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All about transcreation

Transcreation is a term used chiefly by advertising and marketing professionals to refer to the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. A successfully transcreated message evokes the same emotions and carries the same implications in the target language as it does in the source language. Increasingly, transcreation is used in global marketing and advertising campaigns as advertisers seek to transcend the boundaries of culture and language. It also takes account of images which are used within a creative message, ensuring that they are suitable for the target local market.

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Terms with meanings similar to transcreation include ‘creative translation’, ‘cross-market copywriting’, ‘international copy adaptation’, ‘marketing translation’, ‘internationalization’, ‘localization’ and ‘cultural adaptation’. For each of these words and phrases, the thrust is similar: taking the essence of a message and re-creating it in another language or dialect.


Transcreation is a relatively new term and its precise meaning is still being defined. In 2000 the term was registered as UK Trademark No. 2222617 by United Publicity Services Plc; this registration as a trademark expired in February 2010. It's worth noting that according to UPS Translations - the trading name of United Publicity Services Plc, the trademark expired because UPS's trademark agent passed away and they weren't reminded to renew within the 10 year period - when UPS did attempt to renew the mark the term had by then become standard industry terminology and so a renewal was not allowed.[1] According to the former Chairman and Managing Director of United Publicity Services Plc, Bernard Silver, the word transcreation was invented by him in the late 1960s when he ran an advertising agency called Silver Advertising Ltd. (As an aside it's worth noting that Bernard Silver also invented the phrase Liberal Democrat, which is now a very commonly used term and the name of a UK national political party). Despite this claim the term "transcreation" dates from at least the mid-1950s as the English name for a major Japanese political party. "The LDP has been in power since 1955 ... It holds 295 seats in the lower house and 115 seats in the upper house..." When first used in the 1960s and 1970s transcreation was a term coined to describe the translation of creative ad copy. UPS Translations subsequently developed the term into a specific process for tackling the translation of highly creative language, rather than merely a general term to describe creative translations. UPS Translations maintain that transcreation is to them, what the "walkman" is to Sony - that is a specific term that became more general as its usage became more widespread. To this day, the unique process they developed is a closely guarded secret. An alternative explanation of the etymology of transcreation is it is thought by some to have originated in the computer and video game industry in the 1980s. According to this view, early manufacturers found that merely translating the words (written and spoken) used in the games was not sufficient to satisfy the majority of users in targeted markets. To make the games more enjoyable and relevant to users in different cultures, the makers began to tailor images and modify story lines to match the culture and expectations of those users.

In the 1990s, marketers and advertising agencies with international accounts began using the term transcreation to distinguish their work in this field from translation. The implication is that, when bringing an existing advertising campaign to a market outside the source language, much more is needed than a translation.

Transcreation is now a mainstream term in the Anglophone advertising and translation community. The American market research company, Common Sense Advisory, one of the major publishers of industry references for language service providers (LSPs), has recently published a large selection of articles featuring transcreation. The term is also recognized in Asian countries, including China. In 2010, the Chinese design and advertising publication, Modern Advertising Magazine, discussed the term in an article for the first time.

As the concept of transcreation has taken hold, advertising agencies and marketers, realizing its importance, have added departments dedicated to this service. Also, companies have sprung up that specialize in transcreative projects. These companies produce no original copy themselves, but are rather hired by international marketers and their advertising agencies to perform the process.

An example of how the concept has permeated other spheres is the collaboration between Marvel Comics and Gotham Entertainment Group in 2004, to produce a comic book for the Indian market featuring an Indian-born Spider-Man whose “real” name is Pavitr Prabhakar. Thus, rather than battling the Green Goblin in the canyons of New York City, Prabhakar, clad in a dhoti, fights the demon Rahshasa against backdrops such as the Taj Mahal. "Unlike traditional translations of American comics, Spider-Man India will become the first-ever 'transcreation', where we reinvent the origin of a Western property," said Sharad Devarajan, the chief executive of the Gotham Entertainment Group. The goal in this case closely matched that of cross-cultural marketers: to make Spider-Man more relevant to the Indian audience, establish a deeper emotional connection with readers, and thus sell more comic books.


Transcreation refers to the process of taking a message that was created in one language and conveying it in another language, without the loss of salience. While, in theory, any message is a candidate for transcreation, the bulk of transcreative work performed to date has been in the advertising industry in media such as brochures, TV and radio ads aimed at end clients, and posters and flyers distributed to resellers. Websites are also the subject of much transcreation.

As markets continue to broaden, advertisers face special challenges. To be effective, advertising must reach hearts as well as minds. Thus, the ability to transcend language and cultural boundaries is paramount to achieving an effective global marketing strategy. Not only must copy be translated correctly, but other factors must also be considered, such as culture, mores, dialects, idiom, humor, and context. Any perceived lack of respect for heritage, local values, beliefs and cultures may have a negative impact on consumers. To meet these challenges, companies that market internationally are increasingly using transcreation, whether via their advertising company or with a company specializing in transcreation.

The goal of transcreation is to transfer the intent, style, vocal tone, and emotional salience of the message from the source language to that of the targeted audience. The process thus requires expertise in marketing, as well as linguistic skills and a firm grasp of targeted cultures.

Most transcreation is performed by in-market copywriters specializing in the practice. As is the case with translation, the work is performed by a person whose native language is that of the targeted audience. To produce effective transcreation, local language copywriters need to have an extensive knowledge of their market, excellent language skills, and the ability to creatively adapt messages for their target market, all the while possessing skills in advertising copywriting.

Transcreation is used to market to different countries as well as different cultures within a country. Thus the increasing Hispanic population in the U.S. provides many opportunities for same-country transcreation.

Transcreation and translation

Translation and transcreation are related processes, but they are not identical. Translation in the Western world has a centuries-long history and has been marked in practice by two “ideal” approaches – metaphrase (word-for-word translation) – and paraphrase (i.e. “say in other words”). Due to idiom and the wide variety of local usages, word-for-word translation has long been considered inadequate and the best translations take into account the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, idiom and local usage of the target audience while remaining faithful to the text, and context, of the original document.

Transcreation expands upon translation by focusing not so much on the literal text, but on discerning the emotional response by viewers in the source language and working to elicit the same response from viewers in the target market. It is about “taking a concept in one language, and completely recreating it in another.”

Absolute fidelity to the text is secondary to eliciting the desired emotional response by the target audience. Because differences between cultures are so numerous, eliciting the same emotional reaction may also necessitate changes in the context of the message.

Companies seeking to market a product across different languages and cultures have a spectrum of viable services from which to choose, ranging from mechanical translation on one end to the full resources of a multinational advertising agency on the other. Transcreation agencies, which add marketing and copywriting expertise to the translation process, lie at the center of this spectrum. The right choice depends on the nature of the message, how it will be used to reach the target language, the marketing objective of the advertiser and the financial resources of the company requiring the service.


To market a contraceptive product for females to two separate populations – U.S. English-speakers and U.S. Latinas, a pharmaceutical company created an advertising campaign that looked and “felt” the same, but appealed in different ways to their targeted audiences. The main thrust for the English version was about convenience and that for the Spanish version was about freedom of choice. These choices reflected the transcreators’ research on what drives women in each demographic to choose contraceptive products.[2]

The computer chip-maker Intel wanted to bring its successful “Intel: Sponsors of Tomorrow” campaign to Brazilian markets, but research showed that “Sponsors of Tomorrow”, rendered in Portuguese, implies that Intel would not deliver on its promises immediately. The line was modified to read, in Portuguese, “Intel: In love with the future”, thus appealing to the presumed passionate nature of the target audience.

In the 1990s, the Swedish automobile manufacturer SAAB launched a new convertible model and, in the ensuing advertising campaign, wanted to establish the idea that the car allowed passengers to experience wide-open spaces. In the U.S., the ad’s headline read "Saab vs. Oxygen bars", because oxygen bars were popular in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, where there were no oxygen bars, the same ad ran with the headline "SAAB vs. klausttrofobi". By substituting ‘oxygen bar’ with the Swedish word for claustrophobia, the transcreators changed the literal meaning of the message but appealed to the same emotions as the U.S. ad did.

Avoiding the pitfalls of cross-cultural marketing

Transcreation was developed to avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in cross-cultural marketing. Those include:

  • Cultural differences. Cultural boundaries can be formidable barriers to communication. Mistakes here may damage the brand in ways that can be difficult to repair. In 2011, the German sportswear retailer Puma introduced a limited line of trainers clad in the colors of the United Arab Emirates’ flag, in honor of the UAE’s 40th National Day. Many Emiratis were highly distressed by this product, believing it trivialized their nation’s flag. Furthermore, in Arab culture, the shoe is considered dirty as it touches both the ground and the foot. As a result, Puma promptly withdrew the shoes from the market.
  • Word usage. Mistakes as simple as using words that have different meanings in different languages can also lead to trouble. In a famous example, automobile manufacturer Honda introduced its model named “Fitta” into the Scandinavian countries and discovered, belatedly, that the word “fitta” is a vulgarity in many Nordic languages. The company renamed the model “Honda Jazz” and continued to market it there.
  • Puns, idioms and slogans. As any translator knows only too well, wordplay and idiomatic speech are exceedingly difficult to bring from one language to another. The same goes for slogans, which, so familiar to a population’s ears, lose their literal meaning over time. In these instances, the transcreator must change the literal text, while attempting to create a similar effect on target audiences.

Not all cross-cultural marketing “disasters” are caused purely by poor research into the targeted market. To create “buzz”, some advertisers consciously “push the envelope” of what may be acceptable. In 2011, the Italian clothing maker Benetton launched an ad campaign supporting the Unhate foundation, which featured images of world leaders kissing. Many of the unlikely pairings raised ire, but the strongest reaction was from the Vatican, which objected to a version of the ad featuring Pope Benedict XVI kissing Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Sheik of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. Though in this instance, Benetton pulled the ad immediately, the company has garnered praise, condemnation, and perhaps most importantly, widespread attention for this form of advertising, dubbed “shockvertising.”

A purported example of disastrous word usage that has been persuasively demonstrated to be apocryphal is the case of the Chevrolet Nova. Legend has it that sales of the automobile lagged in Latin American countries due to the fact that, when the syllables of the model’s name are separated (“no va”), the meaning in Spanish is “doesn’t go”. While the story is humorous, there are many reasons to discount it, not least that the car sold well in Mexico and Venezuela. However, it does bring to the fore many of the concerns faced by transcreators, such as word usage, cultural context, global vs. local marketing, etc.

Transcreation companies offer insurance against making these mistakes. Slight changes in local language headlines, body copy, scripts and voice-overs can make real differences in how the message is received.

Maximizing cultural relevance

Among the chief proponents of transcreation are local marketing managers, because dedication to this process frees them from having to accede to the dictates of copywriters who may be thousands of miles away and working in a completely different culture and language. (*)Transcreation allows local marketers to take the essence of a global advertising message and tailor it to their market. Thus, a global advertising campaign subjected to transcreation becomes more supple, while still adhering to an overall global strategy.

The tasks of a transcreator include establishing an emotional connection between the audience and the message, and maximizing cultural relevance. Many factors may differ across cultural and linguistic boundaries and must be considered, as these differences can significantly limit the effectiveness and impact of a cross-market campaign. These factors include cultural heritage, shared values, practices, and prevalent social cueing and reception thereof, including expression of emotions, gestures, body language, and facial expressions. These factors in turn influence consumers’ behavior and their reactions to advertising elements such as text, tone of voice, humor, settings, casting, and tonality.

There are also differences in how local consumers perceive a product. A product or service that is regarded as an everyday item in one country can be perceived as luxury in another, in which case, the advertising strategy needs to be adjusted accordingly. Products may also have varied development paces. For example, the development of mobile telecommunications markets has been quicker in Asia than in Western Europe.

Some or all of these factors may be multiplied by the number of sub-cultures within the targeted country. The difficulty of honing the message may be exacerbated by the degree of variance among these subcultures. Transcreators must also take into account local advertising regulations, media environments, and commercial codes. The key figure in bringing attention to bear on all of these concerns is the local marketing manager, who is familiar with the global brand, and has intimate knowledge of the target audience.

Global vs. local

In 1960, international billings accounted for 6% of the gross revenues of the top ten U.S. advertising agencies. By 1991, that share had climbed to 60%, and it has been rising ever since. Persuading people in multiple cultures to buy their product or service is thus a vital part to many companies’ business strategy. As time passes and markets become even more internationalized, more and more companies and advertisers are hiring transcreation companies to coordinate global marketing campaigns

Global branding campaigns face a seemingly contradictory challenge: generating universal appeal for a product using advertisements tailored for local audiences. A global marketing campaign (or a standardized campaign) is created in such a way as to make it appealing for a broad audience. Localization, on the other hand, entails customizing a campaign according to the individual requirements and specifications of a particular market. This tension between standardization and localization is what the transcreation process seeks to resolve. Not surprisingly, the watch phrase for many transcreators is “Think global; act local”.

Transcreation balances these two imperatives: to foster a brand recognizable around the world, while tailoring the advertising message for local markets. Finding the balance between global and local can be quite complex, and in planning an international brand campaign, it is crucial that all factors be considered.

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