The fail of transcreation

10 minutes to read
Julia Wysopal

Translated advertisements can have tremendous marketing effects, both positive and negative, but transcreation has the final say on their outcome. In this article, I will explain the difference between translation and transcreation, and ultimately, using various examples, I will try to answer the question to what extent transcreation is successfully applied in international advertisements. 

From a linguistic point of view, every one of us has seen unsuccessful printed advertisements, whether it be a mistake or an intended action of the creative directors and designers focusing on the field of phonetic transcription, choice of words, form of words, order of clauses, meaning, or the use of language. All those levels of language are embedded in translation, and whereas on a national level, the resonance of the error might not last long, and could be quickly forgotten, on a global scale while dealing with international brands, the punishment can be quite severe, such as loss of face, and consequently money. 

Translation vs Transcreation

According to the Oxford Dictionary, translation is ‘the process of translating words or text from one language into another.' The word originates from Latin, meaning ‘carried across' and in Ancient Greek, it was understood as a composition of a metaphrase – a literal translation, and a paraphrase – expressing something ‘in other words.' 

While translation has been present for centuries, transcreation is a relatively new concept. Niki's Int'l Ltd. (2016) defines it as: 

"The process of adopting a marketing or advertising message from one language to another while keeping its original tone, context, style and emotion all intact across language and cultural barriers." 

Similarl to translation, the meaning of transcreation can be traced back to Latin, where ‘trans' means ‘on the other side of' and ‘creare' means ‘to create', but according to Rand (2017), there are multiple theories regarding the etymology of the term. 

Origin of transcreation

One of the first hypotheses regarding this subject states that the word transcreation was already used in the 1960s, when it referred to creatively translating advertisement content, much like it is used now. The other sets forth a view that during the expansion of the video games industry in the 1980s, designers felt that they needed to adjust not just the language, but also the storyline and visuals to their target audience, in order to appeal to players from different cultural backgrounds (Ray & Kelly, 2010), ultimately making more profit.

The term became more popular during the 1990s, when technological advancements and transportation networks grew rapidly, which lead to an international expansion of companies. In his book, "The Rise of the Network Society" (1996) sociologist Manuel Castells describes this as a total reshaping of society with globalization as its cause. Social structures expanded, became more dynamic, less predictable, and what followed, in the context of this article, was the intensified work of marketing companies, which specialized not only in standard translation, but also in transcreation.

Since approximately 2010, the term is widely used not solely in the UK or US, but also in Asia. 

How should transcreation be done?

Whether one considers using translation or transcreation for marketing purposes, the outcome of either process should be successful. However, the way to success is different for each method. As with any advertisement, the goal is to evoke a certain emotion, or set of emotions, in the audience, to make people aspire to, feel, and act in a way that will drive them to buy this product or use a specific service.

Marketing translation does not avail of a metaphrase, because aspects like idioms, humour and puns cannot be directly converted, and are often lost in the process. According to Lab42, a market research company (TranslateMedia, 2014), a study carried out among 500 consumers found that 71% of the people questioned think of humorous advertisements as being the most memorable, meaning humour can be crucial and worth the hassle of getting right when it comes to having a thriving business. This is where transcreation comes into play. 

In addition to the brief introduction of the term, a few important aspects still need to be mentioned. Primarily, transcreation entails a creative process where concepts and ideas are adapted to suit the target audience. However, defining who this audience is, is not that simple. As the end of the Cold War in 1991 marked the opening of transnational borders, people started to move out of their 'zones'. Their mobility was motivated either by choice, such as traveling for their leisure, or necessity, such as seeking asylum.

Transcreating needs to acknowledge aspects like current trends, cultural differences and history, so as not to alienate or offend the audience.

This migration resulted in the formation of new, superdiverse societies (Vertovec, 2006), in which micro-populations are characterized by complexity, polycentricity and layeredness (Maly & Varis, 2015). People of different nationalities, ethnicities, cultural, and social backgrounds started to mix even within the same neighbourhoods, as is the case of Berchem in Antwerp (Blommaert, 2013) or Ghent (Blommaert & Maly, 2016). Therefore, marketing companies often address a whole nation when transcreating advertisements, as this broader perspective gives them bigger chances of attracting more customers.

Sometimes this requires a complete change of all the elements and the advertisements needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, including such changes as altering the images, slogan, text, or even the colour scheme, in order to elicit the same atmosphere in a completely different audience (Niki's Int'l Ltd., 2016). Therefore ‘raining cats and dogs' in the UK would be converted into ‘raining ropes' in France, and white (associated with mourning) would be substituted for red (happiness) for a Chinese public (Rand, 2017). The body in charge of transcreating needs to acknowledge aspects like current trends, cultural differences and history, so as not to alienate or offend the audience (Phillips, 2017).

To follow up, transcreation is to advertising what copywriting is to writing, meaning writing a new copy in the target language. It involves a creative process, where content is generated in the target language, so as to fulfil marketing objectives (Phillips, 2017). It can be compared to foreign language copywriting, and hence there are different names ascribed to transcreation, that is ‘adaptation, creative translation, cross-market copywriting, international copy adaptation, cultural adaptation' (Phillips, 2014). 

No matter which concept one uses, they all strive towards one goal - to evoke the same emotions in recipients on both sides of the spectrum and this is always constant.

Case studies 

Cultural trends concerning global companies are not homogenous, and this can be seen with regards to tailor-made McDonald's products, such as Burbur Ayam McD in Malaysia, or the Veg Pizza McPuff in India. Although having different products is everything but transcreation and rather points to glocalisation, it proves that companies need to adapt their strategy to attract consumers, and marketing is a dominant ingredient in this.

In this section, I will discuss several case studies based on global companies that applied incorrect translations in their advertisements, or rather translated than transcreated their messages. 

Toyota Prado in China

It is vital to take into consideration the culture and language of a nation while running an advertising campaign in another country. The first example is about Toyota Prado in China. This case shows that the advertisement can be harmful, but it can also go a step further and actually humiliate the nation. It might seem that their neighbouring Japanese car maker, should not have problems in understanding Chinese culture, however, it is the opposite. When Toyota introduced its model Prado, Chinese customers understood the message differently. 

'Prado must be respected'

The ad represented two stone carved lions which salute a coming car. Some people see the connection between Chinese and Japanese history. In 1937, Japan invaded China on the Marco Polo Bridge, which also has statues of those lions. This turned the advertisement into a symbol of humiliation. Additionally, the word ‘prado’ can be translated to ‘badao’ in Chinese, which means ‘overbearing’ or ‘rule by force’.  These are not reactions that marketers want to achieve; therefore shortly after the ad was released and the misinterpretation was spotted, the automaker published a formal apology in about 30 magazines (O’Guinn, 2011).



Parker Pen in Mexico

Another example in which the company was trapped in a translation affair is Parker Pen U.S. brand. The company succeed in America with the slogan ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’. However, they failed when they wanted to enter the Mexican market, with the same slogan in Spanish.

It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.

The English-Spanish translation, in this case, was very inaccurate, and it said ‘no goteará en tu bolsillo ni te embarazará’, which means ‘it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant’. The last words in both languages look and sound similar - embarrass and embarazar. In Spanish, embarazar is a verb - to be impregnated. The similarity between the words leads people to believe that both words mean the same thing, when in fact, they do not (Day translation, n.d.). 

Pepsi in China

‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead'

There are many examples of marketing blunders, although some of them are considered as legendary. Pepsi is in one of the top 100 best-known brands in the world. In the 1960s, the soft drink producer came up with a new slogan: ‘Come alive!’ and they achieved enormous success with it at home, but when they expanded their business to China, they failed greatly.

After direct translation (metaphrase), the message perceived by Pepsi drinkers was not the same as in the U.S. The meaning of the slogan in China was ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead’. Chinese customers understood this as drinking Pepsi would cause your dead family members to rise from the grave (Snopes, 2011). A global knowledge of Eastern culture and help from an experienced coypwriter were necessary for American advertisers to avoid this mistake.

Coca-Cola in Saudi Arabia

Pepsi's eternal rival didn't do any better. In 2009, while implementing an advertisement in Saudi Arabia, Coca-Cola used simple cartoon images instead of text, so as to appeal to a larger audience, and avoid translation mistakes. Here, a cultural factor plays a role as even without any letters, the basic skill of reading is essential. This also includes the way one reads.

At first sight, everything seems fine: an exhausted guy quenches his thirst drinking a can of coke, and then he is able to run again. However, the creators of the ad forgot about a small, yet significant detail: Arabs read from right to left, so the outcome of the advertisement was not entirely as intended.

Cultural globalizatoin and transcreation

Due to globalization processes people moved, networks grew, often in unpredictable ways, and what followed was the expansion of networks (Castells, 1996). Brands in search of new customers had to adapt their marketing techniques in order to have a unique appeal to a unique audience. Cultural differences, customs, ways of life and many more aspects have to be taken into account while implementing potentially the ‘same' advertisement in different cultures, regions, countries, or even continents.

This was often not the case, as the examples illustrate, especially in the cases of Toyota Prado and Pepsi. Moreover, grabbing the attention of superdiverse populations (Vertovec, 2006), which arose due to new migration patterns, is another challenge. This is where marketing companies come into play, as the range of needed specialists is wide. Translators, linguists, designers, sociologists, copywriters, marketing professionals, or even whole advertising agencies, to name just a few. 

In this article, the aspects of economy and culture are intertwined and inseparable. Arjun Appadurai, in his book 'Modernity at Large' (1996), emphasizes that so far, we dealt with globalization as an economic phenomenon, but now we have to look at its cultural dimensions as well. This focus on soft globalization leads to the emergence of global patterns of social and cultural behaviour. This is an optimistic note for everybody involved in marketing, as consumers' tastes are becoming easier to guess.

The subject is one key factor to consider while assigning the task of transferring the advertisement from one language and culture to another, but the method also needs to be taken into account. Whether someone will make use of translation, transcreation or both of those methods combined, and if the final product will be received with approval from the local audience matters. Translators alone are not able to convey the same emotions in an audience with an entirely different mindset. As a result, we are the witnesses of the aforementioned marketing blunders. To fail in transcreating your advertisement then, means you simply translated it.


Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization (Vol. 1). University of Minnesota Press.

Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, superdiversity and linguistic landscapes: Chronicles of complexity (Vol. 18). Multilingual Matters.

Castells, M. (1996). The information age: Economy, society and culture: The rise of the network society. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Day Translation - Can A Parker Pen Get You Pregnant? (n.d.). Retrieved from

Maly, I. & Varis, P. (2015). The 21st century hipster: on micro-populations in times of super-diversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1-17.

Niki’s Int’l Ltd. (2016, December 29) Transcreation 101: An Introductory Course to Transcreation  [Blog post]. 

O’Guinn, T. C. (2011). Advertising and integrated brand promotion. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Pepsi Brings Back Ancestors. (2017, November 06). Retrieved from 

Phillips, J. (2014, April 2) Transcreation: what is transcreation? [Blog post]. 

Phillips, J. (2017, June 21) Translation, transcreation & copywriting. Confused? [Blog post]. 

Rand, P. (2017). Marketing Translation Vs. Transcreation: What’s the Difference? [Blog post]. 

Ray, R., & Kelly, N. (2010). Reaching New Markets through Transcreation. Lowell, Massachusetts: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

TranslateMedia. (2014, October 3). The Use of Humour in International Marketing [Blog post].

Vertovec, S. (2006). The emergence of super-diversity in Britain. Centre of Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford.