What is transcreation? How is it different from video translation?

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Transcreation has been a buzzword in the voice-over and video translation world for about six years, and for good reason. It promises the ideal of a product created specifically for a local audience, which echoes the goals of localization. However, it’s a confusing concept when it comes to video localization, in part because there are so many translation options available to video content.

This blog post will define what transcreation means exactly to video translation, and examine its advantages and drawbacks.

[Average read time: 5 minutes]

A brief history and definition

The term comes from the advertising world, specifically for the re-writes a copy staff would do on a specific spot or campaign. The Economist had a great explanation of transcreation back in May, in an otherwise bleak article about the translation industry:

…“transcreation”, in which a translator—often in advertising—is expected to rethink a message, making sure that the version in the new language has the right cultural references, jokes and suchlike to recreate the impact, without the wording, of the original. In this case, the “transcreator” is even more of a writer than most translators.

The phrase “without the wording” really gets at the difference between transcreation and translation, in which the idea is to relay the original wording faithfully. It also separates it from localization, which aims to look at translations in a total context, but which in the end still tries to convey the meaning of the text faithfully.

Transcreation is something else altogether – it means writing content from scratch for a specific locale in order to produce a similar effect or result as the original. And usually that desired result is increased sales or audience engagement.

Is transcreation really that new?

Not really. It’s been around in marketing and advertising since the 70s. This industry has often relied on in-country marketing leads, who often had a lot of say in how products were advertised locally, so it make sense that this is where the concept was born. But while the word and concept are relatively new, the idea of re-writing content for locale certainly isn’t.

Think of movie re-makes that go from one cultural setting to another – they retain the same basic idea (the plot), and are meant to do the same thing (entertain). For example, Seven Samurai (1954), the thrilling film about seven samurai warriors in feudal Japan who defend a poor village from roving bandits, was remade as The Magnificent Seven in 1960, a thrilling film about seven gunfighters in Mexico who defend a poor village from roving bandits. In this case, the film was re-written from page one for an American audience. There are hundreds of instances of this, and vice-versa as well.

In fact, studios used to produce foreign-language versions of some movies at the same time as they shot the English-language versions. Most famous of these is Dracula (1931) – it was directed in English by Todd Browning, and concurrently in Spanish by George Melford. Browning shot the English-language version during the day. Melford, his crew and a completely different group of Spanish-speaking actors would shoot their version overnight, on the same sets, with most of the same equipment. The two versions of the movie are actually quite different, with very different performances, shots, lighting, and costumes.

For more on the two versions of Dracula, see our previous post, What can we learn about transcreation & video translation from Dracula (1931)?

What is transcreation in the video localization context?

So much content is re-created for most kinds of video localization that the line between localization and transcreation can get blurry. For example, subtitling seems like a pure kind of translation – after all, they retain all of the original video content, and merely superimpose translations onto it. But remember that subtitles content is re-written for locale quite often – for example, to “sell” jokes that wouldn’t translate to a specific locale.

It’s also hard to draw this line with voice-over dubbing applications. Most translated off-screen narration is faithful to the original text – in fact, this is crucial for corporate and e-Learning videos, even when the audio must be shortened to fit. However, off-screen voice over can often be rewritten for locale, and sometimes with drastic differences. Likewise, foreign-language videos are also often re-edited to allow for different timings, or to replace shots that don’t make sense within a particular cultural context.

And what about a re-shoot done with a translated script – say for a health care program member introduction video? Or an e-Learning scenario that’s been localized, but not re-written from word one? (Examples of these in the graphic that follows.) While a green-screen re-shoot would suggest transcreation, this isn’t quite the case if the script from the original English-language video is translated.


A re-shoot is transcreation only if the scripts are re-worked for a specifically local audience, which usually means changes in blocking, setting, interactions and of course, dialogue. Again, this re-write – independent of how much video or voice-over production it requires – is the key to whether or not content is being transcreated, and not the amount of production that ensues. While a fully transcreated video may in the end re-use a lot of content from a different locale (akin to localization), the process itself is substantially different.

So what kind of video content is transcreation good for?

Again, mainly marketing content – TV spots, radio ads, online videos, pre-roll, social media and websites – which really benefit from a hyper-local approach. Cultural specificity is crucial to engaging an audience on an emotional level, the aim of any good spot. And mind you, this localization occurs much on a much more granular level than just linguistics and culture – in the US alone we see spots targeted to relatively small demographic groups, cities, and even neighborhoods.

Transcreation is also good for creating e-Learning content for different regions, especially for e-Learning scenarios, the short scenes that illustrate a particular idea, or highlight a problem that the course is designed to tackle. Transcreating these videos – which usually means re-shooting instead of lip-sync dubbing or dialogue replacement – really helps with learner engagement, especially for courses on workplace interactions, soft skills, or local laws and customs. Small details, like how far apart speakers stand from each other, where they speak, how often they look at each other, and what they do with their hands, are really only possible to capture with re-writes and re-shoots.

What are the limitations or drawbacks?

Four key ones to keep in mind.

  1. Budget. Transcreation often requires more labor, which means more cost.
  2. Longer production timelines. During prep, it requires re-writing entire scripts. During production, it may mean more setups and more crew hours.
  3. Doesn’t give users a completely unified experience. If you’re an international corporation that needs its employees to be on the same page about something – for example, a corporate video on compliance with international regulations – faithful translation may be a better option for your training courses.
  4. Doesn’t always retain the original production value. The most obvious example of this is marketing campaigns with well-known actors. If a global star like Tom Cruise is selling your products, you may not want to replace him with a local star – unless it’s someone who can provide the same kind of engagement or result.

So what do you need to know for video?

To start, that transcreation isn’t always the best option for a video, and not just because of budget. It’s exceptionally good for marketing content, but has less applicability with other content. If you’re starting a video production that may benefit from transcreation, make sure to explore all options before committing. And more importantly, start thinking about this early in the content development. Involve your in-country stakeholders, who may have very useful and creative ideas about how to transcreate for their markets. Remember that small tweaks during the shooting of a video can make a significant difference in overall localization costs. As with translation & localization, planning ahead for transcreation can lower budgets and timelines, and produce a higher-quality product.