Posted by: patenttranslator | May 9, 2015

The Difference Between “Creative” and “Non-Creative” Translation

According to what I have read on online forums about translation, most translating activity can be divided into two types: creative translation, such as translation of novels or marketing and advertising texts, and non-creative, mechanical translation, such as technical translation.

A good example of highly creative translation would be a trendy field that is now called “transcreation”, which, (although my spell checker does not recognize it yet as a legitimate word), is adaptation of text in one language to make it fully compatible with another language and with the culture of that other language.

On the other side of the spectrum is repetitive, somewhat primitive translation, for example translation of personal documents or technical translation.

A good example of highly non-creative translation would be for example patent translation, which is what I am doing now and have been doing since 1987.

To be creative, you need to have a special kind of powerful personal mojo: inspiration or divine guidance that tells you how to translate immortal slogans such as “Coke is it” or “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”, or “Diamonds are forever” for example into Spanish, French, Danish or Mongolian. If you can do something like that, you are a full-fledged artist in your own right, possibly as gifted as the genius who came up with the slogan in the original language in the first place, and your remuneration thus should be commensurate with your considerable genius.

Unlike mere non-creative translators, highly creative language artists therefore deserve mucho dinero, because divine inspiration obviously cannot be found in a dictionary or in an online database of technical terms.

But this view of the translating universe fails to take into account one interesting fact: we, non-creative translators, i.e. those of us who translate things like personal documents, technical papers or patents, are often also asked to translate advertising and marketing materials, simply because the clients usually don’t even know the exact content of the texts that need to be translated – because they are in a foreign language.

Non-creative technical translators generally do not say no to translation that is not very technical in nature, or at least I don’t do that.

Product package inserts, for example, can be highly technical, for example if the product is a new drug, or they can have some technical content, but a lot of marketing content as well: for instance if the product is a new skin cream that will make every woman make look 10 ~ 20 years younger depending on how many times a day she is using it. Although I am only a lowly patent translator, I translate similar materials that unlike technical translation require a great deal of creativity quite frequently.

And I mostly find that similar type of material is often much easier to translate than for example patents, by which I mean that the translation generally does not take nearly as much time as when I am translating a highly repetitive patent.

At least in my experience, the allegedly highly creative translating activity requiring divine inspiration is not terribly elusive to this Mad Patent Translator, at least not to the extent that would in my opinion necessitate a higher rate. Quite on the contrary, in fact.

When I am translating for example a package blurb of a Japanese food product which could contain about 70% of marketing and advertising text, while description of the ingredients may correspond only to about 30% of the text, I can quite easily summon divine inspiration to translate and “transcreate” information about furikake (a dry Japanese seasoning sprinkled on top of rice, typically consisting of a mixture of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, etc.) to make the information accessible to English speakers who may know nothing about Japanese food.

If that is what “transcreation” means, and I think that it kind of must be, I have been merrily transcreating from several languages into English for decades.

Highly creative translators who specialize in marketing texts and slogans, on the other hand, for some reason generally do not translate for example patents.

The reason is actually pretty clear – you do have to know a few things about the subject of your translation if you want to translate highly technical material. Divine inspiration alone would not be enough.

This division of translation into the creative and not-so-much creative translating is in my opinion complete nonsense. Every field and sub-field in the vast universe of translation requires creativity, sometime just a little bit, and sometime a lot of it.

Translation of subtitles in movies, for example, requires a very specialized kind of creativity because you have to summarize the content of what is being said into a tiny frame on the screen, at the most 2 lines of text with generally only about 65 characters. Which is even more restrictive than Twitter because Twitter will give you 140 characters for inspired blabbing about anything you want.

The creativity required for translation of old personal documents is of a different kind again, but such a translation is often no less demanding when it comes to background knowledge. A birth certificate in French from Haiti is a fairly long piece of art, almost like a short novel, and it is likely to start your creative juice flowing within seconds. An old marriage certificate in German may be handwritten in an obsolete cursive writing style that most people are unable to decipher. You would need to learn a different alphabet to be able to translate it, even though the document is written in a language that you know very well.

A different kind of creativity is required also depending on what language one translates. I sometime have to be highly creative when I translate Japanese patents because …. they are full of typos and other minor and sometime not so minor mistakes.

And you really have to be creative to translate a language that generally does not use singular or plural (because you do have to pick either singular or plural for your sentences in English), where the subject is often derived from the text on the previous page, and where a general tense that could mean present, past, or future can be used with something that may or may not mean something like an infinitive.

But unlike when translating advertising slogans, you also need a great deal of precision in addition to creativity if you want to be able to translate technical texts.

Every type of translation requires creativity, but some types of translation also require a lot of specialized knowledge in addition to creativity.

The reason why “highly creative” translators who specialize in inspired transcreation of marketing slogans and the like do not translate patents is not that this kind of translation is not creative enough for their delicate and refined taste.

They have to refuse these “non-creative” translations because they simply could not do it. Although the text of the patent or technical document may be in a language that they translate, it is written in a language that they do not understand.


  1. Steve, you’ve always been writing in a very interesting manner, but lately you seem to have moved straight under direct divine guidance. Such a pleasure has it been reading you and laughing to tears… I highly appreciate your seemingly light & amusing manner of exposing the prejudices about the translation profession.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Right on.

    I suppose if you make a lot of mistakes in a translation that’s transcreation too?


  3. Yes, of course, but only if these are very creative mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I found David Bellos’ talk very enjoyable indeed! I finished listening to it shortly before midnight CET so I’m planning to replay it in the morning and catch whatever I may have missed.
    Thanks very much for posting it! 🙂


  5. He will be the keynote speaker at the IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux in September, the first translators’ conference that I will participate in since 1998 when I went to the ATA Conference in San Francisco (mostly because I lived in Bay Area back then).

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ll be in Bordeaux, then? Excellent! We’ll finally meet 🙂

      I’m not particularly fond of the term “transcreation” as well; it sows confusion to no good purpose.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I look forward to meeting you, Kevin.

    No doubt sparks will fly ….. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nice post. The question of creativity in translation is an interesting one and certainly does not lend itself to a ‘yes or no’, ‘this or that’, ‘black or white’ categorization. Dividing translations into ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’ is simply silly, useless and misleading. Creativity in translation is a continuity and there is no point at which a translation becomes or ceases to be ‘creative’.

    A translator who translates anything is creating something that didn’t exist. At the least creative end of the spectrum is the translator who simply validates a translation proposed by a computer, immediately followed by the translator who just replicates the syntax and words of the source sentence in another language, perhaps without even thinking about what it means. At the opposite end of this spectrum, an expression, metaphor, example or reference used in the source text may simply not work at all in the target language and culture and the translator may have to come up with something entirely different that gets the same idea across.

    It should be noted that even though this last example involves much more creativity on the part of the translator, it is still not a pure creation since the translation still depends on the author’s idea. Although I don’t particularly like the term ‘transcreation’, I think it can apply meaningfully to this last example, since it may be argued that the language of the source text is actually not translated but discarded and replaced with new metaphors, examples, references or whatever.

    But although ‘transcreation’ may arguably be a valid concept when applied to a sentence, I don’t see how the term could be used to describe the translation of even a short text. Be that as it may, I can certainly understand why some translators prefer to refer to what they do as ‘transcreation’, as it dissociates them from the sweaty, smelly mass of translators and brings them closer to the ‘creative’ world of public relations, marketing and advertising.

    Creativity in translation basically has to do with the amount of thinking involved. It ranges from simply plugging in something found by a computer, to completely rewriting and perhaps even rethinking what the author wrote.

    I think that instead of ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’, it is far more useful to distinguish translations that require a genuine flair for writing from those that simply require good writing skills. I don’t know if there is a word for the former in English, but the French call it ‘traduction rédactionnelle’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “it is still not a pure creation since the translation still depends on the author’s idea. ”

      I think translators/interpreters could be likened to actors. Just as actors interpret someone else’s ideas so do translators/interpreters. Both are definitely creative.


      • Or piano players.


      • Steve, thanks for referring me to your 2011 post on pianists. I hadn’t read it. I was most impressed by this excerpt:

        “Leopold Stokowski, Svjatoslav Richter, or Mstislav Rostropovich would not play this piece by Philip Glass the way Branka Parlic is playing it. Every pianist, or every good pianist, creates new meaning for the notes on a sheet of paper every time he or she touches the keyboard. The meaning of the notes cannot be programmed into a digitized language, only the result of the playing can be recorded and then reproduced a million times. Why can’t we create a software program that would play music as well or better than humans? Or can we? (No, we can’t because we are not God seems like a good answer).”

        The question “Why can’t we create a software program that would play music as well or better than humans?” intrigued me. I quickly searched on the Internet and soon found music software of various kinds…

        “Automatically play musical scores in PDF format. … cleverly reads and plays music sheets automatically …”

        I wouldn’t say that’s the end of creative music-playing, would you?

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree that you cannot simply draw a line between creative and non-creative translation and I advertise myself as translating for the creative industries as opposed to a ‘creative translator’. However, my clients expect me to produce creative copy in English which fully reflects the source French but doesn’t stick closely to the source. To do that I need to have a very sound knowledge of the subject matter and the industry jargon (fashion/beauty for example). I need to write like an industry pro and that means huge amounts of CPD. I read magazines – including the ads – every day. I read books about perfume, fashion, food and drink and also attend industry conferences to listen to how the industry pros speak. So while I agree ‘creative flair’ is vital, it isn’t enough. You still need in-depth industry knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think we are in agreement: there is no such thing as “non-creative translation”, and background and subject matter knowledge is critically important.

    Liked by 1 person

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