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Rik Grant: “Transcreation Is a Form of Linguistic Alchemy”

Production Agency
London, UK
LBB speaks to Tag’s transcreation partner about his “creatively anarchic” working days, the importance of transcreation in a global market, and why he tries to capture ‘anacrusis’ in his photographs

To the uninitiated, transcreation sounds mysterious, alchemical even, in its suggestion to transform. It’s all those things in the hands of Rik Grant, transcreation partner at Tag Collective Arts, who’s tasked with overseeing cultural services and languages for the company. How many languages, you might wonder? Currently, 115. 

Interested in other cultures from a young age, Rik was never satisfied with playing in his back garden - literally and proverbially - (“What’s beyond the fence?” he would frequently ask when he kicked a football over his neighbour’s) - and Japan presented a particular pull as he got older. He quickly learnt that there’s a critical difference between learning a language because you have to and learning a language because you want to. When flicking through university prospectuses, he got advice from his tutor to pursue what appealed to him most. “I saw that I could complete a degree in Japanese with a compulsory year abroad. I thought “No way. A kid like me — a white, pasty kid from northwest London — could be sent to Japan.” I went for it,” says Rik. 

Back in the UK, Rik wanted to keep his language skills alive and went to work for a specialist Asian language translation agency though the scope of the work proved too limited for what Rik knew could be possible. He joined Tag in 2011 to work in transcreation, a role that appealed to his professional aspirations and continued desire for adventure. 

Today, we speak to Rik about what transcreation is, its three pillars (tone, idiom, and context), why it matters so much in a global market and why it’s definitely not the same as translation and localisation. 

LBB> What does a typical workday look like for you?

Rik> Creatively anarchic. Are there any two days that are the same? No, never. At Tag we must reflect the world of our clients. Every single client is different in terms of where they are currently, where they're steering toward and what they're trying to generate. That creates a very diverse working environment. That's before I even start talking about the language and cultural aspects.

LBB> Does that variety appeal to your continued need for adventure as you continue to see life as liquid?

Rik> Absolutely. How could you not? One drastic change from my previous job to working at Tag was the tangibility. So many people in the translation industry at-large work on translation projects that they'll never see again once they deliver the project. Whereas what Tag works on has an immense form of tangibility. There's an immediate connection to the world of advertising and you can really see the physical demonstration of your labour, and how that transitions into the real world. It’s really rewarding. That's certainly always something that gives a new flavour to the day — you never know what's going to come in the door. The challenges are always different. 

LBB> For those not in the know, can you briefly explain what transcreation is and why it matters? How does translation differ from transcreation — what sets them apart?

Rik> At its best, Transcreation is a form of linguistic alchemy. It harnesses the power of emotion and idiom and sprinkles it across what it touches. That's not to speak poorly of translation. I've lectured at many universities talking specifically about the difference between transcreation and translation. Translation is fundamentally more of a science than an art. Sure there’s a sense of style involved too, but you're looking largely to help engender the transmission of communication from one language to another. Whereas when you step up a level to look at transcreation, especially in the creative world when agencies of record are developing ideas and concepts, they are literally just floating ideas, then those edges are a little bit harder to find. That’s when transcreation comes calling. It's a transformative process that takes the energy, the intent, and the aspiration, and renders it fit for any culture and language. This can sometimes be more of a cultural challenge than purely a linguistic one. 

Translation could be likened to a product and transcreation is a service. You buy blocks of translation for the things you need to understand, like iPhone instructions for example. That is very much a translation exercise. But the advertising that sells the product, that creates tangibility to its values, that's transcreation.

LBB> And how many languages do you work with? 

Rik> Over 115 languages. We work with almost every language that anybody would communicate with in a modern forum. We have done some strange language combinations over the years, and you certainly learn a lot about the depth and breadth of the industry. We have over 4000 copywriters within our creative network globally that help us speed through all languages that we work with.

LBB> Are there any misconceptions about transcreation that you’d like to dispel?

Rik> Transcreation is many things, but it is not cheap when it’s done well. It’s not instantaneous either, it takes time. It’s like brewing a cup of tea. You need to leave it in, need to give it a little time to aerate to create something with the right depth of flavour. We live in a world where communication has become quite cheap. We throw around a lot of content, perhaps too much content, and the pace of localisation can be quite voracious when compared to the necessary time needed to really let a piece live and breathe with transcreation. I do spend a lot of time with clients helping them really understand the difference between the two approaches and which is the right fit for them. It’s never as easy as you might think, just because somebody says transcreation, it doesn't mean we're necessarily talking about the same thing. It means different things to different people.

LBB> You mentioned localisation. How does that differ from translation and transcreation?

Rik> There’s easily seeds for a lot of debate here, but essentially, localisation is the act of taking something and making it work in another language. For example, the iPhone. The graphical user interface of an iPhone can be localised since it’s in other languages like German or French, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘well-written’ or ‘feels’ like anything. It’s at least structured and factual. Localisation and functionality do have quite a large area of crossover in the Venn diagram. 

Translation does lean towards the lower side of that arc. Translation is the factual exchange of information from one form to another. It doesn't necessarily, in its simplest form, have anything to do with the context of what has been placed within the exercise, that is often another separate layer to the onion. Then you move into localisation, and you've got to consider how a user interacts with something to navigate through or use. Whether it's instruction manuals or tapping on a touchscreen, it’s about the path to functionality abroad, that is where localisation fundamentally sits.

Back in the late ‘90s, and early 2000’s websites were largely factual. It wasn't an experience, it was an information node. Whereas anything and everything these days has been turned into some kind of alternative experience where people are having exchanges with brands outside of what traditionally would be bricks and mortar stores. They still want to foster the feel of walking into a store and having someone properly greet you. Transmitting that same sense of feeling via an online medium is the holy grail of digital marketing.

Transcreation stems from wanting to capture that feeling in another locale, to evoke something, and that’s where the magic begins.

LBB> Tone, idiom, and context are the three pillars of transcreation. Can you expand on why they matter and how they’re applied practically? 

Rik> Ironically perhaps, tone is what I am using now. People will forget what you said, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. Part of that is driven by your tone — how you speak and how you engage. We could say the same sentence in a million different ways and the effect that it would have on someone would be different. If you've got a brand who is loud and bright, maybe that works for them. Maybe it's an urban fashion designer that has a real kick and “get in your face” vibe. That tone might be absolutely appropriate to them, but it could be inappropriate for formal wear. You have to pick your tone carefully. Remember, brands shift and change. Great brands in the past have had one identity and then they've shed that skin to transition again. 

We have many, many challenges in adapting work. For example, Jaguar ran an ad that asked consumers if they’ve ever had a piloerection before. A piloerection being the medical term for goose bumps. They were trying to get people’s attention and change the polarity of the brand entirely. The challenge was to then find how “piloerection” could work in other languages because some languages don’t have this medical term. You have to play with the language to get the same sense of risk. 

Much communication in advertising is fuelled by idiomatic expressions and it's the interplay with those that really bring things to life. When you break those bits of idiom down in one culture, it doesn't mean that they can necessarily be reformed in another. For example, the phrase “speak of the devil”. In Croatian that's “Mi o vuku, a vuk na vrata” which means speak of the wolf. Suddenly, if we've got some heavy metal group that we're trying to write some copy for, that idea falls flat on its face. Similarly, if we go to China, and we say, “Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào” that means “speak of Cáo Cāo and Cáo Cāo appears.” Cáo Cāo being a first century AD military strategist, poet and tactician. Perhaps unsurprisingly coming from a Buddhist country, he's got absolutely nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian concept of the devil. If we move to Greek, they “speak of the donkey”. Again, it doesn't work at all. If we were trying to include a tongue-in-cheek reference to a devilish nature, then we would have lost it completely. It's so easy to assume that your ad will be clever wherever it goes but it can be quite an Anglocentric viewpoint, and the world is much bigger than that. 

The last one is context. Where is the line of copy going to go? If you are transcreating a headline for a for a sports ad, it matters what those words are. There's a difference between lines that look good, and lines that sound good. The context is absolutely key. That’s something that there’s often not enough of in the world of translation. It can be an experience in distilling things down into blocks of words, and then simply counting them. The question, as with anything worth reading is, what are those words? That's one of the other keys that you need to unlock to really be able to do something justice and make sure that it does sing and dance in whatever language you're working with. 

LBB> What do brands need to know to create great ads with the help of transcreation?

Rik> They need to know who they want to be. If you're trying to penetrate the market and want to become a natural part of the fabric of that environment, then obviously you do need to have some kind of notion and understanding of the lay of the land to make that work. It's as much about standing out as it is about fitting in, and you need to weave yourself into the tapestry of all the other things that are going on at a local level. If your brand is big and shouty and you want to try to be big and shouty in Moldova or Belgium, but maybe that's not a good idea. Maybe that's not how they do things. These things matter. You need to make sure that you're not just giving lip service. It mirrors a lot of the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that we’re seeing take centre stage these days. 

But progressiveness is relative, values in one country might not be the same in another and some countries are simply not ready nor is it appropriate for them to take on certain elements of those values even though we might all agree morally that a certain value might be more equal overall. There's a thread of consideration that goes through everything now and we're seeing a lot of brands getting more of an appetite to understand that before they develop communications rather than after which was the case for many, many years.

LBB> In the global market, what are the cultural challenges of transcreation for brands? 

Rik> There are so many cultural things that you wouldn't necessarily be aware of unless you started looking at them. In Hungarian, they still have the phrase “Hátra van még a fekete leves” or “Here comes the black soup” – its use is heavily linked to culture. During the 16th century, when Hungary was invaded by the Ottoman Turks, their new masters would come and visit people in their homes. Just before they started talking business, they would pour a bitter black liquid, and then give it to the Hungarians. The black soup was of course coffee, but the Hungarians had never seen it before. To them, being forced to pay taxes, or the Jizya, (a tithe paid by non-Muslims to their Muslim rulers) became synonymous with coffee — the black soup. Even in modern Hungarian, the phrase still exists. There is a cultural tie to so many things that exist beyond what you would necessarily consider. 

In Russian ‘Сорок’, the number 40, is an anomalous number; it doesn't sound like the rest of the numbers. Why? Because ‘Сорок’ was how many fur pelts you needed to make a coat, which happened to be 40. There are so many of these unknown connections that might culturally effect or derail the efficacy of an idea. 

The sensitivity spectrum runs through everything from individual words to items as innocuous as coffee, through to colours. Certain colours have different meanings as do hand movements; what you do, how you say things, how you carry yourself, etc. You can see the tone, idiom, and context all swirl around like some cosmic nebula. That is the weird galactic dust that brands are looking to penetrate — to find a way through the murk so that their brand can become a shooting star.

LBB> Do you think there's a challenge for Western brands as they try to move into APAC and the Middle East since a lot of Western advertising today tends to have a some kind of social justice angle, which as you say, is at a different stage in its evolution in other territories? How do you balance that?

Rik> It’s a delicate one for sure. Some of my role ends up being international negotiations. You don’t want to ruin someone’s creative idea of course but there’s a certain responsibility with transcreation to both step in to guide when it's necessary and to know when to step back when it isn’t. There are a lot of brands who have one core location, typically within Western Europe or the US, but equally there are companies at the opposite end of the scale as well. There are significant challenges on both sides on how to transition language and energy seamlessly between borders. That plays naturally into our principal goal, which is enabling brands to travel globally, so that wherever they land, they will always be welcomed warmly and not ridiculed. But to get there, you've got to know a lot about who you are and who you are trying to be. It becomes a think tank exercise by taking that brand or idea and massaging it in the right way so that it can bear fruit when it’s time to travel.

LBB> How did the industry approach transcreation a decade ago compared to today? Where does the industry stand on it now?

Rik> Transcreation is a lot stronger than it was back then. Transcreation is our baby. In fact, World Writers was the first company to establish transcreation. It was very much in its infancy at that time, and much like dealing with a petulant child, it wasn’t afforded the attention it needed until the industry began to catch up. When I was at university studying languages, I certainly didn't know transcreation was a thing. Fast forward to around 10 years ago and the industry had some awareness of it, but there weren't many people who were doing it. It was seen as a very difficult, time intensive, and almost voodoo-like activity, that no one could quite suss out. We were stuck in a rut of acceptance that advertising outside of the English language meant settling for something that was invariably wonky or sounded a bit crap. But why shouldn’t it be good? That's the mindset where transcreation first sprouted from but it takes a lot of effort to get there. More people are selling transcreation and there are more brands who are aware of it and desire it. Some people used to think transcreation was just a fancy word for translation. I say no: transcreation is a service not a product. 

LBB> Which projects have you worked on recently that highlight the effectiveness of transcreation? 

Rik> There are so many brands that have worked with over the years from Unilever to Procter and Gamble, Coca Cola, Facebook, and Amazon etc. What's more interesting perhaps is how diverse they are in terms of their personalities and product footprint. That includes anything from beverages, confectionery and children's toys, through to business process optimisation, financial services, retail, and TV media. The list is endless. For the transcreation team, they've got to have a good awareness of many things. For example, how advertising legislation affects different countries and what you can put on TV, and what you cannot. What would be considered risqué? What would be considered dangerous, where you want to be risqué? How far will you push that boundary? How much do you up the ante? That becomes quite interesting. Where it really bears fruit is when creative agencies and brands engage with us early on in the creative cycle. We want them to say, “When we're talking about new creative and developing it, we want TAG around the table with us.”

We bring knowledge of culture and language to brands so that when their idea is formed, it can travel better and more efficiently. Reshooting and adjusting something in post is expensive, both in terms of time and money and brands need to be smart with both. Ultimately, there’s a banquet of content out there and people are more conservative with what they digest, we need to encourage actual engagement, not just a casual glance.

LBB> You’re fluent in Japanese and English, and you’re conversational in several other languages. Which language is the most enjoyable to speak and why? Which is the hardest?

Rik> With Japanese there’s definitely a sense of relief. When I was in Italy checking into a hotel a few years ago with my little sister, I noticed that one of the staff members was Japanese. It was a massive sense of relief that I could just switch languages. It made everything so much easier as my Italian certainly wasn’t up to managing the check-in process on my own!. There are different degrees of complexity in every language, and certain ones can be harder than others, but they're all hard in a sense, because they all require you to consciously disconnect from a fundamental understanding of concepts themselves. Languages have conceptual elements attached to them via things like grammatical structure that can be radically different to your mother tongue, what verb ‘makes sense’ with another, how you count objects, how you group them etc. So you often have to be ready to break and re-order the concepts that you have within your own head to build upon them and make progress.

Language is for the incurably curious and it's how you engage with that where you begin to make steps forward. There's no language that is necessarily easier than the other in that sense. Japanese provides a massive sense of relief for me, because I don’t have to think too hard. If I'm trying to formulate things in French however, that becomes a bit more difficult. But you’ve got to really defeat the idea of the concept holding you back to move forward. 

LBB> And to shift that question slightly, what about the physical act of speaking? Which language is the most enjoyable or the most difficult?

Rik> With many languages, you can feel the sound and shapes moving around your mouth and once you've got a better understanding of that, you know where to push your words to create natural sounds. Ironically linked to what I said before, it's about letting go. You've got to be willing to go for it. You will sound ridiculous at first. That's the first step on the road toward language fluency. Learning languages, especially later in life, is simply accepting to be a child once more, and that’s never easy for an adult to consciously do. It takes a lot of effort, and we’re all time-poor these days, but it's never too late to start, however it’s certainly far too early to shelve the idea of trying.

LBB> Finally, you’re also a photographer. What appeals to you about the language of photography? What kind of subjects do you seek out and why? What, if anything, do you want your photographs to say?

Rik> It came about because I've always been very visual. 

I remember being in Japan back in 2008 or so and trying to take a shot of some cars moving underneath a bridge with my mediocre camera. I didn't know what I was doing but I took a couple of shots anyway. I later showed a friend and he said, “You're not too bad at this” which I thought was a wonderful, backhanded compliment. I thought maybe I'd give it a go. 

Photography for me is about capturing an atmosphere. Over the years, I've refined it to something more specific. What I try to do in my photography is based on the idea of anacrusis. In music, an anacrusis is where something starts just before the beat, pre-empting what’s to come. In ancient Greek, anacrusis roughly translates to ‘pushing up’, and was much like the preamble to a discourse. It carries the notion that something is about to happen. That notion is what I'm trying to foster within the photography that I do. I want someone to look at it and wonder at what will happen next, like the shot is pregnant with significance. 

I’m a massive fan of low-light shooting and street photography, it’s taken me on a lot of interesting travels from shooting on the back streets of Hong Kong to rural India and the streets of Hanoi in Vietnam. It can be quite lonely at times when you’re shooting alone, you're 6000 miles away from home, walking around the back streets of some dodgy or unsavoury part of town, but that’s just where the interesting scenes are.

Photography is about becoming invisible. I was on the side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi late at night once where I came across this old man who appeared to be with his granddaughter. I said hello in Vietnamese then sat a short distance away from them, conscious that I’m toting a massive camera, but knowing if I fired a quick shot off that could generate a bad reaction. Instead I sat with them for a moment until I became invisible, waited until he was no longer aware of my presence and comfortable with my being there, then when his granddaughter looked up to the street light, the moment was right. I got the shot.

The act of becoming invisible in this sense is ironically, the same thing with language learning. You’re trying to blend in so well with your surroundings that no one can tell that you are in many ways a bit of a cultural interloper. When you go out of your way to speak to someone else in their mother tongue, it almost always elicits the same thing; a smile. The effort you make speaks a language that everyone understands, regardless of background.

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