Collocations or the key to linguistic naturalness

take collocations

One of the first concepts you are taught in Translation Studies is that of “collocation”. A collocation is a sequence of words that are commonly used together. In fact they co-occur more often that would be expected by chance. Collocations are partially or fully fossilized co-occurrences, which have reached this state through repeated context-dependent use. An example of collocation is the expression “the gates of heaven”. While the sequence “the doors of heaven” is equally correct from a syntactic point of view, most English speakers would consider the later awkward at the very least. Now, you might wonder about Bob Dylan’s song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” . Shouldn’t the title “knocking on heaven’s gate”? Well, a possible answer is a collocation again: the verb “know” always typically occurs together with “door”, not with “gate”.

Native speakers will intuitively know that “fast train” and “fast food” sound “good”, but that “quick train” or quick food” sound “bad”; or that “quick shower” and “quick meal” sound natural whereas “fast shower” or “fast meal” does not. If we are foreign language students, no rule will tell us that this or that word goes together with that or that one. Therefore, we will have to learn them by heart or by exposing ourselves to the context long enough to gain a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the language. Collocations are key to writing and speaking natural-sounding English – or any other language for that matter, and thus mastering them are crucial to any good translation.

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Transcreation: a neologism for the language industry


Over the last few years the translation industry has been flooded by a new term from the marketing industry: “transcreation”- Transcreation, which was reportedly coined by publicist and former chairman of UPS Plc Bernard Silver in the 1960s, describes creative translations aimed at adapting a message from one language to another so that its intent and tone is kept in the target language. We can say that transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing: adapting a message to a cultural background.

United Publicity Services registered this word as a trademark in 2000. The term got to be so extremely popular that it eventually became standard within the translation industry, and UPS was not allowed to renew the trademark.

It’s always nice to get to coin a new term, but did Mr. Silver discover something good translators weren’t aware of? The answer is: Not really…

Transcreation is nothing more than an adaptation of a message to a different culture. Other terms are used to describe the same concept: creative translation, recreation, localization – we could even coin our term: “cross-market translation”.

How is that different from a good translation? When translating marketing, a good translation should always reflect all these aspects in the target text. Good marketing translation is always “transcreated”; a translation that is not “transcreated” is simply a bad marketing translation.

Transcreation is less important in technical texts, and it does not apply to literary translation, where the translator’s task is precisely to maintain the tone and cultural background of the source language.

Any good translator is aware that marketing messages must be adapted to their own culture. Websites are a clear example. In some sectors informal, direct, an overly enthusiastic language might be appealing to a country or a culture but not to another. In the finance domain, websites in English are usually very friendly, but in Spanish and other languages the friendly tone needs to be lowered a little bit and come up with a more formal version. Why? Because in some countries the language of financial institutions is, traditionally, formal.

Marketing is culture-specific: therefore, a good marketing translation must speak to the target clients in their own cultural keys.

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