Translation, localization and transcreation

Whether you are a professional translator, a budding linguistic or simply a client just trying to navigate the expansive waters that are the multiple fields of translation, it is without a doubt that wrapping your head around all the jargon used in translation can be tricky. What’s a copywriter? What’s the difference between proofreading and reviewing? What is domestication and foreignization? It can all get …. a bit much. Well, readers, do not fret. We have got you covered. One of the most asked questions we get in our profession is “what is localization? What is transcreation? Why do I need them and what for?” In this article, we will take a deep dive into the differences between translation, localization and transcreation.
These three concepts are often thought to be divided into neat translation factions which our clients can easily recognize and choose according to their project needs. Unfortunately (as is the case with most things in the world of translation), it’s not as clear-cut as that. Rather, we ought to think of these terms as being different levels belonging to a gradient scale on which the concepts merge and intersect. We may consider them to be 3 overlapping layers of the same service.


Translation (Layer 1):

Comparatively, the notion of translation is seemingly quite simple, right? Just render the words from one language into another and there you have it: translation. Wrong. There’s a reason we often use our beloved expression, lost in translation.
In translation, there is generally a focus on structuring phrases to meet the linguistic requirements and expectations of a language system. For example, if we were to translate word-for-word (literally, without restructuring) the Japanese question ‘O namae wa nan desu ka (名前はなんですか)’, we would be left with ‘your name what it is?’. Now, does that sound like fluent English to you?
The main aim for translators is to create a precise and effective translation that conveys the same message from the original text in the target language while upholding the rules of grammar and syntax.
From a client perspective, translation of products and websites can be effective in accelerating customer experience and reaching wider audiences. However, clients need to be particular with what they choose to translate. Take the example of the car manufacturer Mercedes. In attempts to reach a more global audience, they translated their name into the closest Chinese equivalent: Mercedes Bensi. Doesn’t seem like too much of an issue, right? Well, it is if we consider that ‘bensi’ in Chinese is understood as ‘rush to die’, which we’re sure is not quite the image they were going for. This leads us nicely into the next overlapping subgroup in the world of ‘Translation’: Localization.

Localization (Layer 2):

Have you ever found you’re bewildered by the concept of degrees Fahrenheit? Really, how hot even is 97 degrees Fahrenheit? Or maybe you’ve found yourself at a loss when a recipe tells you to add 3 cups of sugar. Do you use your big mug or the cup you use to drink tea (a very British problem)? Well, this all falls under the umbrella of localization.
In layman’s terms, we can understand localization as the cultural adaption of products to suit the norms of a collective society. This can happen interlingually (between different languages) or intralingually (between different cultures of the same language). The process goes beyond the surface level of translation and changes things such as colour, date and time formats, images and layout in order to make a product more culturally appropriate and appealing for the target audience.
You might ask, do I really need this for products like marketing material, when using a one-size-fits-all template would really save me a lot of time and money? You especially need localization if you are looking to successfully expand your brand to a more global market. Let’s see why.
The Swedish vacuum company Electrolux attempted to expand to the US market with a  slogan which they translated to “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. Hard to see why the company never really took off in the US, right?
An example of good localization can be seen with the brand Coca-Cola. Do you remember way back when in 2013/2014 when Coca-Cola decided to make their packaging more personal and so printed names on their cans? This marketing strategy saw drinks flying off the shelves and was undoubtedly a success in the West. However, what do you do when your campaign is centred around personal connection and you’re expanding to a target audience that comes from a culture where personal connection is less favoured? Well, in China, where a person’s name is often accompanied by different ranking honorifics (think, Sir, Madam, Master, Lord etc,.), Coca-Cola thought to replace names with people’s connections with each other. Through this localization strategy, people were gifting Coke cans with ‘friend’ and ‘classmate’ on them; a much more culturally sensitive initiative.


Transcreation (Layer 3):

Just as localization goes beyond the limits of translation, so too does transcreation build on localization. Arle Lommel, Senior Analyst for Common Sense Advisory, describes this process as “the creation of content in the target language that is inspired by the source.” In other words, where the previous two processes involved the rending of one language’s cultural product into another, transcreation is essentially starting over again and building up a brand or product from zero, using the roots of the new audience. Sounds a little abstract, right?
Well, branding is a complex blend of language, visual content and storytelling. There are just some nuances and culturally nods that can’t be translated across to another language or culture. For example, as soon as we take a brand name with a clever play on words and try to recreate it in another language, the effect is often lost.
Transcreation looks to create the essence of the message, product or brand by constructing everything again with the new audience in mind. This means you could end up with an entirely different slogan or branding when compared with the original but it will be content that resonates with the audience on a much deeper level.
The transcreator needs to know the marketing aspects of the original product and equally render that within the framework of cultural and social norms in the target language. This is a creative process that works closely with one specific target culture. Alternatively, localizers need to understand the variable characteristics of a product and need to know how to render them in multiple other receiving cultures. This process is a lot less creative and a lot more systematic.
So, how about an example to drive the point home? Red Bull is a perfect example of good transcreation. Whilst expanding to the Chinese market, they changed the colours of their cans to gold, their bulls to red and their writing to black. This is because gold and red together are considered as lucky or prestigious in the Chinese culture and because red bulls are also seen as being more stylized for the market.


We hope that has managed to clear up a few confusions with these commonly misunderstood translation terms. As always, if you still are not quite sure where your translation needs fit on this scale, it’s always best to give your translation company of choice a call and simply ask.





About Christian Copeland

Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.

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