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For Translation, Consistency Beats Creativity

Transcreation, Translation Brandon Choquette on Nov 8, 2014, 2:00:00 PM

Bright blue pool of water with a drop in it


No one likes to be boring. That’s true for interpreters and translators. Everyone likes to exercise their creative muscles and say or write something that’s clever or fun or interesting. But, translators and interpreters, beware. Let me explain.

Where English is spoken, you’ll often see signs on store and shop windows that simple read, “Sorry, We’re Closed.” The signs are often black with white lettering with the word Closed in red. You know this sign. It’s everywhere in the U.S. and it works great. Everyone knows what it means. But some people try to get creative and improve on it:

Sign inside a store that says SHUT


That Darn Creativity

John Yunker saw this sign in Bend, Oregon. On his Global By Design website John said, “There is a force at work within us humans–that darn creativity. This urge to take something as ordinary as a sign and reinvent it. Despite all the benefits of consistency, sometimes creativity gets in the way.”

This concept is important to us translators, interpreters and other language service professionals. Creativity comes with danger. When a translator or interpreter strays from consistency–strays from reporting exactly what was said–then the communication becomes less about the party speaking and more about the translator doing the work.

I’m not arguing for literal translations. This blog features several posts that explain and support the concept of transcreation. I strongly believe in recreating a text for a new target audience in the way that’s most appropriate, clear and relevant for that audience. An interpreter or translator must never use creativity that gets in the way of delivering the true essence of the message in the clearest way.

Another example of creative wording John Yunker cited is the “Nope” sign. It’s a clever anagram of “Open.” I guess if you see this sign on a store you’re supposed to know that it’s closed. Perhaps these signs catch the eye because they’re different. But what is the sign’s purpose? Its purpose is to clearly and quickly communicate, right?  If we make people puzzle out our meaning we’re not serving the highest communication purpose. And isn’t this true for interpreters and translators?

Translation Executive’s Challenge: Terminology Management

Professional translators who are creative find a different outlet for their creativity. They’re not like these shop owners whose creativity puts up a communication barrier. Creative people, like copywriters and designers, often enjoy breaking the rules. They like to reinvent. They like to tweak. In marketing, that’s often a great thing to do. But that’s not true in translation. This is why the John Yunker piece called terminology management a never-ending challenge for translation executives.

Translation costs go up when rules are broken. Translation costs go up when terminology is reinvented or tweaked.

One may even argue that some of the more experienced, higher quality translators might be more tempted to add just a tad of creativity to their work. After all, they’ve been doing translation work for a long time. These professionals have seen good and bad communication and know the difference. They have the skills and knowledge to improve messages. But doing anything other than translating as closely as possible to the original message’s intended meaning isn’t right.

Transcreation Harder Than Translation

Remember, too, that transcreation requires greater expertise than literal word for word translation. It does require creativity. But it’s creativity within bounds. If you’re a linguist who performs this task you must have an excellent knowledge of both the source and target language. You must know the culture. When in doubt, play it safe. Choose consistency and clarity over creativity and complexity.