The Word Gym has been involved in creative translation for over 25 years, inspired in particular by one of the pioneers of creative translation for business, Simon Anholt. (Simon now develops strategies for countries and governments aiming to enhance their political, economic and cultural engagement; he also runs the Good Country Index in an attempt to measure what each country contributes to the greater good of humanity.)
In many respects, creative translation for business strongly resembles literary translation, in that it requires the translator to have a very well-developed linguistic and cultural awareness. Perhaps the most obvious difference between creative translation for B2C (business-to-consumer) or B2B (business-to-business) purposes is that the end-impact of the translated text on the target audience usually takes precedence over sophisticated replication of the author’s style, tone of voice, idiom and so on. In this sense, creative translation prioritises the author’s intention, which in B2C or B2B communications is generally to convince readers of the benefits of whatever is being written about. This may mean changing style, idiom, tone of voice etc. to match the target audience’s expectations – sometimes in ways that literary translators might disapprove of. That’s because the end-purpose of the translation work is different; ultimately, creative translation for business aims to convince rather than just to entertain (although entertainment often plays a part).
At the Word Gym, we translate both B2C and B2B copy. Our B2B work mainly takes the form of marketing (including digital) communication. Our B2C work is equally demanding, taking the form of marketing communication, advertising, but also – inevitably – of social media posts and online work. We have been involved in some exciting international campaigns – for perfumes and cosmetics, superyachts, well-known sunglasses, consumer electronics, and cars of all kinds. Not to mention restaurant menus (which deserve to be written about in a separate post).
In recent years, B2C work has migrated from traditional print advertising to online social media-based platforms. Print advertising is no longer the queen of marcomms activity; most marketing campaigns now focus primarily on social media, and no matter how competent the ads on social media are, the bold ads of the past have long since been downgraded in favour of account-based marketing, content-based marketing, interactive engagement, brand positioning and so on – best described, perhaps, as a form of pervasive super-marketing. At its best, this can produce some gorgeous, mesmerising art. At its worst, it can come across as self-indulgent and childish. Part of our job lies in advising our clients when we think the one is in danger of slipping into the other – or even becoming actively offensive – in their target markets.
In our B2B work, we also translate internal communications for a number of very large organisations. This corporate communication, perhaps better described as “in-house B2B”, is what keeps large companies functioning efficiently. So why does a large organisation ask a small language consultancy to translate high-level corporate communications for their own workforce? The answer is, we are outsiders. As a neutral third party, we prioritise confidentiality and can be relied on not to leak sensitive content. We have no axe to grind, and will never be tempted to spread rumours around the coffee machine. What’s more, we take the work very, very seriously – for us, communicating internal issues with exactly the right degree of sensitivity is the top priority, just as it is for the original author. Top executives appreciate the time and trouble we spend on their often challenging texts, and once they’ve worked with us for a while, prefer our carefully tuned language and its thoughtfully gauged impact on the members of their workforce.
Unlike traditional translation companies, we know that the best translations are produced in collaboration with the original author. Which is why we don’t hesitate to ask questions if we are unsure of the author’s precise intention, and why we sometimes take considerable liberties when reformulating the copy we are given to work with. For example, poorly translated corporate German may come across as excessively direct (even brusque), and possibly patronising or arrogant. This is not how it sounds to German readers, who are used to standard German idioms and formulations. But an insensitive translation that renders the German word for word – with no consideration for idiomatic differences or cultural expectations – may have a negative effect on readers in other cultures. Precisely the opposite effect, in fact, from what was originally intended by the German executives as a reassuring message. This is why we are always enraged by that poor translator’s excuse: “But I just translated what was written.”
The same is true in every language – poor translations will make a negative impression, if for no other reason than that they suggest the source text was not carefully or thoughtfully written.
So at the Word Gym, the first question we ask ourselves is: “What is this text supposed to achieve? And how do we best achieve it in the target language?” This means finding culturally appropriate equivalents for the language used by the original author; finding the right idioms, finding the clearest constructions, rebuilding sentences to match readers’ expectations. In some cases, even restructuring the text as a whole to achieve greater clarity (the order in which arguments are presented is sometimes, surprisingly enough, culture-specific).
Finally, of course, we endeavour to be sensitive to ways in which an author may deliberately seek to disrupt his or her readers’ expectations, perhaps to make a powerful point, or shock them into adjusting a mindset. So we also look for disruptors – deliberate use of language to subvert expectations – and adapt our translations so that they feel and work in the same way, arousing the same ideas, linguistic associations and instinctual resonances. This is painstaking work, often requiring considerable lateral thinking to find the right equivalents!
Social media represent the single most important, and certainly most volatile, disruptor of all. Social media are transforming language across all segments of all target markets. The impact of social media has transformed formerly stuffy corporate writing into something much more friendly and readable. At the same time, by their nature, social media encourage what I would call “short term satisfaction writing”, or copy that requires minimum attention for maximum effect. At the Word Gym, we try to harness this effect, because generating maximum impact with minimum words is no longer restricted to advertising campaigns, but has become essential to communications in everyday life.