letters forming the word transcreation

Neither translation nor localization: What exactly is transcreation?

German Language , Transcreation

Although transcreation is becoming an increasingly popular service, many struggle to understand what it actually entails. Is it like creative translation? What does it have to do with copywriting? And how is it any different from localization? We try to make sense of all these confusing terms.

1. “Trans… what was it again?”

It’s a phrase we hear often when we speak to colleagues, friends, and clients about our favorite service: transcreation. Responses range from “Did you mean to say transcription?” to “Does it have something to do with the word ‘transgender’?”. We’ve heard it all. And truth be told, we’re aware that “transcreation” isn’t all that easy to pronounce at first. Perhaps a more sophisticated neologism would have been better suited to describe this elaborate service.

But the fact that the word “transcreation” is starting to become commonplace throughout the world is also positive. After all, the term sums it up perfectly. That’s because a transcreation is a mix of two different services:

Transcreation = translation and creation

Transcreation combines elements of translation and creation (or copywriting). In other words, a text is translated into another language as though it had been copywritten for the customers in that specific country or region. And here copywriting means more than just writing: It involves crafting a message with a specific target group in mind, one that appeals to readers and persuades them to put their trust in a company or purchase a certain product.

In the following paragraphs, we look at how transcreation differs from standard translation.

2. Translation vs. transcreation

Both translation and transcreation involve a text being rendered from one language into another. Both require intricate knowledge of the source language and the target language. And it is absolutely essential that the right terminology be used. Yet translation and transcreation are two quite different skills.

a. Translation: as accurate as the original

Translation involves the conversion of a written text from one language into another. If you were to place both texts side by side, you would see that all the information is exactly the same in both language versions. 

Here is an example of a typical candidate for translation: 

A software provider needs to have a user guide for their latest application translated into another language. This requires absolute precision as otherwise misunderstandings and a rise in incoming customer support requests will be inevitable. To ensure users are able to follow the instructions quickly and independently, the translation must use expressions correctly and each piece of information must be conveyed with the utmost accuracy. 

Conclusion: A translation is required for all texts that primarily aim to inform a reader, e.g. manuals and help articles, as well as legal or academic documents.

b. Transcreation: as effective as the original

Transcreation also involves the rendering of a text from language A to language B. However, the translation is not linear but focused on conveying the underlying message and achieving the same effect. If you were to place both texts side by side, you would quickly see that the content of the original and the target text sometimes differs considerably.

How about an example, you say? Let’s look at the now-classic slogan used by German electronics store chain Saturn:

Geiz ist geil. 

Whether you like the slogan or not, it is universally recognized in the German-speaking world where it is instantly linked to electronic goods sold at bargain prices. But how should we go about translating it into, say, English?

Stinginess is awesome.

Linguistically, there is nothing to fault. And yet even the untrained eye can spot that the English version is not as effective as the German original. This is partly down to the alliteration of the German slogan, which gives it that extra flair.

But even if we were to go for a slogan that rhymed (“Stinginess is awesomeness”), the message still wouldn’t be as catchy and effective as in German. We need a completely different formulation that reflects what the company offers but aims to preserve the emotional impact of the original slogan.

Conclusion: Transcreation is the right solution for those texts whose main objective is not to inform but to convey a specific emotional message and encourage a specific action, e.g. advertising that aims to generate enthusiasm for a product or PR copy designed to present a company in the best possible light. 

Can’t we just call it “localization”?

Transcreation is also sometimes mistaken for localization. As both approaches focus on culturally adapting the target text to the target market, this can, of course, easily cause confusion. But each involves a different method.

Localization is the process of adapting content or a product to the respective market. This means not only ensuring accuracy, as is the case with translation, but a text that complies with the cultural conventions of the target country. Here are a few examples:

  • In the US, dates are usually written in the following format: “MM/DD/YYYY”. If a text needs to be localized for the German or even the UK market, dates are written “DD/MM/YYYY” instead.
  • If an online store is looking to market their apparel internationally, the brand must be aware that clothing sizes differ depending on the country. For instance, a size 38 in Germany would be a size 40 in France and a 42 in Italy. To ensure customers’ orders fit and the store isn’t inundated with avoidable returns, it is vital to know exactly how sizing works on your target market.
  • In the popular fantasy novel and television series Game of Thrones, names that sound foreign to international audiences, such as King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, are adapted for each country. In Germany, the capital goes by the name Königsmund, whereas in France it is Port-Réal.

Conclusion: As well as translation, localization takes into account cultural associations, such as currencies, units of measurement, and clothes sizes, along with certain expressions or references specific to a certain territory, to ensure that the text makes sense on the target market. User interface options for software, product details for online stores or video and film content are prime examples of text requiring localization.

Transcreation goes one step further than localization: Individual elements are still adapted, but a transcreated text may also depart completely from the source text if it is deemed necessary to effectively convey the underlying message. This process is suited to content focused on achieving a certain effect, such as copy used in branding and advertising.

Is transcreation similar to copywriting?

To a certain extent, yes. After all, each transcreation requires a hearty dose of conceptual thinking. But the difference is that copywriters design and write content from scratch with the respective target group in mind. The basis for this is always a brief in which the copywriter works together with the client to establish the objectives, the target audience, the desired tone of voice and the effect. Transcreation specialists also work with a brief when transcreating, but they have access to the original text, which they must stick to as closely as possible, presenting them with an additional challenge. 

Transcreation – a combined service for advertising and emotive copy

As we have seen, transcreation is multifaceted and encompasses several services. Translation, localization, and transcreation are all geared towards creating a premium-quality text that is easily comprehensible for the target market. Knowing which service is right depends on each specific project. If a text is designed to elicit a response from the reader, for instance, getting them to make a purchase or sign up to a service, then transcreation is clearly the right way to go. So if a text needs to have a specific impact, you need a mix of translation and copywriting: Time for a “Trans-Creation”.

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Alarm clock and text "how long does transcreation take?"

How long does transcreation take?

German Language , Slogan , Transcreation

We’re often asked how quickly we can deliver. Generally, transcreating is one of – if not the – final step(s) in a long process that starts with the development of a brand and ends with the rollout of an international marketing strategy. Of course, project management would be a whole lot easier if the time required for transcreation could be neatly summarized in a simple formula, like so: 

Still with me? Jokes aside, working out the number of hours needed is far from straightforward. Clients are often surprised by how long it takes to transcreate a document. They wonder why a text that so many brilliant minds have labored over for countless hours can’t simply be translated into another language. Surely it’s not that hard?!

Exhibit A: the cult slogan

But what actually happens when a text is transcreated? Let’s take a well-known advertising slogan as an example: “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo!” At first glance, it seems unbelievably simple. But that is precisely what makes a slogan so unique: It manages to communicate the core message of a brand in just a few words. A slogan should be catchy, convey an emotion, and stick in the customer’s mind.
But what appears effortless is in fact the result of countless hours of brainstorming and seemingly never-ending discussions. To put it plainly: That one short sentence required a whole lot of work. If you were to literally translate the Haribo slogan into French, you would get the following: Les enfants et les adultes l’adorent, le joyeux monde d’Haribo. Although an accurate translation, it’s nowhere near as memorable. And you don’t have to be a French native speaker to see it: The rhyme is nowhere to be seen and the catchy melody of the original has been lost.

The transcreation process: back to the drawing board!

What we need is an alternative. To ensure the slogan (and thus the product) is also successful in the French-speaking world, a French version is required that customers will remember as soon as they hear it. But the French slogan must also stay true to the original. So, we need to

  • convey the message of the original slogan,
  • elicit a similar emotion among our French-speaking target audience, 
  • respect the brand’s tone of voice and values,
  • and create something that is short, snappy, and memorable.

In other words, a transcreator must come up with a brand-new slogan. And their method is similar to the one used to develop the original tagline. First, they make sure they have an overview of the company and their services, their target audience, and USPs; second, they brainstorm, i.e. develop several different versions; and, thirdly, they tweak the chosen phrase until it is as good as the original (if not better). If we return to our original example, we can compare our direct translation to the actual French slogan: Haribo c’est beau la vie, pour les grands et les petits. It sounds just like the original: It rhymes, it’s catchy, and it’s accurate. And it’s clear that this new transcreated version is a world away from the literal translation.

Worth the effort?

The second question that clients most often ask when considering transcreation is: “Is it worth the effort?” Most can understand the importance of going to such lengths to get a slogan right, but what about online copy, social media posts, and emails to clients? Surely they can just be translated, right? In her book Translation-Transkreation, Nina Sattler-Hovdar, the authority on the subject in the German-speaking world, recommends always resorting to transcreation if

“[…] the text to be translated is important for the client’s image (and thus has a direct or indirect impact on their revenue). […] This means texts that can substantially benefit a brand’s image (or do lasting damage to a brand if they underperform).” [Sattler-Hovdar, 2016: p. 20] (own translation).

But why? Let’s imagine you are working on an email campaign specifically aimed at a younger target group, e.g. millennials. You use a more informal style and perhaps consider a funny play on words for the subject line to grab your prospective customers’ attention (and to boost your open rate). What happens when this email is directly translated into German? Can you be sure to keep the same laid-back tone without offending any prospective readers? And what about your attention-grabbing subject line? Any sort of wordplay is almost always lost in a literal translation. In sum, everything that would resonate with your English-speaking audience and make your email unique would simply vanish – unless you decide to have your email transcreated so that the modern, fresh tone of voice is still conveyed but in a different way. 

Stay closely involved

Marketing texts involve considerable human and financial resources, and that is precisely why it is wise to also plan sufficient time for your transcreation. Only then can you be sure to convey the right message to your customers. So, how much time should you set aside for your transcreation? A good rule of thumb is to look at how much time it took to create the original: the longer it took to develop the final copy, the more time you will need to finalize your transcreation.

Ideally, you should ask an experienced transcreation specialist to give you their opinion. They should be able to tell you where the text is likely to cause issues in the target language and why. You might also be able to offer some helpful tips that enable transcreation professionals to come up with some effective alternatives: Even if you’re not a professional linguist, nobody knows your product or your company better than you. This means you are more involved in the transcreation process and may allow you to keep the number of necessary revisions to a minimum. It’s also important to thoroughly brief your transcreator. How should an audience perceive your brand? What does your company stand for? Who is your target audience? A professional will ask you all of these questions. The more information you can provide, the more efficient the remaining steps will be.

To summarize

The length of time needed to transcreate a text largely depends on how much creativity has gone into the original. For instance, a slogan usually requires more creative thinking than a newsletter text as it has to capture the very essence of a brand in just a handful of words. An experienced transcreation specialist will be able to give you an accurate estimate of the time required for your project so that the resulting text is just as well thought out, catchy, and compelling as the original.

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Gender-friendly German

Gender-friendly German – a question of choice

German Language , Transcreation

Language is a powerful thing. The words we use say a lot about our beliefs and the world we live in. When it comes to gender politics, it is widely agreed that language should be as gender-neutral as possible to avoid implying that one gender (namely the male gender) is the norm. But the issue is far from straight-forward in German-speaking countries where a fierce debate is raging on the subject. Firstly, not everyone agrees that language should be changed in an artificial way for the sake of gender neutrality, and secondly, even if they do, there is no consensus on how it should be done.

by our guest author Sarah Hudson, our UK-based transcreator colleague with a passion for the German language

Strange stars and unusual underscores

The situation is quite complex in the German-speaking world because German is an inflected language. This means that, unlike in English, endings are placed at the end of certain nouns to denote gender, for example, Lehrer (male teacher), Lehrerin (female teacher). In recent years, a range of different options have been devised to make these kinds of nouns more gender-neutral. These range from using both the feminine and masculine forms of the noun (the paired form) to the more unusual ‘ich’ and generic neuter forms. So, for example, when German speakers want to write the word “Student”, they can in theory choose from a plethora of options:

Student und Studentin                  Paired form

Student/-innen                                Oblique

StudentInnen                                   Connecting ‘I’

Student*innen                                 Gender star (Gendersternchen)

Student_innen                                 Gender gap

Student:innen                                  Gender colon

Student!nnen                                   Gender exclammation mark

Studierende                                     Nominalised form

der Student                                      Generic masculine

die Studentin                                    Generic feminine

das Student                                      Generic neuter

Studentich                                        ‘Ich’ (I) form

Twinkle, twinkle, gender star!

The form chosen very much depends on the user’s preferences. The paired and oblique forms are most often found in official writing, for example, by the tax authorities; the connecting ‘I’ is the preferred option in Switzerland; and the city of Lübeck in northern Germany even decreed that everyone living in the area should use the colon because it is easy to find on a computer keyboard. Meanwhile, the gender star (Gendersternchen) has found favour in academic circles, partly because it covers non-binary forms. But despite its increasing popularity, not everyone likes it. In 2020, the Association for German Language (GfdS) called for it to be scrapped, along with other punctuation forms used for this purpose such as colons and underscores. The GfdS argues that they are not precise enough, and cause inconsistencies and grammatical confusion. And then there is the issue of how to pronounce words such as Student*innnenStudentsterncheninnen is almost unpronounceable!

One gender marker for all

Despite these concerns, some German speakers and academics are calling for even more radical change to avoid discriminatory language of any kind. One option is the use of the generic neuter. This means that instead of saying ‘der Student’ (male student) or ‘die Studentin’ (female student), ‘das Student’ should be used. Another option advocated by German feminist linguist Luise Pusch is the use of the ‘ich’ suffix. ‘Ich’ is the German word for ‘I’. Luise Pusch is in favour of placing it at the end of nouns to create forms, such as ‘Studentich’. Some German speakers have also started to adopt a gender-neutral pronoun system using the word ‘xier’ to replace ‘he/she’. Graphic designer and linguist Anna Heger has even developed an entire alternative grammar system using these forms. For example, the sentence Sie packt ihren Koffer (she packs her suitcase) would become Xier packt xiesen Koffer and the same form would be used for ‘he packs his suitcase’. Similar systems are also being developed in French and Spanish, but it is very unlikely that any of these more radical approaches will be widely accepted any time soon. If nothing else, they are helping to stoke the fires of debate.

A triumph of reason

Various prominent newspapers, such as Die Welt am Sonntag in Germany and the Krone newspaper in Austria, have recently run surveys to gauge public opinion on the matter of gender-neutral German. The results of the surveys may possibly say more about the politics and age of the participants; however, they demonstrate that a high proportion of the general public is against the use of “artificial” non-gendered language, with Die Welt reporting that 63 per cent of those surveyed would rather the language was left well alone. Germany’s other prominent language association, Verein Deutsche Sprache, has described these results as a “triumph of reason” and believes that they underscore the fact that it is the media and academia that are trying to force change and not the average person in the street. There are also signs that some people are becoming more than impatient about recent attempts by organisations to impose gender-sensitive language. An Audi employee has recently filed a lawsuit against the company because he believes its “dictatorially prescribed” language infringes his personal rights.

Case not closed

It is therefore clear that many people in German-speaking countries are not in favour of their language been radically changed, but this does not mean that the matter of gender-friendly language is closed. Many organisations, including government departments, are still laying out clear policies to increase the visibility and rights of women, transgender and non-cis people, and this extends to the use of language. It could be argued that the debate around the subject in German-speaking countries is diverting attention away from the real issue at hand, in other words, the rights of marginalised groups. Moreover, focusing on concerns about controlling or policing language ignores the fact that providing different options actually gives people the opportunity to decide for themselves and represents the exact opposite of control. The issue therefore centres on choice. When all is said and done, the debate is at least helping to stimulate discussion and raise awareness about an important subject.

Navigating the gender-friendly German minefield

So, what should you do when you need to translate information or marketing materials into German? The simple answer: know your audience and ask them what they would prefer. Their preferences may depend on their own personal stance or on the rules the organisations they represent follow. It is especially important to work with native German-speaking translators or transcreators who are knowledgeable about the different issues and who can provide you with the best possible advice. Experienced translators keep up to date with prevailing opinions and understand how to comply with the wishes and expectations of your target audience. A trusted language specialist can also help you compose a style guide to ensure the rules are followed consistently across your organisation to avoid any unnecessary uncertainty or confusion. It is also important to be very careful if you use machine translation tools such as Google Translate or DeepL because they do not handle non-gendered language accurately or consistently. If you do decide to use machine translation for simple and repetitive texts, it is definitely worth working with a trained linguist who can check that the machine output is correct and appropriate because getting it wrong can cause significant reputational damage.

Language is not set in amber and is constantly evolving to reflect our changing lives, experiences and cultures. Some of the seemingly madcap options mentioned above may actually become mainstream one day. In the meantime, we should think of Bob Dylan’s sage words, “The times they are a-changin’” – to remind us that we must do our best to change with them too.

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The business of branding: What does a pretzel have to do with transcreation?

German companies often believe they need an English name and slogan to sound truly international. Even we thought as much as we were building the brand for our joint business venture: a platform for German marketing and PR translations from English, Italian, and French. It didn’t take us long to realize one vital fact: Even if you think you’ve hit upon the perfect idea for your company name, your target market will (and should) always have the final say.

A coffee mug and a pretzel… how do they relate to transcreation?

Brand development is an exciting yet onerous task for many businesses. Initially, you focus solely on your key message and how you would like your brand to be perceived. The next step is putting these ideas into practice. Several rounds of trial and error follow until you eventually arrive at a solution that works not only for your business but for your target market.

That’s precisely what we did after making the decision to join forces and launch our own German transcreation business. Right from our first brainstorming session, we knew that we didn’t want our brand name to feature the words “translation” or “language”. This was partly driven by a desire to stand out from our competitors in the translation world, where business names often relate to language or play with linguistic terms. But, crucially, our preferred choices were already taken – and the relevant domain names too.

An international focus with a German twist

We thus set about finding a name that adequately reflected who we are and what we do. It needed to be international but still have a connection to Germany.

Our minds soon turned to a delicious German baked good that is instantly recognizable and known the world over: the pretzel. It features signature twists and loops, which could also serve as a metaphor for the transcreation process: After all, a transcreator sometimes has to take a meandering route to find the best word or phrase. It seemed to perfectly capture our brand. Before long, we were conjuring up ideas based on the doughy delicacy. To make our brand sound more international, we opted for the English equivalent instead of the German word (Brezel). After several rounds of elimination, the candidates on our final list included:

  • Pretzelize it
  • Pretzel Branding
  • Pretzel Logic

Our shortlist also featured a name that we instantly liked even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the word “pretzel”: “Saramatik”, our two names combined – Sarah and Magali – with a German-sounding twist at the end, like the popular Asterix comics, where the names of the Gaulish characters end in “ix” and the Goths in “ic” (or “ik” in the German versions).

Both of us were convinced by our pretzel idea, but we also wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t end up being inundated with cake orders or that the name didn’t conjure up any unwanted images in readers’ minds. More importantly, our name not only needed to work in English and German but in French and Italian too. We therefore decided to unleash our creations upon an international test group for some honest feedback.

Not so logical after all

It was an exciting race to see which name would come out on top. We kept tabs on how our test group responded to each suggestion and learned many interesting new facts along the way, e.g. that “Pretzel Logic” is the name of a Steely Dan song. Not only that, but the expression can also be used to describe someone’s “twisted reasoning”. As our service primarily focuses on precisely conveying a company’s branding in another language, “Pretzel Logic” suddenly seemed a less than ideal choice.

“Pretzelize it” and “Pretzel Branding” divided opinion. Like us, many approved of the names’ reference to a tasty treat. But no one was able to decipher an exact meaning. A French native speaker, for example, had no idea what “pretzel” even meant, as the French use the word bretzel. As for “Pretzelize”, well… the following Wiktionary definition stopped that idea dead in its tracks:

Pretzelize: To deform a simple linear idea into a superfluously complex explanation.

Our aim is to offer natural and fluent sounding adaptations of marketing texts; the last thing we would want to do is “pretzelize” our clients’ copy! 

“Saramatik”, however, went down well with all our target groups irrespective of their native language. The name also passed the following branding check with flying colors: 

  • The name and domain were available. ✔
  • It was short and concise enough to also work well as a logo. ✔
  • “Saramatik” was easy for everyone to pronounce, be they native speakers of English, French, or Italian. ✔
  • The name was unambiguous in all the languages spoken by our test group (although it would probably be wise to avoid the abbreviation “SM”). ✔

Our survey thus gave us a clear winner. Sorry, team pretzel – no spoils for you. Saramatik is the victor!

Take the time to get your branding right

Finding the right name for your business not only requires creativity but patience and a cool head. Blind enthusiasm can quickly turn into disappointment if your chosen name is already taken or just doesn’t make any sense in your target market. That is why we recommend investing plenty of time in research, brainstorming, and evaluation.

Ideally, you should ask a language professional to offer feedback on a short list of your favorite ideas. This is especially true when your brand name needs to be effective in more than one language. 

We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped bring this project to life with their valuable feedback and many useful suggestions. We are very much looking forward to launching Saramatik and can’t wait to hear the many stories behind our clients’ company names. 

And should you require any assistance with German branding for your business, we will be happy to help you with tips, feedback, and copywriting skills.

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