Analyzing Transcreation Skills needed, examples, how to, when to.

Greater than 10 minutes, my friend!

Definitions of what transcreation is and what it is not vary. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll simply say that transcreation is the rewriting of a material in a source language into the same emotional context in a target language.

In this article, we’ll talk about the skills a person needs in order to transcreate, how to acquire or hone these skills, enumerate the steps for transcreating, exemplify the transcreation process, and then we’ll end with when you should and when you should not employ transcreation.


“What are the skills required in order to be a good transcreator?”

That’s kind of simple to answer. The same skills you need to be a successful translator. Creativity, intelligence, sociability, and knowledge. Within these skills, I can pinpoint a few things out:

  •  Writing skills are important because you’ll find yourself recreating a lot of text, so the better you can write, the easier it will be to generate variations of a sentence that you can use.
  • Interpretation is deeply important, because you need not only to read a particular work and recreate its statements in your language, you need to drill its hidden meanings and expose them, too. This is especially important in creative works such as in literature, narratives, video games, and any other creative media.
  • Interest in the project is often overlooked, and will be a subject for another discussion, but for now, suffice it to say that being interested in whatever it is you are working on will allow you to find new perspectives that the common readers would ignore. The more involved you are, the richer your transcreation will be.
  • Communication plays a huge role, because if you can’t figure out an interpretation by yourself, you need to fish as much as possible from your client about what he intended. Talk to him, explain what you are seeing, preferentially by phone or any other direct form of voice communication and understand his will, first.
  • Thinking outside the box is most useful to identify the simplest of solutions in as little time as possible, and with the least effort.
  • Lastly, adaptability and an open mind, in order to learn from your mistakes, to absorb skill from others, and to set aside preconceived, outdated ideas.

“But Otávio,” you say, “I don’t have X skills, may I still transcreate?” If you think you are lacking on any particular aspect, all you need is experience, and the disposition to learn. Practice without desire is the same as watching the grass grow, so focus your intent on improvement, and even your failures, if any, will propel you forward.


So what can I do to improve my skills in transcreation?

Do you like movies? TV series? Books? Grab something you love, or deeply understand, in both your second and native languages, and compare the most complicated portions of it. You’ll find the most extensive examples of transcreation in the translation of songs and poems, images and marketing, jokes and puns.

Video subtitling, due to its technical impositions and/or limitations can also be quite an exercise in finding different ways of translating the same sentences, and mostly so to transcreate.

Another way is to practice rewriting. If you are not feeling confident to rewrite in the source language, do so in your native language, until you find the necessary flow.


How do you transcreate?

1.      Know the project by heart.

2.      Read the sentence.

3.      Interpret its hidden meanings.

4.      Visualize the situation and its emotional context.

5.      Forget the sentence.

6.      Rewrite the image in your mind, maintaining the emotional context, in your native language.

7.      Compare the two sentences, bring the target as close to the source as possible without hindering the feeling.

8.      Keep translating the rest of the project.

9.      Come back again a couple of days later to re-read the transcreation, and find another, more adequate, way of doing it. If there is any.

That’s the basic idea. Some sentences will require a lot more work than others, it depends on its depth and how much complexity you really need to give it. Whenever you translate a slang or a common saying, you are doing some level of transcreation, even if mechanically, but these are the steps to be taken when dealing with huge creative endeavors.

To explain things a little bit, knowing the project is going to make you more competent. If you can advertise the project to someone who knows nothing of it, you are probably knowledgeable enough about it to transcreate it. If you are an UPF (Ultra Passionate Fan), as Mark Hamill would put it, then the result will be even better.

Reading the sentence and interpreting its meanings comes down to being able to identify all the references attached to the source, all the nods given, all the strings being pulled and all the pieces in play, what the author had in mind, the position he was sitting when he wrote it, and what he wanted people to think and feel when they read it. Not every sentence will require that much study, but you really need to be skilled at it to identify the ones that do.

The reason I made this sentence so long is to use it as an example later in this discussion.

Now, when I say “visualize” I don’t necessarily mean “to see it with your mind’s eye.” Some people have their vision as their main physical sense, others have their hearing, others have their touch, but whatever it is that fits you best, the important thing here is to create something you can feel in your mind in order to give it a shape different than the sentence you extracted it from. This mentalization helps you to grasp the meaning instead of the words.

Rewriting the image, sound, sensation, or whatever it is you invented, in a different way can be a bit awkward at first until you learn to separate from the source the right way. It takes a bit of practice, like everything else in life. Ironically, I do advise keeping it as close as possible to the original, but that’s because I still believe that the original piece is the only to truly satisfy the creative reasoning behind it.

You may find a translated technical description which is better, clearer, more concise, than the original, but can you find a translated book which is as emotional (or more) than the original version? That transmits the author’s intent as deeply as his own words? Who can transform your own work in a better version than you, yourself, can make it? Well, Editors can make it more polished, that’s their job, but the creative idea behind it is yours alone.

Thankfully, transcreating something is a lot like being an Editor, except you are editing your own work. That’s why I tell you to give it a couple of days before you return to a transcreated job. You’ll have had plenty of time to forget your tendencies, and new ideas will come to mind. You’ll more easily perceive the mistakes you made, and by having continued with the translation, you may just have acquired enough knowledge to improve your transcreation.


Practical Examples of Transcreation

This example will be in Brazilian Portuguese, because that’s the language pair I work with, but our analysis won’t depend on the language. A small excerpt from a TV series. A man talks to his friend, referring to the adventure they are about to enter into:

“Guns, tits, and all that. Mindless shit that I usually enjoy.”

The translation: “Armas, mulheres e tudo mais. Futilidades das quais eu gosto.”

Translated back: “Guns, women and all that. Futilities which I enjoy.”

This was transcreated, probably unconsciously, in the process of translating it. It was written in a way which you could imagine any Brazilian native talking. However, I’d argue that this transcreation, while ultimately fulfilling its purpose, has failed to capture one key aspect of the character: his vulgarity.

This character is used a number of times in the series to demonstrate the human disregard for others, its futility-seeking nature, and to be a pain the ass in general. As such, it’s important to present him in as raw and crude state as possible. A probably more appropriate way to transcreate this would be:

“Armas, peitos e tudo mais. Futilidades das quais eu gosto.”

Which translates back to: “Guns, boobs and all that. Futilities which I enjoy.

There are other variations we could employ here. The point is, the vulgarity is one of the emotional aspects to be transmitted, and the translation has to reflect that. In this case, it was only about one word. One word was all it took to bring the right sensation to the viewer. I’m not to judge the merit of the style changes made, just the underlying message.

Another example: “…comes down to being able to identify all the references attached to the source, all the nods given, all the strings being pulled and all the pieces in play, what the author had in mind, the position he was sitting…”

A transcreated translation would read something like that: “…se resume a conseguir identificar todas as referências ligadas à fonte, as dedicatórias concedidas, os prêmios entregues, os elementos envolvidos, as interações físicas entre eles, o humor do autor na hora da escrita e o que ele comeu no café da manhã…”

Which translates back to: “…comes down to being able to identify all the references attached to the source, all the dedications conceived, the attributed prizes, the elements involved, the physical interactions between them, the author’s mood at the time of writing and what he ate for breakfast…”

You can notice that the words are quite different, but both imply the very same thing: that you need to be able to discern all the nuances. The translation was made by rewriting it in such a way that feels much more common, and to a certain extent, natural, in the target language, than to translate it literally. How do I know the transcreation was fitting with the author’s intent? Well, I am the author of both, so I should know, but in case I weren’t, either experience or communication would reveal it to me.

Lastly, NETFLIX has a few words to say about this in their Partner Help Center:

“Awkward language pulls you out of the viewing experience instead of supporting the experience. Often, these errors are not egregious, but quite subtle in nature. We may reject a file for containing translations that are grammatically correct, but are simply phrases and colloquialisms that are not natural to the viewer. For example, if a character is saying the equivalent of, “let me refresh your memory” in a language other than English, the English translation should not be, “let me refresh your mind.” (…) we can infer the intended meaning here, but it simply does not read naturally. People do not say, “let me refresh your mind” when reminding someone of a past memory.”


When should you NOT transcreate?

  • Technical documents such as engineering projects and descriptions of surgical operations where every word of every step is of crucial importance are not projects to be transcreated. Or rather, not the portions of the project that should be. You need to be as cold and specific as you can in these conditions.
  • When you are too emotionally attached to the topic and you wish to add your own opinion to the transcreation. If that ever happens, put some distance between you and the project, and get back to it only after you’ve disconnected. While the translation is yours, the words are not to be. Never add your personality to your transcreation unless it is with permission, motive and incentive to do so by your client.
  • When you don’t know the target audience. That could go to translation, as well, but in transcreation, If you don’t know the people (say, of a specific target region in your country, which you never had any contact with, or a specific group) then you won’t be able to make the best transformation possible. Knowing a language is not enough if you don’t know the slang.
  • When the transcreation will affect an established personality of a character, setting, universe, etc. which exists beyond the source language or material. If you are transcreating the biography of Batman, for instance, you need to go the extra mile not to change anything that would conflict with other versions or hurt how the audience perceives the character, unless that is the specific reason you were hired for.
  • Without a direct link of communication with your client, or the project’s author, or a creative director, you cannot hope to get every interpretation flawlessly, and you might end up messing with a simple translation. If you are in an agency, for instance, and you have no connection to the client, it’s usually best to be as straight as possible.
  • WHEN YOU WANT TO. You don’t transcreate because you think it’s cool, or because you feel like it, or because you want to by nature’s whim. You do it because you need to in order to convey the author’s message in an adequate way in your native language.


So, when DO you use transcreation?

As a rule of thumb, you transcreate whenever you cannot maintain the core message from the source to the target while also keeping it natural.

One particular way I like to tackle this is:

First, I try translating it as literally as possible in my mind. If the result feels good, then I keep it that way.

If the result doesn’t feel good, then I try shifting the words’ placements, add some commas, substitute repetitive words, until I find a structure that would sound more natural. If that does the trick, we keep moving.

If that is still not enough, it’s time to transcreate.

That way, you keep the author’s original message as close as you can to the way he intended it to be delivered. You maintain a higher integrity of his thoughts and emotional effects. But when you find something that really needs to change, something that simply won’t work the way he wanted it to, then that’s when you do your magic.

Remember, you are translating for the satisfaction of your client, so if he says “Well, that’s not quite the message I wanted to send”, you should try finding another solution that best fits his tastes, while also feeling natural in your native language. But if your client’s message absolutely cannot be communicated to the target audience the way he wants to, not in the given context, then remember your client that he is trying to satisfy his clients, which speak your language, and that he hired you specifically because you can help him achieve that. He needs to trust your judgment on this as well. You’re a professional.

This article was partially inspired in the webinar “Understanding Transcreation”, by Tanya R. Quintieri, , and the webinar “Video Game Localization”, by Anthony Teixeira and Igor Kozlov, both held by SmartCAT.

Otávio Banffy

About Otávio Banffy

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8 thoughts on “Analyzing Transcreation Skills needed, examples, how to, when to.

  1. Great piece, Otávio, quite a full immersion in the dimension of transcreation 🙂
    I find it interesting that you should quote that excerpt about Netflix’s standards, because I wouldn’t see the translation of the sentence in the example (“let me refresh your memory”) as a transcreation. Building a natural sentence in the target language is a basic requisite of translation itself. You don’t need transcreation to do that, do you? But maybe I just missed the point 🙂 Anyway, it was all very, very interesting!

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    1. Hi Eleonora! Thank you so much, I’m glad you liked it! 🙂

      I believe that in order to build a natural sentence you usually need to employ some level of transcreation, but we do so naturally, without thinking about it (when we are in the “flow”). In some genres and medias, more so than others. Whenever we translate a common saying or slang, we are using transcreation, even if indirectly. When we rephrase a sentence, when we add punctuation, it’s also an application of transcreation. Or at least that’s my view of it. Transcreation merges naturally with the practice of translation, and that’s one of the reasons I believe it is so important.

      The Netflix example serves as a few reminders, mostly so about how important transcreation really is. Another way to put it would be: “A translation isn’t good enough in today’s standards without transcreation.” Transcreation is about making it feel right. Translation is about making something in another language able to be read. Intertwined, we do a better job. But that’s just my view. Does that make sense?

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  2. This is nowhere near transcreation, nor the way to work yourself towards it:

    “If the result doesn’t feel good, then I try shifting the words’ placements, add some commas, substitute repetitive words, until I find a structure that would sound more natural.”

    It’s good translation.

    Transcration is when the back translation makes no sense to the author of the source text, especially when they don’t know the target language – but you know that it does. That it triggers the same emotions the author wanted to trigger with their source [text]. Or when you rework the entire content (including images, etc.). In any case, cultural nuances and demographics are a vital part of transcreation, especially when it means that you need to turn a message upside-down to capture the new audience. But that’s just my humble opinion.

    Transcreation starts with consulting, not with working your way from literal translation to something that might qualify as transcreation.

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    1. Tanya, Otavio didn’t say that “shifting the words’ placements, adding some commas, substituting repetitive words, etc.” was his method of transcreation. He said that when none of those things work, then it is time to consider transcreation. Now, I do understand that determining if transcreation is needed or not takes more than just that. But I still wanted to clarify what he did say in his post. Personally, I believe transcreation always takes place during translation and it’s something expected of high-quality translations. Just my humble opinion. =-)

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  3. Difference between a copy-editor and an editor is that while the former is chained to do editing within his/her boundaries (viz. spelling and grammar checks), an editor is free to do what s/he thinks fit (changing words, sentences, and even deleting/adding sentences). I don’t know whether a translator and a trans-creator fit into this scenario. To my understanding, a translator’s job is to understand the meaning of the content in a source language and recreate the same meaning in a target language. If the meaning is proper and understandable to the target audience and culturally acceptable, it matters little what words are used.

    A well-translated piece is in fact a well-edited text that represents its original language, despite of the focus of the matter. If the end document isn’t understandable for its intended audience, the work has been done in vain and the client and original author have been poorly served.

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