Reality check: International advertising

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International copywriting

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International advertising
Every now and then we want to post “reality checks” as a way to clarify or qualify claims we’re making in recent posts, especially where we spot ambiguities in our own writing and may have second thoughts after receiving thoughtful and thought-provoking feedback from readers.

Global or local?
In our post the other day, “English-to-Japanese translation for persuasion: Words to the wise (and words of warning!),” we detoured around the fact that most very large, multilingual advertising campaigns are properly handled not by translation firms but by global advertising agencies and/or adaptation firms. At the more local level, i.e. assuming you have a campaign in one language and want to expand just to one other language for starters, we think it’s possible to create great copy with the assistance of a translation firm in the target country. Since we’re a translation firm in Japan that blogs in English, the latter scenario naturally becomes the focus of our blogging. Truthfully, though? Most professionals in the translation industry are wary of providing valuable marketing assistance at translation agency rates. It’s controversial and worth discussing. We welcome comments from others in the industry.

Translate or rewrite?
Regarding the same article, we received warm applause from marketing and copywriting people but some misgivings from professional translators. The linguists thought that our interchangeable usage of the words “translation” and “copywriting” was particularly derelict. Well, to be honest, many more web searches are made for “translation” than for “copywriting,” so we used phrases that included both words heavily in that post. There are also gray areas where whoever is managing an international advertising campaign might not know whether to have the source language ad copy translated for the target language or completely rewritten.

This leaves the question: How do you choose?

The answer: Case by case. Ask a translator or a translation firm in the target country for their opinions. And, if it’s a high-budget, crucial campaign, pay an agency in the target country to test the translation out on native customers.

Faithful or bold?
On our post yesterday introducing adaptation/transcreation agencies, C. Turney comments, “I really enjoyed your analogy, ‘Adaptation/transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing.'” Thanks! This distinction between international copywriting and translation is larger than most people outside our industry realize. Translation is a profoundly conservative art. Translators faithfully convey meaning. Copywriting, by contrast, is a radically creative skill. If you have an ironic ad slogan that works well in the UK, it may not be well received in Japanese translation, no matter how beautifully and faithfully translated. A Japanese copywriting team can write an entirely new slogan that conveys the brand’s attitude and the campaign’s persuasive effect. But notice that the meaning of the original slogan is completely beside the point.

Note that translators work for cents per word for long texts and hourly for important lines of text. But don’t ask them to work at these rates for ad copy worth thousands. In upcoming posts we’ll explain why crucial, creative and bold ad copy requires a team. It also requires an adequate budget.

Big budget or moderate budget?
Speaking of budget. If you’ve got a huge one – huge budget, we mean – and a multilingual campaign to run, there really is no reason to be reading this series about working with translation agencies. Instead, stop reading here and contact one of the adaptation/transcreation firms we listed yesterday. But if you want to target one foreign language and you have a moderate budget, stay tuned to our blog this month. We have some ideas just for you.

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6 thoughts on “Reality check: International advertising

  1. David Stormer

    “Translation is a profoundly conservative art. Translators faithfully convey meaning. Copywriting, by contrast, is a radically creative skill.”

    Hmm. Dunno if I agree. This is the old dichotomy of the spirit versus the letter. Even at the purely grammatical level, translation of even quite “bland” prose often requires considerable – sometimes even almost radical – rewriting to make it fit the target language. And at the level of meaning, you say “If you have an ironic ad slogan that works well in the UK, it may not be well received in Japanese translation, no matter how beautifully and faithfully translated.”

    I would argue as a translator that if the translation doesn’t have an effect comparable to that of the original, it can’t really be called faithful. In my mind, pragmatics is just as relevant in a letter to your accountant as in an ad for toothpaste. In other words, faithfulness in translation of “normal” communications, every bit as much as in advertising, means faithfulness to the spirit and not the letter.

    The following quote from NTIS New Zealand in “Do you believe in transcreation?” (March 31) I thought was totally over the top. “Translators translate, whereas Transcreation is an entirely different ballgame, involving the creativity and discipline of professionals specialised in adaptation.”

    That itself, is, of course, more of an advertising statement than a considered opinion. But since it was included in the discussion it should be addressed. The statement really does portray even the best, most “dutiful” (is, I think, the fusty image suggested here) translator as a scribe in a cardigan with nose stuck in dictionary while the “creative and disciplined professional” is off weaving magic. Advertising copy is by nature way more “spirit” than “letter,” simply because there are so few letters bearing up such a loaded message. And sure, as such, translating it requires a deeper understanding of what turns the target audience on and supreme confidence when wielding the “letter”; but it is most definitely not “an entirely different ballgame”.

    In fact it is the exactly same ballgame, but played for higher stakes. Advertising uses less words, ordinary communication more words. But both seek the same effect: to persuade. The degree to which you (often) have to depart from the letter to render the spirit might be greater for “transcreation” than for “translation”, but the difference lies only in the degree of departure from the letter, not the either/or of Dickensian enslavement to it or New Age freedom from it.

  2. JAPANtranslation Post author

    When I intrepidly I posted a link to this blog in our MSN Messenger chat, David, I knew I could count on interesting comments from you. Thanks so much for adding this content.

    Coke’s “It’s the real thing” campaign probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It certainly wasn’t charged at 19 cents per word or $60/hour. That slogan probably wasn’t the only candidate for that campaign, and it surely wasn’t decided by one individual. You can bet that it was thoroughly tested, too.

    As a translation agency rep, I know how problematic (and unfair) it can be to ask a translator to write a slogan with a completely different meaning from the original language. You can’t expect a lone translator (no matter how creative) to do the work of ad agencies. In translation work, the client may want you to be creative enough to conserve the intended spirit of what was originally meant but certainly doesn’t want you to get too creative. Right? In copy adaptation/transcreation there’s no such thing as too creative.

    When you want to launch analogous but not identical ad campaigns in magazines in three different language markets, the process doesn’t start with copy but with the persuasive intent or branding objective, and then, typically, from what I understand, a few different themes are deliberated over by client team and marketing people. The copywriters in each language are encouraged to write unique copy that works with the theme and intent of the campaign. The regional writers don’t have to know each other, don’t have to read each other’s work, and don’t even need to know each other’s languages. They get their ideas from marketing briefs. Through communication with the marketing people, the regional copywriters get a full grasp of the intended effect of the campaign and then they create ideas. Even within a language a copywriter will offer up (sometimes wildly) different versions of copy and the project manager then has the versions reviewed by focus groups. The whole process bears little resemblance, if any, to the work of the solitary professional translator, don’t you think?

    There’s a definite difference on the client side, too. When the client reviewer receives translated copy, he or she expects a specific meaning to be conveyed. Contrast this with the review process for transcreated copy. In the case of adapted copy, the actual meaning of the text could be practically anything. It doesn’t particularly matter what the copy says. What matters is what the copy does.

    This is where you’re mistaken:

    In fact it is the exactly same ballgame, but played for higher stakes. Advertising uses less [sic] words, ordinary communication more words. But both seek the same effect: to persuade.

    Much of ordinary communication is meant to explain, guide, inform, not necessarily to call the reader/listener to action or meld a brand ever more deeply into the subconscious. Copywriting is not ordinary communication.

    What you latched onto, I think, was my use of the word “conservative,” and it colored your reading from there on. When I described the work of professional translators as “profoundly conservative” I didn’t mean profoundly literal or profoundly bland. I meant to remind readers that the translator’s role is to remain faithful to the meaningful intent. Granted, it sometimes requires the taking of liberties to get there. Since you’re a translator, you know that it often takes creative re-wording to conserve the meaningful intent. Sure. But NTIS calls transcreation “an entirely different ballgame” because the meaning of the copy in adapted ad campaigns doesn’t need to align at all with the meaning of copy in other languages for the same campaign.

    The first time I heard the new words “adaptation” and “transcreation” I had a similar reaction – that these words sounded like fancied up new names for “translation.” It’s probably better to think of adaptation/transcreation as a sub-field of marketing, more akin to copywriting than to translation. I accept some of the blame for causing confusion. Our article two posts back made matters worse by using the words “copywriting” and “translation” interchangeably, which only muddies the conversation and fails to create much clarity. See:
    http://japanese-web.com/30/english-to-japanese-translation-for-persuasion-words-to-the-wise-and-words-of-warning/

    Of course professional translators avoid literalness when “faithfulness to the spirit” is called for. But NTIS called transcreation a “different ballgame” for a practical reason, not to elevate it or to diss translators, but to distinguish between the two fields which are often (and easily) confounded in the minds of those who haven’t been involved with both types of processes on a practical level. Through recent contact with adaptation agencies, I’m coming to understand that transcreation has practically nothing to do with translation.

    – Lawrence

  3. Guy Gilpin

    Lawrence is right, transcreation and translation are completely different things. There are very few translators around who have had experience in an ad agency creative department, but those who have are able to translate and transcreate. If you’ve not worked in an ad agency environment, it’s unlikely you will understand a creative brief and what is expected from it and how much you will be able to move away from the source copy. Guy

  4. David Stormer

    Lawrence wrote:

    Much of ordinary communication is meant to explain, guide, inform, not necessarily to call the reader/listener to action or meld a brand ever more deeply into the subconscious. Copywriting is not ordinary communication.

    OK, point taken: ordinary prose has more functions than just persuasion. Perhaps a better tack to have taken would be to say that translation, like advertising, should aim to convince, in the sense of sounding native through and through (although I realize that there are exceptions even here, such as technical manuals for specialists where literary style is really of no importance.)

    Setting up translation/transcreation as a dichotomy could well be making a straw man of translation, as, I think, the NTIS statement does in pointedly setting up an antithesis between word “translate” with the qualities of “creativity and discipline.” Again, I recognize that this statement is itself copy aimed at changing the minds of potential clients inclined to entrust a translator with copy.

    But, all the same, I must have my revenge:

    “Transcreators transcreate, whereas translation is an entirely different ballgame, involving the creativity and discipline of professionals specialized in making the foreign sound familiar and the incomprehensible clear.”

  5. JAPANtranslation Post author

    Transcreators transcreate, whereas translation is an entirely different ballgame, involving the creativity and discipline of professionals specialized in making the foreign sound familiar and the incomprehensible clear.

    Fair enough! 🙂

  6. Andres Heuberger

    In the words of Simon Anholt in “Another one bites the grass: Making sense of international advertising”: Translating [advertising] copy is like boiling lettuce. No matter how carefully you do it, the result is always disappointing.

    I pretty much agree with his statement 🙂

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