Transcreation: A True Translation of Many Cultures

Apr 14, 2021

Posted by Katie Sullivan

Transcreation: I’d never heard the word before I started work as a consultant on the 2020 Census.

Transcreation, like translation, interprets thoughts and ideas — but it goes far beyond word-for-word translation. Done well, it maintains the intent, style, tone, and context, considering not only language, but also culture and emotion. In short, transcreation is essential for communications and marketing firms today — or at least those that want to reflect, respect, reach, and move people in our country’s numerous, multifaceted communities.

That’s what Reingold, supported by a team of cultural experts who focused on content, marketing and outreach, did for the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Census. Reingold, as part of more than a dozen agencies and consulting firms, was tasked with creating ads and messaging in a total of 53 languages. In addition, as 2020 brought the first census that allowed people to respond online, we knew that appealing to people through digital marketing and digital ads would be key to reaching people who spoke one or any of those 53 languages.

With the census, the official population count that takes place every 10 years, reaching people in a true way was especially important. With trust in the federal government low, and controversy on how noncitizens would be counted, we had our work cut out for us. We had to deliver the message that responding to the census was safe and easy, and that the census would have an impact on funding and government representation for communities across the U.S. This included assuring people that their information would remain confidential, and that their responses would be used to determine how funds for transportation, health care, and education were allocated.

Many of these messages varied in importance depending on the audience. That’s where transcreation took the place of translation.

Transcreation involves reflecting nuances in language, behaviors, practices, cultural traditions, and more, and the transcreation process started as we began developing content for audiences in other languages. The important first step in planning to create ads in another language for audiences you may not know much about is an exercise in humility and self-awareness. In this case, it meant recognizing that we weren’t the experts, and working closely with people who were.

Reingold, a subcontractor under VMLY&R, worked with a team of agencies that specialize in advertising to particular audiences: Carol H. Williams and Quantasy for Black and African American audiences, Culture ONE World for U.S. mainland Hispanic and Brazilian (Portuguese-speaking) audiences, VMLY&R San Juan for Puerto Rican audiences, The Kālaimoku Group for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander audiences, G+G Advertising for American Indian and Alaska Native audiences, and TDW+Co for six Asian audiences (two Chinese — Mandarin-speaking and Cantonese-speaking — as well as Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese). Agencies adapted messages for audiences as needed, based on what each audience most cared about, be it confidentiality, education, health care, community funding, or transportation. Reingold also collaborated closely with native speakers and outreach experts to develop digital ads to reach Middle Eastern and North African, Russian, and Polish audiences.

The larger team agreed on and finalized a messaging framework for the campaign as a whole, which informed in-language ad creation by a native speaker in collaboration with Reingold consultants. Next, cultural partners reviewed content, and a translation agency validated the transcreated materials. This process sparked conversations about word choice, what would be most effective and resonate with a specific audience. Some examples of where things might have gotten lost but for transcreation:

  • After consulting with the experts in messaging for Hispanic audiences, we changed language in a public service announcement script to designate who would be the person most likely to respond to the census in a multigenerational household. Spanish-language variations showed a parent as this person. English-language variations showed a grandparent.
  • Our cultural partner for our Arabic ads noted that language was too formal — what in translation was literally OK sounded stiff and like legalese. The transcreation effort meant the ads integrated phrasing and language choices that made ads sound more conversational, like an everyday person would speak, with the goal of helping audiences feel more seen and understood.

We suffered growing pains as we expanded into the world of transcreation — we made mistakes and revised constantly during an ever-evolving process (hot tip: Make sure your ad platform is set up to host Arabic text correctly! Arabic reads right to left, rather than how platforms are set up for English — left to right). But at the heart of that was a hope of getting people to complete the census, and empowering folks to be a part of building better representation, funding, and visibility for communities that are oftentimes overlooked.

Was the process perfect? Definitely not. Were there lessons learned? Absolutely. Does this mean Reingold is a cultural expert and authority on Russian, Polish, or Arabic-speaking audiences? No, and that’s the point and the beauty of transcreation. Putting cultural experts and partners at the center of the development of creative content is a first step in ensuring that messages are culturally competent, accurately representative, and authentic to an experience or perspective.

With transcreation, the Reingold team and cultural partners took the data-based segmentation and targeting that marketing firms are familiar with to a different dimension. A message that is simply translated, not transcreated, might not land with the people you’re trying to reach and could be perceived as an attempt to check a box. Even worse, you could send the wrong message or even insult. Transcreation is a tool for amplifying voices and messages to reach audiences in a way that isn’t pandering to what we as a firm think they want or need, but rather representing perspectives and experiences unique to them.

Katie Sullivan is a senior communications associate at Reingold. She started her career in journalism, along with higher education program management, before stepping into the role as a project manager for Reingold’s digital creative development team on the 2020 Census project.