Subtitling Challenges: Cultural References and Wordplays

Subtitling for streaming platforms implies translating content that will be distributed to a very large audience. For on-demand sites, Spanish subtitles are available globally, even in countries where it’s not an official language. Given that the target text should be understood by Spanish speakers across many countries, translating wordplays and cultural references is a task for skilled audiovisual translators only.

While this challenge may also be common to other localization tasks, translating subtitles has another specific and crucial characteristic. They are moving text that doesn’t stay long on the screen, and depending on the media (TV, cinema, on-demand platforms) they cannot be re-read. Thus, the translated text should be effective and as easy and fast to understand as possible.   

Cultural references: challenge accepted

Sometimes, dialogues refer to very specific aspects of the culture of origin of the show, such as cultural products, personalities, food, brands or institutions. Whether to localize them or not should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Leaving the reference as is or translating it literally may leave all the audience to not understand the reference, but adapting it may result in losing some of the original meaning. A skilled audiovisual translator will know which reference is better to leave unlocalized, and which is better to translate or adapt by choosing a similar but not equivalent referent in the target culture, among other available strategies. The translator will decide what is more effective and useful for each situation. Technical requirements are also a factor that can restrict the choice of the target text.

For a better understanding of what cultural references are and how they are treated in subtitles, we can analyze samples of some strategies, for example, in the Spanish LA subtitles of Mad Men’s pilot. 

Screenshot
Source Text Lucky Strike here.
Translation Yo, Lucky Strike.
Used strategy Retention of the source reference as is.

 

Screenshot
Source Text Not just another Jewish department store?
Translation ¿No es otra tienda judía cualquiera? (“Store”)
Used strategy Generalization.

 

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Source Text He left his manners back at the fraternity house.
Translation Olvidó sus modales en la universidad.  (“University, college”)
Used strategy Substitution of the source reference with a less specific one.

Pun intended

Comedies take the challenge to another level because they are also full of puns and jokes that are difficult to recreate accurately in other languages. The translator of the subtitles has to choose between a literal translation or adapt the joke in the best way possible. Creativity plays a major part in the task, since the translator invents equivalent jokes or wordplays in the target language. Let’s consider one example from BoJack Horseman (S01E01).

Screenshot
Source Text Hey.
-Where? I’d love hay.
Translation Hola. (“Hi”)
-¿Ola? Me encanta surfear. (“Waves? I love surfing”).
Used strategy Transcreation. The translation can recreate the wordplay based on the homophony
between the greeting and another word, and also relates to the character’s action.
However, to maintain the wordplay between the word (“hay”) and the fact of being a horse
was not possible.

A matter of consistency

Regardless of the strategy used to translate cultural references and jokes, maintaining consistency across episodes is crucial. In large team projects, KNP sheets (key names and phrases) are a very common resource. There, the linguistic team can register proposed translations for names, cultural references or jokes, in order to maintain a consistent criterion.

Transcreator: What the Role Entails and the Skills Required

Ready to get creative? Here’s a unique word for you. Transcreator. A transcreator is someone who works on transcreation projects, most commonly in the marketing and advertising space. Let’s step back for a moment. Transcreation is a combination of two words. Translation and creation. Transcreation is a process that helps replicate an original message or piece of content in order to hide that translation occurred. 

Transcreation plays a crucial role in the success of marketing campaigns. Which means a transcreator is an important asset to any marketing or advertising team that wants to take their marketing efforts to new audiences in foreign countries through transcreation. There are a set of skills that a good transcreator should have in order to be successful at this tricky job.

Who is qualified to transcreate?

In order to transcreate successfully, one must have skills and knowledge regarding not just language, but cultural nuances. The transcreator should be able to confidently advise on the look and feel of a client’s campaign, alongside guiding copy, in order to ensure it is a success within the local target market. Point being, a transcreator should serve as a cultural advisor as much as an expert on translation. 

What skills make a successful transcreator?

The number one skill a transcreator should have may not be one you’d expect. Creativity. The marketing whizzes may be the ones who get all the creative credit, but transcreators are a big part of the equation. Transcreators will play with words, rhythm, proverbs, alliteration, and personification in order to make them work creatively and accurately in the target market. 

Aside from creativity, a transcreator needs to be adaptable. They may have to set aside their personal style or preferences to adapt to a campaign’s needs. An expert knowledge of both the source and target language is also extremely important. Having a high level knowledge of both languages will assist when working through cultural differences and language variants such as with colloquialisms. Being familiar with the culture of the target language will not only help with word choice, but the meaning behind those words. Throughout the world, different societies have varying traditions, values, struggles, priorities, and passions. Working with a transcreator who is deeply aware of the culture they’re targeting will be an invaluable asset. In essence, a transcreator should have the following skills and experience at their disposal.

  • Have proper training in both literary translation and creative writing.
  • Not only be bilingual, but actually be born and educated in the area relating to the target audience.
  • Stay up to date on the cultural and socio political events of the target market.
  • Be able to write creatively and have advertising, marketing, and copywriting skills.
  • Be knowledgeable about advertising regulations that affect the target audience.

How to work with a transcreator successfully

When working with a transcreator or a transcreation team it’s important to focus on the work being a collaborative effort. You can give the transcreator as much or as little creative leeway as needed. You can work together to make sure they maintain your vision and preferred style, while also allowing them to put their expertise to work. By working with a high quality transcreator who has an expert knowledge of both the source and target languages and cultures, you’ll be able to ensure that your marketing campaigns shine wherever you distribute them.

The Role of Transcreation in Marketing Campaigns

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t find the words to say exactly what we mean. When we finally do find the perfect words, they may not be easy to translate. Idioms, cultural differences, puns. Not all language choices can translate word for word while maintaining their original meaning. This struggle is particularly true with creative language. Marketing campaigns are one area in particular in which this struggle often applies. The wit, creativity, and snappiness of marketing copy may be difficult to translate properly. The solution? Transcreation. 

Why is transcreation necessary?

The term transcreation combines two words. It is a meshing of translation and creation. Most commonly,  those who work in marketing and advertising use this term. Transcreation can help duplicate marketing messages in a way that hides the fact that translation occurred. Ideally, this process will provide the audience with the same emotional response they would have obtained from the source message.

Culture plays a large role in making an advertisement successful. Ensuring that all marketing materials feel as if they were specifically designed for the culture they’re targeted at is important. Advertisers must make their audience feel a certain way. Unlocking what is important to them culturally, will make that process much easier. 

How is transcreation used in marketing?

Globalization has led to many companies spreading their marketing campaigns to other countries, which can require running campaigns in multiple languages. Because language is so intertwined with culture, it’s important that marketers hire professional transcreators to assist with the transcreation process. A transcreator is usually a professional translator who is skilled in creative writing.

What may seem like a direct translation could actually lose the essence of what made the source copy so effective from a marketing perspective. Slogans that contain metaphors, similes, rhyming, word play, or alliteration, are examples of why transcreation is so important. Those creative writing techniques won’t necessarily translate literally into other languages. 

What are the challenges of translation in marketing?

When moving into a foreign market, there are three options for advertisers. Translate an existing campaign, run new campaigns locally, or run an international campaign in English. If a marketing team chooses to go the translation route, they must incorporate transcreation into their process. Transcreation can be difficult and entail more work than a direct translation, but it’s worth the extra time commitment. When an ad agency or marketing team neglects to hire a professional translator for this process, they may end up with underwhelming results in foreign countries. Potentially their entire campaign can fail or cause scandal. 

Pepsi is an unfortunate example of the dangers of skipping transcreation in marketing. Between 1963 and 1967, Pepsi attempted to market their products in China. The slogan they used in English speaking countries was “Come alive with Pepsi”. However, when they tried to translate that English text into Chinese, the outcome was disastrous. The Chinese translation ended up as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” Not exactly a crowd pleaser. For a product to successfully enter a new market, all aspects of its marketing campaign need to adapt to the target culture.

Translation vs. Transcreation

Translation involves rendering one language to another. Sounds simple enough. However, without proper attention to context and culture, intended meaning can be lost in the translated text. Phrases in one language should not be expected to directly translate word for word into another language. Poetry, for example, doesn’t directly translate because it’s filled with feeling and personal interpretation. For brands, slogans and taglines often include regional slang and colloquial words that require an approach beyond translating methods alone.

That’s where transcreation comes in.

What is transcreation?

Transcreation is the merger of two words: translation and creation. It’s an intricate form of translating that preserves the original intent, context, emotion, and tone. Originally conceived by marketing and advertising professionals, the goal of transcreation is to duplicate the message thoughtfully and seamlessly, without audiences realizing a translation ever occurred. The finished product should give the audience an identical emotional experience as the source message.

The process

Where translation usually begins with a source text, the transcreation process often kicks off with a creative brief. The expert producing the transcreation must have the skills and knowledge to not only know the cultural nuances of both languages, but must understand the “spirit” of which the original message was created. In the process, the transcreator may also take creative liberties and make significant changes to the translation in order to uphold its original meaning. With special attention given to the end user, all content created should resonate with audiences from a cultural point of view.

In addition to translated copy, transcreators can also advise on the look and feel of the client’s campaign. The expert will assure that all creative, such as imagery, color, and layouts, align and will resonate with the local market. Again, the goal is not just to translate text but to evoke emotion with proper cultural adaption across all fractions of the campaign. For example, the expert will recommend if models in advertisements need to be replaced to better fit the demographics of the differing market.

How to improve the process?

Due to its dynamic strategy and attention to various aspects of a campaign, transcreation has become a focus within the translation industry. To better improve the complex process, it’s important that the source copy is final before moving it into transcreation. Last minute changes can disrupt the transcreation process and extend projects past deadline. Also, because creative liberties are often taken in transcreation, it’s extremely beneficial to have an approval process in place with sign-off from a relevant product or brand manager within the target market of the campaign.

A prime example of a brand utilizing transcreation is McDonald’s, which adjusted its North American slogan from “I’m lovin’ it” to “I just like it” in China. The word “love” in the Chinese language is extremely serious and rarely said aloud. “I just like it” is a localized expression more in line with the Chinese culture. In addition to slogans, McDonald’s also localized their menus to suit the tastes of the target market. A McDonald’s in the Philippines, for example, may offer the McRice burger while a McDonald’s in India will offer a McPaneer Royale. When done correctly, transcreation is an effective way for brands to authentically reach new markets in a meaningful way and achieve greater brand engagement and recognition.