Can I have just Translation, please?

Translation, Localization, Transcreation, Marketing translation, Creative translation, Adaptation, Transadaptation, Translocalization, Specialist translation for marketing, On-brand translation, Transcreation copywriting… the list is ever-expanding and is a source of confusion and bewilderment.

How the proliferation of terms is muddling the issue.

Translation, Localization, Transcreation, Marketing translation, Creative translation, Adaptation, Transadaptation, Translocalization, Specialist translation for marketing, On-brand translation, Transcreation copywriting… the list is ever-expanding and is a source of confusion and bewilderment.

Let’s remind ourselves of one thing: “Translation” has never meant, and does not mean, 1:1 translation, literal translation, or word-for-word translation. It has always meant: Taking a message from language A (source) into language B (target) in such a way that the information content, the meaning and the emotional impact stay as close as possible to the original, while resonating with a new audience, and coming across as natural and well-written. Of course, when you translate a technical text, the emphasis is very much on the accuracy of the information, whereas if you translate literature you are trying to capture atmosphere, emotions and stylistic nuances.

That’s what a translator does.

It strikes me that all the effort and intellectual energy that is now being spent on finding the definitive answer to the questions “What is the difference between Translation and Transcreation?” or “What’s the difference between Translation and Localization?” – this obsession with categorizing and subdividing translation, of finding ever more ways of defining the subtleties and slight variations – is a waste of time. Because it is not helping clients, nor is it doing anything for translation companies, or translators.

It is simply a diversion.

It does not add any value. In fact, it increases the risk of clients and vendors being unhappy. A client will order what they have understood is now called Transcreation, and when they get it back they say: “Oh, but this is not what we wanted, our marketing people in Paris had to rewrite it all.” Trying to define in one word what it is you think you need is just not possible.

Yet, every translation company out there seems to feel compelled to come up with an ever-larger menu of services they offer to existing and potential clients. Smart individuals or entire think tanks are compiling ever more sophisticated definitions of these terms, all convinced that they have cracked it. And yes, Alpha is guilty too. In that respect, we are just like the rest of the pack. But, quite frankly, I fear that our attempts to clarify and simplify and standardize are just

Right this minute, somewhere in the Bernese Oberland, Hotel Edelweiss or Adler is eagerly looking forward to reopening its doors for guests from China and India and wants to have its brochure and website in a number of languages. The hotel manager calls up the Smarttext translation company: “We’d like to get our website and a brochure or two translated into English, Chinese and Russian please. Can you give me a price?” Smarttext project manager: “Well, we have quite a menu of options. There is Raw machine translation without post-editing, machine translation with light editing, with full editing; then there is Human Translation, there is Transcreation, Localization, Marketing translation, Creative translation, Adaptation, Transadaptation…” Edelweiss: “Äh, äh, oh dear, we don’t want anything complicated, just Translation please.”

It’s like the guy who walks into a coffee shop asking for “a coffee” with the barista sneeringly pointing him to the blackboard offering the whole array of specialty coffees, different roasts and blends and origins…, “No, no, none of those, just a coffee please”.

In an era where everything seems to be about customization, personalization and user experience should we propose a different approach? One that really cares about what it is the client needs and how the conditions can be created – on both sides – to achieve this. By sitting across a table (virtually, most likely), finding out what the client is trying to achieve, who the content is intended for, and what the desired outcome is. And perhaps most importantly: who are the stakeholders, the people who in the end are going to give it their approval? Often, this is an in-country marketing team, but it might be a panel of end-users. Has the client previously had any of their content translated? Was that satisfactory? If not, what were the issues?

Is the project a one-off event, or are they looking for a long-term relationship? Is it part of a campaign? Are there any slogans that will be coming up in different contexts, perhaps, and therefore need to be constructed in a particular way?

If as a client you have a substantial project, say 200,000 words of website content, don’t just hand it over to your vendor and expect it back 4 weeks later, in 18 languages or more. Agree with them to do between 1000 and 3000 words as a “pilot”, or an experiment (perhaps 2 different text items), then get some feedback from your in-country people and organize a brainstorming meeting between them and the vendor’s linguists, to provide constructive criticism, suggestions, sore points, and tell them what you like and what you don’t and – if you can bring yourself to – why, and what you think needs improving or tweaking. On the other hand, you might come to realize that it is actually the source text that needs re-writing and condensing first, before you push it to translation.

So, to get off on the right foot, let’s not quibble about terms and definitions. 

Instead, let’s treat translation projects as an opportunity between partners to engage with each other, perhaps as you would with your creative agency, and to empower the translators. By making them part of a collaborative effort rather than a robot. That will give you a huge advantage, because what a successful translation project needs most, is what is all too often absent: collaboration and partnership between client and translation partner.

A collaboration where both sides care and bring to the project something more than what the machine can do. And where every translation is a good translation, fit for purpose – or even an outright success. In projects where everyone involved can feel proud. In the end, it is a question of how you do it, not of what you call it. It’s not the definition that counts, but the approach.

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