Translations vs. transcreations vs. localizations

Germans are fun.

German is different. 


Germany. The biggest European economy and number four in the world. The country’s purchasing power and standard of living rank among the highest worldwide. We’re talking a GDP of more than 3.8 trillion US$, generated by roughly 82 million inhabitants.


The catch is: They speak German – just like 8.7 million Austrians and 5.2 million Swiss. The language of Bach and Mozart, Goethe and Nietzsche. An imaginative, figurative and multifaceted language. A language like a well-engineered, powerful, efficient, precise and complex machine. A very complex machine.


The German language:

You’re best off being born with it.


German nouns come in three genders and four cases. A vast amount of irregular verbs have to be conjugated in accordance with two numbers, three persons, four moods and six tenses. Yes, most of the German letters do look like the English ones, although there are still the vowels ugly cousins (the infamous Umlaute Ä, Ö and Ü) as well as the ominous “ß”. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  


Where am I going with that? If you want to do a bit of business with the Germans, sure, you can always try English. Might work, might not. But if you really want them to understand you, trust you, like you and most of all buy from you, there’s no way around talking to them in their native language. On your website, in your social media channels, in your brochures. Why? Would you buy a German car that didn’t come with an English manual?




While translation programs and apps today might give you a pretty good idea of what the other person is talking about in everyday conversation, you’ll still end up with a huge amount of gibberish when it comes to more challenging topics. No problem, you may think, since there are oodles of translators and translation agencies all over the web offering their services.


Of course, you want a professional – and this is where the number of potential partners starts to decrease. You don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for your translation either, resulting in some more providers falling through the cracks. Wouldn’t a native speaker of the target language be your best bet? It would be indeed – but it would also cause the numbers of suitable contractors to dwindle even further.


And you don’t want your translation to sound like a translation, but rather like a text that was well thought through, structured, written and edited by a skilled native author. Some more suppliers dropping out right there – a lot of them, in fact. And before you know it, you don’t need a translation anymore, but a …




Charming, witty, funny, surprising, smart, eloquent: Certain words, quotes and expressions simply can’t be translated – or can’t be translated simply. They have to be transcreated, or else they’ll loose their spirit and power, their conciseness and their persuasion. A smart reference to a cultural peculiarity over here might cause nothing but a shrug over there, a twinkle in the eye may just lead to a blank stare.   


And sometimes you might even get to a point where you have to drop the original meaning altogether to make your message work for a foreign audience. That’s when transcreators find themselves grafting hours or days on end to come up with an alternative, that is totally different but equally effective.


Some examples: There’s a reason why Google doesn’t use a German translation of “Don’t be evil” – because, well, it might rub Germans the wrong way in terms of relatively recent chapters of their history. Adidas’ “Impossible is nothing” would never fly in Germany, simply because Toyota beat them to it by successfully establishing a literal translation of this expression as their slogan. Avis Germany never claimed that “We try harder”, because their reference-deprived customers would probably ask: “You try harder… doing what?”.


South Africans love Nestlé’s Smarties, partly because of their irresistible slogan “Wot a lot I got”. Germans love Smarties, too – but behind a claim like that they would either assume a stuttering candy manufacturer or the Hindi word for chocolate. Instead, Germans still stick to the slogan that came with the introduction of Smarties in 1964: “Viele viele bunte Smarties” (“Many many colourful Smarties”). Sure, slightly on the dull side, but hey, they’re colourful and there are definitely many of them. So it sounds about right.


A lot of German companies on the other hand try to outsmart the competition by introducing an English claim even for their fellow citizens. This verbal positioning must not exceed the (presumed) average English vocabulary of a (presumed) average German consumer, of course. Some of the results can best be described as the lowest common denominators in German marketing history.


The German perfume store chain Douglas (ironically pronounced in a very German way "Doogluss") told its customers to "Come in and find out", which many Germans interpreted as "Once you're in here, it might be a challenge to find the exit". Many German Burger King fans ("Have it your way") were wondering, why they couldn't eat their food in the restaurant but had to eat it on the way. Some bakeries opened "Back Shops" (backen = to bake), in turn leaving native English speakers with a slightly strange aftertasteOther German companies simply couldn't decide at all on what to say, so they strung together a few catchy English words, which would sound a bit like something, but would mean absolutely nothing. Money wasted, consumers confused: Welcome to Babylon.         




The definition of these terms tends to get a bit blurry within the industry, but let’s assume for a minute that localization starts where transcreation ends. As we know, there are many expressions that wouldn’t even work for different audiences who share a common language. Would Tesco’s successful UK claim “Every little helps” do the trick in the US as well? Little, help – in a nation with a steadfast attitude of make it big, can-do and sky's the limit? Tesco might as well try it with “Never mind, it’s just us”.


Let’s stay with the supermarkets, but switch to the German speaking world. The Austrian grocery store chain BILLA welcomes its customers with the claim “BILLA, sagt mein Hausverstand”, which roughly translates into “BILLA: It’s common sense”. In Germany BILLA has no stores at all – maybe it’s because the term “Hausverstand” is exclusively used by its Southern neighbors. You feel me? I mean… not literally, of course, but in the sense that someone from, say, Mississippi or Alabama would catch my drift or get my point.


Transcreations and localizations keep all of these and many more factors in mind. They bridge cultural and linguistic gaps, they change their form but maintain their character. They might come from the other side of the world, but they’re perfect next-door neighbors. They dress accordingly, speak properly and do as the Romans do – or the Berliners. So while translations come and go as tourists, transcreations and localizations are here to stay as true cosmopolitans. And that's why we trust them.


So if you’ve got something important to say to the Germans:

Let me say it for you.

Kommentare: 1
  • #1

    Peter Bloecker (Mittwoch, 08 November 2017 01:54)

    Very interesting - really smart and well thought and done, like this ...
    Will be back from time to time!
    from Burleigh Waters