Transcreation and creative writing: a structuralist approach

Why are transcreation tasks so complex and challenging in terms of project management? Possibly because they combine all the troublesome characteristics of standard localization projects, such as agile turnaround time, overwhelming project-specific instructions, length restrictions that are usually impossible to meet, specialized terminology that has to be respected, with one final cornerstone requirement: creativity. Creativity is crucial for the transcreated text if it is to be meaningful and successful. PMs realize that there is a lot more needed than a specific tone of voice to achieve the desirable results but undoubtedly this is a vague assumption: style guides created for transcreation accounts are usually far from being exhaustive and are full of clichés.

What is more, tight deadlines are only making things worse and, when recruiting resources, linguists who claim to be experienced transcreators in their CVs can sometimes produce a disappointing target text, despite their accreditations and sincere efforts, possibly due to the lack of a theoretical background. As a result, PMs are often left puzzled.

Below you will find some steps that can prove to be useful when managing transcreation projects.  

  1. Understand what creativity entails

Transcreating successfully means that a message is adapted from a source language to a target language without losing its style, tone and context, evoking at the same time the same emotions to the target-language readers as the ones intended by the author of the source text. In other words, it is a mirroring process.

Morley, however, suggests that translation is another form of creative writing and presents language as a shifting and evolving system, in which some words are charged with particular meanings in their host language, but that does not entail their carrying those associations into another language[1].

In an analogy to Jeremy Hawthorn’s diagram in Unlocking the text[2], which is a graphic representation of the relationship between creative work and literature criticism, here is an attempt to represent the relationship between the overarching structures involved in the transcreation process.

[1] David. Morley, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, 2007
[2] Jeremy Hawthorn, Unlocking the Text: Fundamental Issues in Literary Theory, Oxford University Press, 1995
Τhe overarching structures involved in the transcreation process
Τhe overarching structures involved in the transcreation process

The source text (and its author), the target text (along with the transcreator) and the overarching structures that have produced them are all interlinked in a dynamic, constantly shifting relationship. In terms of cardinality, the above diagram suggests a relationship of many-to-many (as opposed to a one-to-many or a one-to-one relationship). The PM and transcreating team need to be well aware of the current status of these relationships. 

  1. Be realistic when agreeing on a delivery schedule

A feasible deliveries schedule is of crucial importance. Transcreation calls for extra time for research (both to make sure that the source is well understood and also to determine what is the best and most natural wording in the target language). If delivery dates are unattainable, the result will be unnatural or, even worse, funny. There is no need to elaborate further here, as we all know that this is unacceptable in our industry.

  1. Encourage linguists to get involved in energetic reading

Transcreation is all about conveying the meaning from the source to the target language. Understanding the meaning can only be achieved by referring to context or, if reference material is not available, by researching. In gaming, for instance, visual references (images, videos, etc.) are of the utmost importance. Linguists should be encouraged to research, not only to understand specific obscure phrases but also to gain a profound understanding of the game. In the same example (gaming transcreation) the linguist will have to be an excellent connoisseur of the gaming terminology in the source and target language and also make sure to keep this knowledge up-to-date. In terms of linguistics, adjusting Saussure’s structuralism to the transcreation process, the text must be understood by way of its relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure[1]. There is only one way to achieve this: Research, to determine exactly what the source text is talking about, and to determine the ideal equivalence in the target language (in terms of target-culture standards). To speak in terms of creative writing, energetic reading, as defined by Morley[2], could be a competitive skill to educate our linguists with. Some end customers organize virtual summits for localization teams to attend, where their products, philosophy and goals are presented. This is an example of a valuable channel of communication that initiates an energetic involvement of the transcreator in the desired direction.

  1. Figure out what workflow adjustments need to be done

CAT tools are indispensable in localization projects. This sophisticated technology that boosts productivity allows us to make use of repetitive content, organize existing terminology, and all that in a user-friendly interface. Nonetheless, this is based on the assumption that the source and target text are linked in a one-to-one relationship. This is definitely not the case in transcreation tasks. When translating technical content, a fuzzy match coming from the TM is always welcome and useful; in transcreation projects it might block the linguist’s train of thought, by narrowing down the vast diversity of possible translation options. This is not to say that CAT tools should not be used when translating creative content, but this technology could be used in an entirely different way. A workaround would be not to share the TM with the linguists working in the translation step, but to do so with the editors and proofreaders. A termbase with basic terminology (field-oriented and adhering to client preferences) would also be very helpful. In general, time spent on customizing the CAT tools used to the project-specific requirements is time well spent.

  1. Guide and collaborate effectively with transcreators

I would like to close quoting Samuel Becket’s famous saying:

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Transcreators are the front-line workers of the creative process. They are the first to “meet” the source text so as to interpret it and adapt it. There is no need to stress them out with possible LQA fails and trivial punctuation errors or typos. This could be detrimental to their creative potential. Polishing the target text is the proofreader’s task. Make sure the feedback you provide your transcreating team with is constructive and is focused on the transcreation process, and not on minor issues. Furthermore, make sure that you congratulate them on their witty transcreation choices. After all, offering guidance and developing a good rapport with them is the key to improving quality.

Despoina Pilou,
Account Manager, ORCO S.A.

[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, Sep 7, 2002
[1] David. Morley, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, 2007

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