Translation, interpreting, localisation and transcreation – what are they and what are the differences?

If you have taken even a slight interest in the fields of translation and interpreting, you will most likely have come across these terms before. You might have seen these four terms (translation, interpreting, localisation and transcreation) thrown around but what do they actually mean?

Before we get into the differences, let’s define some terms:

Source text – This is the original document in the original language. For example, the English version of Harry Potter was the source text for the Harry Potter franchise.

Target text – The target text is the translation of the source text. This is the text in another language. It should still convey the same message as the source text but it’s audience is one that speaks another language.

Target audience – The target audience is the audience that is going to read the target text. This audience is usually compared to the original audience of the source text.

Translation

Translation is probably the easiest place to start because it is the one most people are familiar with. It is the act of taking something from one language and transferring into another language. Most people use the word “translation” to mean many things, such as transferring speech from one language to another or also anything in writing, among other things. Generally, these things involve two languages and the transfer of information.

For those in the field, translation refers to taking a written message and transferring from one language to another. There are many types of translations and ways to translate, but generally, there are three types of translation:

Commercial translations – Commercials translations are those that are most likely to be out there in the world and seen by the general public. Businesses or organsations usually request these and they usually have a communicative role. These translations can be anything from emails to marketing campaigns, websites and brochures. Target texts for commercial translations are often informative but may also be persuasive as well (especially when it comes to product marketing).

Specialist (or technical) translations – Specialist translations are usually documents that lie in a specific (and often scientific, medical or technical) field. The translator usually needs to have some knowledge of the technical field associated with understanding the document. Some examples include scientific publications, clinical trial documentation, financial reports and technical manuals. Target texts for specialist translations are informative.

Literary translations – Literary translations include anything that has to do with, you guessed it, literature (i.e. books). Different countries and cultures (and therefore languages) have different literary traditions. How Hogwarts is described in Harry Potter is not exactly the same in each language because the way you convey feelings of awe, for example, can vary from language to language. The ultimate goal of literary translation is to evoke the same emotions that the original audience feels when reading the source text in the target audience as they read the target text. This usually means, especially for novels, that parts of the target text (when compared with the source text) vary greatly and do not resemble the original.

The translation process can include many other processes as well. Two examples include localisation (described below) and transliteration. Transliteration is the process in which a translator/transliterator changes the text from one writing system to system. A great example is anyone who translates from a Latin alphabet-based language (e.g. English) to another system, such as Chinese characters or the Devanagari script (or Cyrillic or Arabic script or…. or… or….)

Interpreting

Like translation, interpreting concerns itself with taking something from one language and transferring it into another. Where translation focuses on the written message, interpreting focuses on a spoken message. This can take many forms and as such, interpreting (those who “translate the spoken word”) can also come in many forms. The main forms are:

Consecutive interpreting – as the name consecutive interpreting suggests, this style of interpreting happens in succession. The original method (e.g. a speech at a conference) takes place while an interpreter takes notes (or maybe receives notes, depending on the situation) or simply remembers it. Once the original has ended, the interpreter summarises the important/main/all points in the target language. This type of interpreting occurs in many situations, including conferences, business negotiations, doctor’s appointments, court proceedings and many more!

Simultaneous interpreting – simultaneous interpreting is where the interpreter speaks at the same time as the person they are interpreting, meaning that their audience receives the same message in their language at roughly the same time. A good example of this are interpreters for the deaf, who are usually signing to the deaf community at the same time the hearing person is speaking. The same is possible for spoken languages as well. There are two sub-types of simultaneous interpreting:

  1. “Normal mode” – This is where the interpreter speaks normally at the same time as the person they are interpreting. For this setup, interpreters are usually located in a sound booth so that the sound of two people talking does not conflict. Their audience usually has an earpiece through which they can hear the interpreter. This type of interpreting is common in meetings of large international political organisations, such as the UN or other multi-lingual bodies. Usually, interpreters work in pairs in the booth, with one resting and/or doing computer research while the other interprets in real-time. They then switch after a pre-determined time (e.g. 15 minutes) or when an interpreter is unable to continue for whatever reason.
  2. “Whisper mode” – if you do not have access to a sound booth, the interpreter might have to stay close to their audience. To not disturb other members of the audience (for example, someone giving a speech in German to an auditorium the interpreter is interpreting for 10 English speakers), the interpreter may have to speak in a whisper/stage whisper. This type is less common in situations where organisers know that interpreters will be needed for an event. This mode of simultaneous interpreting is usually ad hoc.

Localisation

So we have spoken about writing and spoken language and going from one language to another. What is left? Did you know that there is a class of people that “translate” from one dialect of a language to another dialect of the same language? A prime example in English is UK and US English , which is what I usually do. This is localisation.

Localisation can be as simple as simply changing spellings (e.g. changing z to s and adding u when going from US to UK English) or it can be radical changes. An example would be trying to sell a product; the US and UK markets can be very different. Vocabulary, language structures and even the message of an advertisement might need to be changed for a business to encourage (and convince) their clients to buy their product.

Another concept that is included in localisation (although many translators, including myself, also use this concept when translating) is when you change cultural references in one language for others in another language.

Let me give you a well-known example: the Ford Pinto. Often in Romance languages today, the names of products are not translated. This can be a good thing for international brand recognition but also a bad thing if a company uses a word that has a specific meaning in a language that the company does not know about nor mean. For example, Pinto is fine in English. It doesn’t have any special meanings (at least to my knowledge). However, in Brazil where the Ford Pinto was also sold, Ford was laughed at profusely. Why? Because Pinto is slang for a man with a small penis.

An act of localisation for the Brazilian market would be to change the name of the car from Pinto to something else. As I said previously, many translators go through this process when translating. We change a message so that it has the same impact on the target audience as it does/did on the original audience. If the audience is supposed to be sad after this message but a simple translation from the original language does not work, cultural translation is also needed to make our target audience sad. The same is true for any desired effect.

Transcreation

Transcreation is a concept that combines both translation and localisation and is often seen in audiovisual material. I think an example can explain it the best, such as the following advert for Snickers from 2010:

This advert is for a nougat and nut bar that is surrounded by milk chocolate and sold under the name Snickers in the US. The advertisement was shown during the US Superbowl that year and features both the sport of US football and famous actors/actresses, including Betty White. This ad assumes you know two things: you know what American Football is and you know who Betty White is. The audience intended for this advertisement were people watching the Superbowl, an American Football sporting event, in the US. Betty White is a famous US actress who has been acting in various roles since 1939. In this case, it is very likely that she is known to the audience (in fact she is adored in the US by many people).

Let’s say we are going to translate this for a British audience. Betty White is an obstensibly English-speaking celebrity but she isn’t part of everyday life in the UK and is much less known for her work in the UK. It is less likely for a British person to see her and recognise who she is. A British person is also unlikely to be interested in American Football. It just isn’t a sport that we subscribe to as a nation. So how can we change this ad to appeal toa British audience and convince them to buy a Snickers?

While it was a little unconventional (which is most likely what the company was aiming for), this was the equivalent that they come with in the UK:

The UK version uses the same message (You aren’t yourself when you’re hungry so eat a Snickers) but changes just about everything else. One of the most well-known British comedians, Rowan Atkinson (as Mr Bean) is the star and the setting has completely changed to resemble a martial arts film. He was actually used for a series of similar commercials where eating a Snickers turned him back into a martial artist.

Snickers did also go for a more conventional approach: some of its commercials were well-known British comedians being football (soccer for readers from the US) players who ate a Snickers and turned back into their true football-playing selves (usually famous footballers).

This is an example of transcreation. In transcreation one or more elements have to be changed in what seems to be a radical way in order to have the same impact on the target audience as the original text/audiovisual material had on the audience of the source text/audiovisual material.


If you liked this post, why not have a look around some other posts related to translating? I recommend A Classic Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and English as She is Spoke.

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