The Art, Science, and Hechicería of Translated Content

By \ September 25, 2023

With more than 7,100 languages spoken all over the world, each with a unique blend of culture and expression, it’s a wonder that any of us are able to communicate at all. As an example, how do you translate nurungji, the Korean word for a dish of scorched rice from the bottom of the pan? Can we find equally beautiful articulations for Inuktitut words like nilak (freshwater ice, for drinking) and qinu (slushy ice by the sea) or capture the reverence in the words representing the sounds of boiling water rooted in thousand-year-old tea ceremony traditions of Japan? And what about the fact that there are over 600 million Spanish speakers around the world, each with their own unique cultural context and vocabulary?

Those deep roots and multicultural identities bring with them complexities that can be daunting if you’re a marketing professional on a mission to create effective campaigns that transcend linguistic boundaries—you know, 600 million people judging the accuracy of your content—no big deal.  

While word-for-word substitutions are often available, the true meaning and cultural aplomb can quickly be lost in translation. So, how do you capture the original spirit of intent in another language? Maybe it’s with a little hechicería. And, by hechicería, we’re not talking about full-blown witchcraft—the Spanish-to-English word-for-word translation—but more akin to finding the right spell, keeping the cultural enchantment in the meaning and the message. What we’re really talking about is transcreation—the process of adapting content from one language to another while maintaining the existing tone, intent, and style.

If you find yourself at a cultural crossroads, we have a few suggestions to help sprinkle the right sazón into your translations to get them closer to transcreations.

Create concepts with language flexibility built-in

¡Me encanta! – I’m lovin’ it!
Good and clever ideas transcend the language barrier and set you apart.

While easier said than done, concepting with built-in linguistic flexibility offers you the best of both worlds. When your narrative framework considers how things might sound in other languages, most of the work is already done when you hand things over to a translator. It will be their job to carefully consider the relevant cultural nuances, emotional touch points, and actionable content that fit the specific demographic you’re looking to engage.

However, there’s a huge caveat that you will need to consider. While human emotions are fairly universal, they might not resonate the same across different cultures. There are some intangibles that transcend simple segments and demographic differences because the divide can be much larger and harder to conceptualize, especially for someone who doesn’t have personal experience within that culture.

In order to effectively implement this approach, you’ll need to think of translation during the strategy phase. 

  • Are you familiar with the cultural, racial, and ethnic segments within your audiences? 
  • Do you know what they respond to (and what they don’t)? 
  • Does your campaign concepting and messaging include those considerations? 
  • Have you thought about how that messaging impacts those audiences?

By answering these questions, you’ve started the conversation of how to apply multicultural awareness, ensuring that your messaging translates well and shares a clear conceptual and emotional throughline across all language iterations. 

That said, allow your translator to guide you through nuances. They are often your best resource, with an understanding of the power in the words and how you can navigate across linguistic and cultural sensitivities. And, if possible, test your content on your target audience.

Words matter less than intent

¡O te peinas o te haces rollos! – Either blow dry your hair or put hair curlers in. Uh, what?
In other words, you need to choose one thing or another.

If the narrative framework and messaging you’ve created were for an English-speaking audience, reverse engineering it to fit non-English-speaking audiences isn’t impossible. It just requires culturally and linguistically informed solutions along with your typical demographic factors so it won’t lose its shine. While we can pour over specific word choices and refine them until it’s the most perfect tagline ever, if it translates poorly, the messaging WILL get lost. 

Here’s where you will need to cast a spell. While the words you’re using aren’t a direct translation, they have that little bit of magic to convey the same concept, emotion, and impact. That’s the goal every translator wants to achieve.

Words sometimes don’t even have the same implications—even if they have a one-to-one translation, so don’t focus your energy on finding that word-for-word. Think about the intent and feeling of your message rather than specific word choices, and it will resonate.

What do we want people to know? What do we want them to feel?

Does cadence and rhythm matter? Make those words dance

Ella es una dura bailando – She is the best at dancing

Duro / Dura – This word typically means “hard,” but in Puerto Rican slang, it can also mean that someone is really good at what they do (or that you’re just really good-looking).

Some concepts and campaigns rest on the cadence and delivery rather than on particular word choices. Songs and jingles are excellent examples of when the cadence needs to take precedence. Ensuring that something flows in the right way makes it easier for people to remember while also showcasing a commitment to transcreation.

Some things will need to be revised, and again, while it won’t be a one-to-one fit, the goal is to get it as close to the campaign rationale as we can in a way that makes sense to that audience and culture.

Make sure that the song and jingle work for that audience. Using Spanish as an example, are you making a jingle for an Argentinian audience by composing a ranchera tune? Not so fast—rancheras are Mexican, and it will completely fumble the landing or worse. You are better off giving a carnavalito, cumbia, or tango a try in this scenario. Music has its own communication powers, and familiarity with styles and genres can assist in getting the cultural context right.

En conclusión

Todo acto de creación, es un acto de amor – José Revueltas

Literal translation: Every act of creation is an act of love.

The magic of taking campaigns into multilingual strategies is complicated, especially when concepting and ideation are anchored in English and mainstream cultural references. But there is a little bit of hechicería in showcasing those diverse cultures. We owe it to ourselves and the human experience to create content and campaigns that speak to those audiences with the same passion and attention to detail. And who knows, maybe creating multicultural campaigns can change the world for the better.

Ideally, we would have the budget to localize or transcreate every campaign for every audience—if that’s not the case, thinking about your translation through the multicultural and multilingual lenses of your audiences will help push your concept from good enough to something great. 

If you want to learn more about transcreation and localization, we discuss them further in our Beyond Google Translate: Multilingual Design & UX blog post.

Need robust campaign and content strategies for Spanish-speaking audiences? Reach out to idfive.