A Marketer’s Guide to Translation, Transcreation, and Native Language-First Campaigns

Updated on
May 3, 2024

by Madeline Condron

Languages are nuanced. As marketers, it’s part of our job to carefully consider how a message will come across, especially when adjusting it for an audience who speaks a language other than our own. Direct translation isn’t perfect—catch phrases, clever jokes, or really any line of copy can morph into something funky when translated, and the original meaning gets lost in the mix. But direct translation isn’t the only option. 

Two other approaches are transcreation and native language-first. We’ll take a deep dive into the differences in these approaches, with examples where Spanish speakers are the main audience. 

Spanish is not the same in every country nor in every part of the U.S. There are 12 official Spanish dialects, but there are hundreds of variations of those dialects. Words can mean different things in different countries—they can even mean different things in different parts of the same country. With this level of variety, a one-size-fits-all strategy will likely lead to a miscommunication—and Google Translate just won’t cut it. 

What’s the Difference?

So let’s break down these three different approaches to taking a marketing campaign from English to Spanish, using the “Got Milk?” campaign as an example. Here’s the story:

  1. Translation is swapping out every word, 1:1. The team behind the “Got Milk?” campaign initially created a very awkward campaign. The direct translation of their slogan in Spanish becomes “Are you lactating?” There was also a cultural disconnect in the concept behind the “Got Milk?” ads. Portraying Latinx parents running out of milk would come across as worrisome, and the ad would ultimately be offensive—not humorous like the English version of the ad is to US consumers. This would've been disastrous had it entered the market, but luckily they invested in market research and caught the error early.

  1. Transcreation is when you take an English first concept and recreate it in a way that speaks to the culture and emotion that you’re trying to reach. When the team behind “Got Milk?” quickly realized that direct translation would not communicate correctly, they had to consider how they could shift the message so that it still resonated with Latinx consumers. They then transcreated their campaign with "Y Usted Les Dio Suficiente Leche Hoy?” (“Have You Given Them Enough Milk Today?”). This may not sound as pithy as the English campaign, but it aligns more with the values of the target audience.

  1. Where we want to be as marketers is creating Native Language-First (in this case, Spanish-First) concepts and Native Language-First creative—which starts with understanding the target audience and their culture. In 2001, the "Familia, Amor y Leche" ("Family, Love and Milk") campaign started running. It was a campaign rooted in Latin American culture from the start and helped position milk as a household staple. 

Native Language-First is the preferred method, but transcreation can also be effective. Sometimes a concept transcreates very well into another language, and, if it’s the only thing a client can do, it’s certainly better than direct translation.

Our Work with SumUp

For a campaign we launched with SumUp, we transcreated the message into 2 dialects of Spanish—Puerto Rican Spanish and Mexican-American Spanish. While it is fundamentally the same language, there are nuanced differences. For example, “montar un negocio” is the way that Puerto Ricans say “start a business,” and that is different from what people might say in Mexican-American Spanish.

So we transcreated their OOH. The first ad reads “Usarlo es pan comido.” “Pan comido” directly translates to English as “eaten bread,” but it’s the way that Latin American consumers would say “easy peasy” or “piece of cake.” So the phrase means “Using it is a piece of cake.” 

In another example, we wrote “Si no hay efectivo, hay SumUp,” which means “If there’s no cash, there’s SumUp.” This message might not land in the U.S., as it’s rare for someone to carry cash here, but cash is a more common form of payment in Puerto Rico. Many companies don’t take credit cards, and using SumUp would be their first foray into using any sort of card-taking tech. Using that insight about Puerto Rico’s culture, we were able to transcreate more effective messaging. 

If a client wants Spanish language content from our redpepper resources, we talk to our team about getting the right people and resources to capture the nuances of the language—and don’t go anywhere near quick translation tools like Google Translate. With deeper insights, we are able to more effectively reach our target audience. 

The “Got Milk?” campaign story also appeared in this article in 2001.

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