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Greg Hellmann Thursday, 28 June 2018

Translators Are Not Copywriters. Or Are They?

Let’s face it: the reality of the daily work in our industry, the processes and text types we encounter lead to situations where many translators eventually run the risk of losing their ability to translate freely and creatively.

Some people will tell you straight away: “Translators are not copywriters.” And it’s true – not everyone is. Teaching someone fluency and good style can take a lifetime! Still, I’m convinced that most translators have the ability to write well (or can learn to write well). To survive in the algorithmic age – where machines are performing many of the standard translation tasks more reliably and consistently – translators who work in the localization industry may need to rediscover and unlock the creative potential within them. A creative potential which may have wasted away over many years of being forced to translate literally?

chessAs someone who performs the core task of translation on a daily basis and who loves both human translation and machine translation, I get to witness the long-term impact that cut-throat cost savings have on target content. MT is only intensifying what has always been an obvious trend in the localization industry over the past decades: language is becoming more and more generic. Also, the more generic and “uncreative” the source text, the more flawless the raw MT output is going to be. As this is highly desirable for numerous text types we encounter with in the localization industry, these breakthroughs are being celebrated (and rightfully so).

MT makes perfect sense for many applications, and it’s even preferable to human translation as it ensures terminological consistency (if done right). We also know that with Neural Machine Translation (NMT) it will become increasingly difficult for MT naysayers (who may have been hoping to continue doing all the easy, non-challenging translations themselves forever) to make their case against MT.

When looking at raw MT output and what gets fed back into the engines, you can almost sense that (in a distant future) some languages may merge into a single one as their syntax and vocabulary slowly but steadily become more and more identical. For the language I work into, for example, NMT will dish out smooth sentences with a breathtakingly flawless syntax. More often than not, everything looks perfect!

So far, so good. The only problem: Controlled or generic language doesn’t sell. For the translation of marketing content, the success of MT represents a downward spiral. You know it’s true: In a typical localization environment, the one thing that is pretty hard to come by is the kind of hand-crafted, compelling, “no nonsense” high quality marketing translation you need if you want target language content that actually helps to sell your products in a certain market.

Transcreation – “Above and Beyond” Translation?

It is therefore no wonder that the fancy term “transcreation” has become all the rage in recent years. Is it a realistic solution to fix the problem of consumers being inundated by boring, meaningless, literal marketing translations? You will find plenty of highfalutin definitions on the web these days as LSPs have begun to dip their toes into these transcreation waters. If you read the various definitions and articles on transcreation, you may notice that you will often find a list of additional steps required for transcreation. However, no matter how you slice it, these requirements basically denote nothing other than the basic requirements for a professionally executed “regular” marketing translation.

Personally, I prefer to keep things simple. I think that when it comes to transcreation, we’re simply talking about the difference between literal, meaningless translations versus compelling target language content that helps to sell products or boost a brand’s image. I would go even further and contend that transcreation merely signifies what decent regular translation is supposed to look like in the first place.

Here’s what matters, though: To produce compelling target content, it is crucial that the creative production department or the marketing translator is serious about making the client happy and ready to go the extra mile. The goal is to produce target content which actually helps to sell a client’s products and services, not turn the client’s prospects away. Because that’s what generic sounding translations do: they turn prospects away – no matter how smoothly and correctly a machine or a human may have translated them.

What usually does not help a client (who might also happen to have an additional marketing director in the target country who is going to review your work) is the usual type of generic, lackluster and uninspired literal translation.

Sure, such clients and prospects are in essence looking for a copy-writer – something which simply can't be had that easily at the regular per-word-rates of our industry. Yet, instead of going through a (much more expensive) advertising or marketing agency, the job ends up in the localization industry as a translation job.

What this usually means is that an individual translator will have to go the extra mile to make it work. The fact that it’s difficult to find translators who are able to produce compelling and catchy target content is a direct consequence of the progress and success of MT. Why? Because the abilities needed for creative translation waste away when you’re post-editing 10,000 words every day.

I believe that, at least within the confines of the localization industry with its typical processes, this kind of superior translation quality is becoming a lost art. Quality of marketing translation in those settings therefore seems to be deteriorating. In turn, this is leading to a noticeable increase in requests from companies looking for top-notch marketing translations but having a hard time finding people who can deliver them these days – clearly a seller’s market!

Is Talent the Most Important Factor for Creative Translation?

In many YouTube videos or articles on transcreation, you will find the word “talent” being mentioned as a key ingredient for success. Absolutely, I think that having creative flair helps a great deal. But it’s not everything, you also need to allow for ample time and budget in transcreation projects. People tend to not like this part but it is what it is. We all know what a superior translation looks like and how to achieve it. Stuff like rendering the meaning of a five word source tagline using only a single word in the target language, phrasing things in a catchy way, thinking outside the box, bold omissions, etc.

benchmarkingFor marketing translations, it is often necessary to freely and completely move away from the source in terms of syntax and words – by thinking about what is meant and coming up with creative solutions to express it so it perfectly fits for another market. You need to give thought to how people in the target language would say this, rather than processing words and terminology and continuing to think in the English “source world”. Some people are better at this than others – but it will always require extra time and extra effort.

What I can also sense is that superior, highly polished translation or transcreation quality is rarely the result of efficient management of human translation work (i.e. the core business of LSPs). Instead, you need to turn to people who haven’t been out of touch with actual translation work –- those who are still willing to spend time to think about a sentence (in two languages), use their human brain and tap into their creative powers to create a compelling translation. You need to look for people who still “get their hands dirty” (or who work very closely with people who still get their hands dirty). In other words, if you want a really good translation (one that will impress your client’s marketing manager in the target country reviewing the work you deliver), you need to turn to people who still understand how this traditional creative process actually works – and also how modern language, marketing and advertising works.

Producing high-quality translations for high-profile content requires time and talent, as well as care and dedication on behalf of the translator. Whether you like to get your hands dirty or not, there is no denying that the final result we get from “above and beyond translation” is much cooler (and will help sell products and services).

All the easily translatable localization bulk content being increasingly performed by machines is a huge chance for translators to shift the focus back to the more challenging and premium work. Transcreation (despite it being essentially nothing more than a fancy word) needs to be embraced by all stakeholders in the industry, but especially by translators and LSPs. For it’s the vehicle back to what real translation is all about.

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As Translation and MT Manager, Greg is responsible for in-house translation production and the Machine Translation program at SimulTrans. With over 10 years of experience in the localization industry, he's taking an active role in the management team to maintain and build the business, helping to win new customers and contracts. At SimulTrans, he pioneered the introduction and utilization of various MT technology into production workflows. Greg holds a university degree in Translation from the Technical University of Cologne and speaks three languages.

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