also marketing translation. You have more freedom in the headlines—transcreation—but for some content, like a paragraph, you just need to come up with a very idiomatic and concise punchy paragraph of sentences. That is closer to marketing translation.

Lee: What does a typical transcreation job look like?

Ellen: Typically, I get the source copy with all visuals. I often get a style guide, a branding guideline or a creative brief also. Then, I research everything that I find in those briefs. I need to really get to know the brand. The most important part is to understand the tone of voice of the client—in other words, their brand. I also do industry and competitive research. It can be more than a few hours of work at the start.

Then, I come up with as many options as possible for my market—sometimes more than 20. This contrasts with translation where you come up with one option.

I also sometimes talk to a colleague—a second pair of eyes can be valuable.

After my brainstorming, I choose the best three options and give them to the client, along with a back translation and a rationale for each option—a comment that explains my approach. I always provide the client one option that is close, or closer, to the source, one that’s more creative than that, and a third that is furthest from the source, meaning a lot more creative. I tell the client which option I prefer and why, and I give a full explanation of the work I’ve done.

Lee: What are the challenges of this work? Where do you or other professionals of transcreation get stuck?

Ellen: A transcreator can go overboard. They can get too creative. It’s a challenge to be creative yet still stay on brief. You have to be very careful not to use your own style; you have to copy the client’s style.

Also, you need be up-to-date with current expressions and the way people talk. You need to really know both languages.

And then you need to know the target audience really well. What do they believe in? How do they behave? That’s where some research comes in. And often clients give me their buyer personas.

Lee: Why is transcreation paid by the hour?

Ellen: Because you don’t come up with a good idea just like that! You need to really work at it. That means you have to play around, try different approaches, develop a certain way to phrase whatever slogan you are working on. You need to brainstorm and generate multiple ideas.

Sometimes it’s easy to find a good idea that aligns with the source—the original concept is not that far from being appropriate for the target market. Other times you have a great slogan but it’s so creative or local to the source market that no equivalent is possible. Then you need to really work to find the right approach.

Lee: I know you are also a copywriter. How is copywriting different from transcreation?

Ellen: Transcreation is very close to copywriting. One difference between copywriting and transcreation is the source. In transcreation you get source content and you have the freedom to interpret it. You may get a brand or style guide as well. But in copywriting you only get a briefing and then you create content from scratch. There’s the most freedom in copywriting because I develop the lines without any guidance but the original brand.

Another difference is that transcreation is short content but copywriting could also apply to longer-form content.

But the two require some of the same skills.

Lee: What do you enjoy about the work?

Ellen: It’s very creative. It’s fun to recreate something clever. And it’s rewarding to see how creative concepts can change to fit your language and culture. And if the client likes it, that’s very rewarding as well!

Lee: How did you learn to do this work?

Ellen: I learned by doing it. I started as a copywriter. I had a friend who was working on a transcreation project and they were looking for English to German. She asked me if I’d like to do that type of work. We had terrific collaboration with that client and I got experience through working with a lot of very well-known companies. And we went from there and never stopped!

Lee: Thank you, Ellen, for your insights into transcreation!


Want more info on executing transcreation projects? Check out our complete transcreation checklist.