Transcreation: The right message for the right audience


Photo  James G. Peterson

The above photograph illustrates the whole point of transcreation – to adapt a text so it speaks effectively to a new target audience. If the German text had simply been translated, international tourists would not get the information most relevant to them.

My daughter slept in her stroller as my wife was trying on new dresses at Good Kharma, a bohemian boutique in Heidelberg, Germany. Suddenly, my eye was caught by colorful, hand-painted kites, decorated to look like dragons and poised like gargoyles above the clothing racks in the store.

After admiring them for a while, I noticed a small sign which I immediately recognized as a really great example of transcreation.

Besides some subtle word play in the product design*, what really struck me was how effectively the sign speaks to the main painpoints of each target group (even if the English at the bottom of the sign is not perfect).

Target group Painpoints What the sign answers
(1-to-1 translation of German)
German shoppers 1. Sure it’s pretty, but does it actually fly? 1. *FULLY CAPABLE OF FLIGHT*
2. Is it an assembly line product? 2. All kites are hand-crafted and lovingly painted.
3. Will it survive more than one use? 3. The material used is waterproof and very sturdy!
Tourists/English speakers 1. Nice, but will it fit in my suitcase? 1. All kites are easy to fold and very good to store into a box or suitcase
(as written on the sign)

The beauty of the messaging on this sign is that it comes across so naturally. The shop owner simply knew the target groups, and therefore knew how to address them effectively (despite small grammatical mistakes).

So what can companies learn from this?

Companies that need multilingual communication will not get such effective results by simply sending an agency documents for translation. It is essential to provide a good briefing along with the text. After all, the English text on this sign is based on insider knowledge that is not even contained in the German text.

Sometimes transcreations are more faithful to the original, of course, but every now and then a text has to be completely re-written. It depends on the target audience’s needs and your communication goals.

Here are a few key points:

    1. Straight-up translation is often not effective, and marketing is one area where this is frequently the case.
    2. For transcreations, you need to provide a briefing. You can’t truly transcreate a text based on the source text alone. Try to provide all the information that would be needed to re-create the text from scratch, including target group painpoints and your main communication goals.
    3. Work with copywriters. Rather than working with a normal translator, take the time to find a copywriter who is fluent in the source language and a native speaker of the target language. Often, this is someone who may have some experience in translation, but is mostly specialized in copywriting and/or journalism.
    4. Never forget context. Think of how ineffective a “normal” translation would have been in the picture above. For your text, consider where it’s going to appear and how the target group will interact with the text. Either provide this information in your briefing or, for high-level campaigns, ask an agency to develop a customer journey. Smartling also provides some great information on transcreation.

No hard rules

Some companies who specialize in transcreation are very passionate at drawing lines and marking territory, distancing themselves from translation agencies. The reality, however, is that transcreation is just a big grey area between writing and translating.

Speaking for my company, steelecht in Offenbach, the majority of our customers generally come to us for English copywriting based on a briefing. A good proportion of our customers, on the other hand, come to us only for transcreation or something between that and “normal” translation.

Transcreation is nothing new

Whatever name you prefer (transcreation, localization, internationalization, freestyle translation, etc.), steelecht and agencies like us have actually been doing this kind of work for years. Our success is built on the collaboration of competent copywriters and translators, so it comes naturally to offer everything in between.

It has always been our practice to brief translators. Although we trust the stylistic instincts of our writers and that they won’t be too imaginative in their interpretation of a text, we understand the pitfalls of translation and how good briefings make great transcreations possible. We also implement a stringing four to six-eye review process involving creative and final editors.

*Interesting note: The German word for “kite” is “Drachen”, which also means “dragon”, so a dragon-kite has a special appeal for Germans.  Unfortunately, this play on words doesn’t translate, but the idea did “transcreate” into a new product. Good Kharma in Heidleberg also offers kites that look like the birds of prey commonly referred to as “kites” in English.

Want to learn more about transcreation or get a quote? Contact steelecht:


Why “pre-translating” is a waste of time and money


Photo by Amador Loureiro via

Translation: Don’t try this at home

At a previous job, I occasionally received documents or presentations already translated into English by a non-native speaker. Every time, the customer would say something like: “It just needs a quick review by a native speaker.”

What is the result 90% of the time?

A lot of time wasted and a bigger bill than a comparable translation job.

Here’s why:

Translators can translate much faster than they can decipher imperfect English or, worse, machine-transmangled English.

And all that back-and-forth

In addition to the time required for puzzling over awkward sentences, the job will also require extra administrative efforts.

Perhaps several times, the translator will have to ask a colleague or two (if available) for help in deciphering a strange sentence. And in some cases, the translator will have to ask the project manager to ask the client for help, who may also have to ask someone else internally.

In the end, it may be necessary to give up and ask the client if they have the document in the original language, simply because translation is so much quicker and easier – for professionals, that is.

Personally, I feel I would need more time to decipher a strange English sentence than I would need to translate even a difficult term like “Rote Hand Brief” (which, at the moment, you cannot find a correct translation for on popular sites like, or

If I were editing a pre-translated document about a “red hand letter”, I’d probably never be able to correct it. (In case you’re curious, a “Rote Hand Brief” is a Dear Doctor Letter / Dear Healthcare Provider Letter.)

A heart for learners

Although these kinds of jobs can be stressful, I’m definitely a bleeding heart for learners of English. If you want to practice your language skills by preparing English documents on your own, then by all means do so. I used to be an English teacher and, as a learner of German and Italian, I feel your pain.

Nevertheless, be prepared for a bill that’s a little bigger the first few times you send out a document in English for correction.

Please note:

At steelecht, we don’t do many technical translations as in the example above, which comes from my previous work experience. steelecht is more focused on marketing/PR, content marketing and transcreation (market-sensitive/creative translations).

Need help with a text, content marketing scheme or getting a translation that hits the mark? Get in touch:

10 ways to get better work from translators

translation-errors-that should-not-happen–how–to–avoid

Photo by James G. Peterson

The translations in the picture above are offensive to pregnant women. But it’s not because of bad translators. The company most likely did not tell their translators (in any language) about the picture of the pregnant woman, so they all thought “disabled” or “handicapped” would be perfectly fine.

A great translation is not due to the translator’s work alone. Companies that prepare detailed briefings and establish a good working relationship get better quality work from their translator.

Here are 10 things you can do to see an immediate improvement in the quality of your outsourced translations.

1. Context, context, context

Let translators know about the world outside the text. Show them where the text will appear, who will read it and what kind of pictures it will accompany.

Rule of thumb: give them the same information you would give to someone writing the text from scratch.

2. Tell your translator about the target audience

Who is the target group for the translated text? How is it different to the original language target group? What changes, omissions or additions to the text could help it speak to the new target group most effectively?

When the two target groups are considerably different, “transcreation” is usually a better choice than straight translation. Learn out more about transcreation in the article “The right message for the right audience”.

3. If there are pictures, provide them

This falls under “context”, but I find it important enough to list it separately. Obviously, it should go without saying that you don’t want someone translating picture captions without providing the pictures. If you don’t, you put yourself at risk of blunders like the one in the picture above.

Apart from captions, pictures can also help to give translators a better understanding of the subject. Think about translating a description of a person without actually seeing what that person looks like.

4. Indicate level of freedom

Let a translator know if you expect the text to be a very precise, fact-driven translation, or a more creative translation (see transcreation article).

5. Provide your corporate style guide

Don’t have one for English? Give your translation provider a copy of your German style guide and ask for an English version. It might take a little back and forth, but in the end you’ll have set a good standard for future translations. Why is corporate language more important than corporate design? Read David’s article „Good design deserves the right tone„.

6. Offer help with subject knowledge and vocabulary

Translators are generalists. Even those translators that specialize are not “real” experts. How many translators of engineering texts have engineering degrees? Probably none. The reason for this should be obvious: you don’t study law, finance or dentistry to become a translator.

Let translators benefit from your expertise. Talk to them about the subject, and tell them some of most the common terms.

If you need a lot of translations, try to set up a glossary with preferred translations of common terms. You can also provide references of good translations and/or monolingual resources in the target language. If you work regularly with a particular translation agency, ask for their support in setting up a glossary.

At steelecht, we did this for Frankfurt Book Fair, and we’re happy to let them use the glossary with other translation partners. Sure, we’re helping the competition, but we’re also improving our relationship with the customer and establishing competence.

7. Create a positive working relationship

Try to establish a good working relationship and plenty of direct communication with translators (i.e. not just the project manager).

If you work with agencies, give preference to ones that permit direct contact between customers and translators (some don’t). Translators should not feel nervous to call or write to clients when they have a question. Be sure to welcome and encourage these questions, because they help make translations better. Read dubsat’s excellent article „Five Steps For Improving Agency Relationships With Service Providers“ for more on the importance of collaboration.

8. Move from “catching mistakes” to growing together

When working with a previous employer, we had a client who would get very upset at even the slightest mistake. She would raise a fuss anytime she found a single word that was in the German text but not in the English – even filler words that normally shouldn’t be translated. She even wanted to know exactly who it was in the company that made this “mistake”.

Ultimately, we grew nervous to communicate with her. In the end, we didn’t focus on delivering the best possible text, but on delivering one that made her happy. Style and tonality suffered greatly as a result.

Approach mistakes as opportunities to learn. They should be communicated, but try to balance that out with positive feedback.

9. Let an English copywriter review the final product

Many poor translations can be easily caught in a simple editing process. It’s best to find a professional writer/editor to do your final edit. Be careful about using some random “native speaker”: not every native speaker is also a good writer.

Note on German designers: we work with a lot of fantastic German web and graphic designers. Due to the fact that they are not native speakers of English, they sometimes make mistakes when copying our text into their design programs. When we’re given the opportunity to review the final product prior to publishing, we almost always find a few small errors.

10. Publish communications directly in English

If you operate internationally, it makes sense to do at least some PR and marketing work directly in English. When the international audience is more important than the local language market, that’s when you really need to consider producing texts directly in English.

This, in turn, can improve German-English translations by providing translators with solid, English-language reference material. Later, if you also get these English texts translated, you’ll have a much easier time judging the quality of translations into your language.

In a nutshell

This all boils down to one thing: communication. A briefing that communicates all your needs, and a good working relationship between you and your translator.

Interested in this approach? Then we’d love to work with you. Contact steelecht for more information: