How discourse analysis helps me be a better transcreator

As Wikipedia will have it, transcreation (the craft of creative translation) refers to “the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone, and context. A successfully transcreated message evokes the same emotions and carries the same implications in the target language as it does in the source language.

That’s all good and dandy, and fairly straightforward, but how exactly do we know WHAT A MESSAGE MEANS? How do we make out exactly what it attempts to convey and how it should be read, received and decoded? Well, if there’s no brief from the client, then those fascinating chapters on discourse analysis from Linguistics can offer great help.

Let us start with each individual word and enter the realm of semantics. Words both denote and connote. That is to say that every word has both a conceptual meaning (refers to an actual concept you can find in a dictionary), and an associative one – a thing, feeling, situation or emotion we associate with it – its connotation. Each word triggers a mental image. Different images in different contexts. It therefore takes much more than language competence to understand and equivalate that meaning in the issuer’s mind with an identical (or at least similar one) in the mind of the recipient (or target audience). What this requires is well-founded and up-to-date knowledge of both source and target cultures. It requires what Dell Hymes terms “communicative competence”.

But let us take a look at the message beyond the word. Let us look at the sentence. Here, words stand in relation to one another, they form a (hopefully coherent) whole, structured by means of syntax, and the linguistic context (the other words in the structure, the spelling, the punctuation) can aid in making sense of it all.

So if I say: “One of the chairs broke during dinner“, it’s pretty safe to assume you’re thinking of that four-legged object people sit on at tables. That is because of the co-text mentioning dinner, which immediately brings to mind a knowledge structure (a simplified pattern or schema): that of tables, chairs, and plates of food. (And since we’re on this topic, your image of the chair is still pretty blurry. It might differ greatly from mine. If I was to be more specific and add a host of adjectives like “the white, egg-shaped IKEA chair”, you and I both would most likely have more similar understandings of the word “chair” – in this case, the message is considered to be “more duplicable” and “less duplicitous“, as one of my communication trainers used to say. However, sometimes, messages are ambiguous on purpose.)

But if I say: “The Chair was angry because of the repeated lack of quorum“, this opens a whole new perspective. I would have to know what quorum has to do with, what meetings are like, and that the chair, in this case, is the person presiding over a meeting. Granted, the capitalization is a bit of a give-away, but you know what I mean. (Or don’t you? 🙂 )

Now what about longer texts, the language beyond the sentence – the discourse? Discourses include narratives, and there is a point and a structure to any narrative. Again, one requires familiarity with both linguistic and situational context. On top of that, a well-rounded background knowledge (consisting of the patterns, schemas and scripts I just mentioned) about the wider cultural context to which the source text belongs is crucial.

And this is where Norman Fairclough’s approach to Critical Discourse Analysis comes in handy. A good transcreator will attempt to decode the message (in order to recompose it adequately) by going through textual analysis (lexical and semantic choices, syntax and paradigms, modality, narrative structure and cohesion, rhetorical tropes and so on), but then also investigating genre and discursive practices (how the text was produced, and how it is intended to be consumed, and how it stands in relation to broader social conditions). It then takes into consideration sociocultural practices, and looks at how the discourse was derived, and whether it challenges or reinforces social practices and norms. Without these steps, any understanding will remain limited – little more than guesswork.

All of these considerations are essential ingredients for crafting a convincing equivalent message in the target language, for a target audience which may (and most likely will) have different beliefs, cultural practices and systems of representing the world –  ergo, different attitudes and different connotations. A good transcreator will have to have an intimate understanding of daily life, popular culture and current affairs in both the country of origin (where the text was produced), and the target country (where it will be “consumed“).

Advertising materials are particularly challenging multimodal discourses with strong emotional and visual components. And what’s more, they are institutional discourses. They are goal-oriented and subject to special constraints and inferential frameworks. From the point of view of semiotics, they contain a variety of signs which – as R. Barthes put it – both denote and connote, anchor and reinforce each other, guiding the possible interpretations. They require stylistic versatility,  striking the appropriate tone, and a mastery of different registers, some of which may be more closed than others. Failure to meet the right register can discredit the text (the brand) or, at the very least, make the ad miss its mark. Usually, advertisements rely heavily on allusion and intertextuality. Figures of thought, speech and sound also play an exceptionally large role, and need to be considered in the translation. Only a transcreator who fully understands the system in which those texts (and the signs they are composed of) make sense, will be able to find the appropriate means of expression in a different language.

You see, achieving the “same implications” part of the Wikipedia definition is really hard work.

If you’re looking for suggestions, insights and support with translating challenging texts and discourses, contact YourTranscreator here!