Translator vs. Transcreator

With the debate about translation and transcreation still in full swing, it occurs to me that while it is tempting to see this as two activities along the same line, progressing in a linear fashion and merging into each other, we might have to recognize that this transition may not be smooth.

Acquiring more visibility?

With the debate about translation and transcreation still in full swing, it occurs to me that while it is tempting to see this as two activities along the same line, progressing in a linear fashion and merging into each other, we might have to recognize that this transition may not be smooth. It requires translators to step out of invisibility and acquire a new status.

The change from 1:1 equivalence (aka technical translation), via a slightly freer, less constrained, more emotional translation activity (aka marketing translation) to the lofty heights of ever greater freedom (transcreation) in order to, perhaps, finally arrive at the pinnacle – copywriting -, is not necessarily gradual, and does not happen all by itself.

Seeing the requests that are now starting to come in from clients, it does seem that transcreation is starting to take on a life of its own – and is in fact quite different from translation. Are we, as translators, prepared for this change?

Translators who have been toiling away in the shadow of others – the authors/originators of pieces of writing – are now required to shake off the constraints of serfdom, with its (often tedious) adherence and subordination to a source and become truly free (transcreators, copywriters) is a major feat, certainly a challenge. It requires a change of perception, and a re-orientation. A new understanding of one’s job. Translators do not simply morph into Transcreators. Above all, they need a new working relationship with their clients. One that involves more talking to each other, more sharing of knowledge, context and background.

So, far from being a seamless transition or simply a change of nomenclature, this is a true transformation and a change of paradigm. It is asking translators to emerge from long obscurity and anonymity, from being obedient, invisible and silent servants, from marginalized asterisks at the bottom of the page.* It is asking them to step out, perhaps not into the limelight, but certainly to surface and to take on a more assertive stance, to be more daring and self-confident.

Until now, translators have always been judged by their ability to render the source as faithfully and as fluently as possible. Failure to do that was and is considered bad practice or worse, treason. They are expected not to change anything except the elements as demanded by the target language, but certainly not to add anything or omit anything. In fact the Charta of the International Federation of Translators states the obligation unequivocally: “Every translator shall be faithful and render exactly the idea and form of the original – this fidelity constituting both a moral and a legal obligation for the translator.”

Norman Shapira said it nicely:

I see translation as the attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass. You only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections— scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself.

And just as the translation should not attract attention, so the translator should not step forward, or be seen. He/she provides a service, in other words, is a servant who does ‚what his/her master – the originator of the text – tell him/her. The translators‘ deliverables are expected to be completely true to the original, and not show any traces of their work. (How bizarre is that: to do a job that is not allowed to be what it is? – but pretend it is something different…). Even less must translators show any trace of their own character, beliefs, disbeliefs or ideas. In other words, he/she must make themselves invisible. Or certainly as small as possible. That this is so, can traced a long way back: the first graphic representation of a translator/interpreter is that of a tiny personage between the Egyptian pharaoh and the foreign visitors who are kneeling before him, each conversing in their own language, depending on the interpreter. The interpreter is half the size of the pharaoh, but much, much smaller also than the foreign delegates!

But now, all of a sudden, we are asked to “grow”, to free ourselves from the fetters of the sacrosanct source text, and to convey the message in a much more autonomous manner. To concoct something of our own, adding, elaborating, modifying, omitting, embellishing. Come out of the shade and step into the full sunlight. With transcreation, no doubt we are crossing the border between translation as a work-for-hire and an original piece of work.

All of a sudden, the safe ground is shifting underneath us, the ground (the source text) is in flux, is being questioned even. Gone are the times when we were asked to preserve the original that lies beneath, the unchangeable source text that is intrinsically unchangeable, and correct. Our brief is now to do something different, to be assertive, authoritative. We are instructed to come up with our own ideas, thoughts, to be creative. “Transcreate” means to “provide a new life for something” – make it into something that will work in another country, another culture. Imbibe it with meaning, make it speak to a different audience, using whatever means we feel are needed.

That, clearly, is quite a different ball game.

The question arises whether transcreation is taking us to the point where we will be credited with the success or blamed for the failure of an advertisement, or an entire campaign? And is it really all to do with different locales – or are we asked to cover up the shortcomings of the original text? Is it simply that the source has lost its special status?

Just how much freedom are we allowed to take – and who will say when a translation is “good enough” and when a “transcreation” is needed? Who will say when the transcreation falls short, is just right or has gone too far? Just how long is the leash we are kept on?

To what extent can we use the source as a starting point, a stepping stone – are we meant to discard it altogether? How safe is that, how dangerous? In embracing transcreation, are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice who has conjured up the magic of his master in his desire to be autonomous – only to find that the situation grows out of control? And that he has over-estimated his own powers?

In any case, transcreation requires a big leap. And some re-education for both translators and their clients.


*as described beautifully on the first few pages of a novel I have been trying to read for the past 4 weeks, but have not had the time to really get into (as it is a complex story-within-a-story story). For those of you who are keen to get their teeth into something totally original and compulsive, providing insights into our profession and in particular about the relationship between the author and the translator, and who can find the time, it is The Revenge of the Translator, or, in its original French: Vengeance du traducteur, by Brice Matthieussent (translated by Emma Ramadan, who plays a special role in the novel herself …)

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