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Where translation fails (Part 2): Why did wordinc need 30 minutes to translate a single word?

Where translation fails (Part 2): Why did wordinc need 30 minutes to translate a single word?

Translation is more difficult than most people realize, and multi-lingual dictionaries are partly to blame for the confusion.

To see what we mean, pick up the nearest German-English dictionary and flip through. Dog is neatly translated as Hund. A tree is a Baum. What a dog does onto a tree is pinkeln. It’s easy to get the sense that one word in one language corresponds unambiguously with one word in the other language. The simplicity of it makes you wonder how anything could ever get lost in translation when all you have to do is find your word, plug it in, and move on. Problem solved.

Of course, this assumption is wrong for many reasons. Even people who don’t speak another language could guess that syntax, grammar, and idioms all stand in the way of simple word-for-word translation, not to mention countless other linguistic booby traps like high- and low-context cultures or the extent to which figurative language is used. But your dictionary won’t tell you any of this. Instead, it leaves you with the impression that translation is merely a matter of slotting square pegs into square holes and round pegs into round ones.

So what do you do when the peg is a triangle? You don’t translate. You transcreate.

Where translation fails

A few weeks ago, wordinc received a special request. One of our customers had a single German word that needed to be translated into English. Yes, you read that correctly: a single word. And they were willing to pay us for the work. We were certain this would be the easiest money we had ever earned. All we had to do was consult our nearest German-English dictionary and send the result along with the invoice. What a lucrative profession translating can be!
Then we saw the word.

Geschmacksmanufaktur. Oh boy …

You see, this customer makes spice mixes for cooking at home. Their products add a flavourful kick to your grilled meats, sauces, dips, dressings and the like. So they did what Germans usually do when they are at a loss for words: they took two words that already exist and made one that doesn’t. Geschmack means taste and Manufaktur means manufactory. You don’t have to think too long to figure out why simple translation won’t do the job. I mean, would you buy a seasoning that came from a “taste manufactory”?

Our hopes for a five-second turnaround time vanished. Because where translation fails, transcreation prevails.

What is transcreation?

Transcreation takes liberties with the source text to achieve maximum effect in the target language. Where traditional translation attempts to recreate the source text line for line, transcreation can arrange and edit the contents as necessary to make the finished product as impactful as possible. Translation is fitting square pegs into square holes; transcreation cuts completely new shapes.

You might guess that this is particularly useful for texts that aim for a specific emotional appeal. For example, humour relies on cultural context and modes of thinking unique to a language and, specifically, to specific regions where that language is spoken. What’s funny in German can fall flat in English, and even if the English translation makes Americans laugh, it might make Brits groan. The best transcreation manipulates the tone, content and structure of the source text. Being so free to rewrite can make customers nervous, but the brave will be rewarded with a final text that touches the hearts and minds of its target audience while retaining the core message.
Transcreation the wordinc way

As mentioned, a strict translation of Geschmacksmanufaktur gives us “taste manufactory”. But this leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. It doesn’t sound right in English the way Geschmacksmanufaktur sounds right in German: manufactory is outdated and an article seems to be missing. English speakers would feel better with an “a” or “the” at the front, and a word like “factory” is more recognisable and far better suited to a marketing context. Already we are planning to add one word and throw out another. Welcome to the messy business of transcreation.

After a bit of brainstorming, we sent the customer the following alternatives:

  1. The flavour factory
  2. The flavour maker
  3. Manufacturing flavour
  4. Make it flavourful
  5. Make it tasty
  6. Made to taste
  7. Made for tasting
  8. Made for flavour

As with all good transcreation, the results bear almost no resemblance to the word-for-word translation one would get from the dictionary. In the first two examples, that pesky article has indeed wormed its way to the front of the line … despite being completely absent from the German. Two of the eight options have converted the singular German noun into a brusque English imperative. Not only has “manufactory” been abandoned altogether; six of these alternatives don’t have any corollary for it whatsoever, with “manufacturing” and “factory” being the only two words to come within striking range of Manufaktur. Our results could hardly seem more different when compared to the word the customer sent us. We have taken their baby and returned it with a new face.

And yet the essential message remains. “Flavour”, “flavourful”, “tasty” and “tasting” are all suitable substitutes for “taste”, and even that exact word managed to find its way into number six. Some variation of the verb “to make” appears in all but two of the transcreated slogans and retains the idea implied by “manufactory”.

Your transcreation agency in Hamburg

Dictionaries can translate. But they won’t give you a finished product. And they certainly aren’t the way to a piece of writing that sounds natural and connects with the reader in their language the way the source text connects with readers in the source language.

So if you have a slogan, motto, tagline or even a longer text that needs to make a persuasive, emotional impact in a different language, send it to wordinc. We’ll make sure the transcreated text suits your taste.

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