Verbatim versus Creative Translation

 In interpretation

When most people think of translation, they picture a process that translates some text word for word into one or more languages. But word for word, or verbatim, translation is just the tip of the iceberg for professional translators. The real value of translation comes from the linguist’s ability to adapt the original content for the target audience. This is called creative translation, or transcreation, and it is what gives the real power to the translating process.

What’s the Difference between Verbatim and Creative Translation?

In many cases, verbatim translation is simply a starting point. Different languages often contain figures of speech and idioms, and verbatim translations simply cannot adequately convey these cultural references to the target audience. To really capture the interest of audiences speaking different languages in different countries and locales, the translator must consider national and local cultural references. Therefore, creative translation requires that the linguist possess a deeper understanding of the subject and the target audience.

Verbatim Translation

This is not to say that there is no place for verbatim translation. On the contrary, there are many types of documents and other written materials for which verbatim translation is the best solution:

  • Medical information often contains terminology specific to a medical condition or treatment protocol, including medicine dosage. Verbatim translations are required for this type of content.
  • Legal documents, including references to specific laws and legal precedents, also usually require verbatim translation. You cannot get creative with written laws – a law must be interpreted exactly as written, no matter what language you speak.
  • Scientific and technical documents also usually contain scientific and technical terms that have no exact translation in many languages. These terms must be translated accurately because they are critical to understanding the content.

Linguists new to translation often rely heavily on verbatim translation because it’s easier than creative translation, which requires in-depth knowledge of the culture behind the target language. It can take years of experience to acquire this level of understanding.

However, even verbatim translations may require some creative translation, especially if they contain figures of speech and other words and phrases that have no direct equivalent in a foreign language.

Creative Translation

Creative translation doesn’t just translate words, it adapts the content for the target audience. This type of translation is extremely powerful because it captures subtleties in language that verbatim translation misses. For example, when translating a book or a news article, creative translation is the better choice because, rather than translating medical, legal or technical content for specialists in those fields, the audience for books and news articles is usually laypeople and the translated content must be accessible to that audience. Creative translation is preferred when translating any of the following:

  • Culture- or locale-specific words and phrases
  • Country-specific phrases
  • Idioms
  • Marketing and branding materials
  • Video and TV programs
  • Humor
  • Taglines

Comparing Verbatim to Creative Translation

To see the difference between verbatim and creative translation, just look at the following examples of German to English verbatim translations versus creative translations:


Source Text: Es gab das Produkt nicht zu dem Preis

Verbatim Translation: There was not the product at the price.

Creative Translation: I couldn’t get the product I wanted at the price I wanted.


Source Text: Das Angebot von privat kam dem zuvor!

Verbatim Translation: The offer from private came before!

Creative Translation: We received a private offer for a product which pre-empted us having to buy one!


Source Text: Source: größere Entfernung

Verbatim Translation: greater distance

Creative Translation: they are further away

From these simple examples, you can see that the verbatim translations are not completely clear. The creative translations consider context and are much more easily understood. A skilled translator is able to expand on the few words in the source language to accurately convey the true meaning of the words.

Creative Translation for Marketing Campaigns

Creative translation is critical for marketing campaigns that need to reach audiences around the world. Such marketing efforts are only successful if the target audience remembers them in any market and language. Translation of these materials must focus on the message and story and be adapted to the local culture to be successful there.

In marketing, it’s common to translate slogans and taglines. The more people remember these slogans and taglines, the more successful the campaign will be. Here are some well-known examples of marketing slogans that failed because the translators relied on verbatim instead of creative translation:

Braniff Airlines

Braniff Airlines, long out of business, released an ad in 1987 for its Spanish-speaking consumers. The airline wanted to use the tagline “Fly in leather” to tell customers that theirs was a luxury experience. But the verbatim Spanish translation “Vuela en Cuero” had a completely different meaning for some in Mexico, where the tagline was mistaken for “Fly naked.” “En cuero” means “in leather” in Spanish, but that phrase sounds almost identical to “en cueros,” which means “naked.”

Had Braniff used creative translation, their campaign would have been more successful in Mexico.


Using verbatim translation, Pepsi’s slogan ‘Come alive with the Pepsi generation’ was translated into in Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Ouch.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken made the mistake of using verbatim translation when translating a slogan into Mandarin Chinese. The famous “Finger lickin’ good” slogan became “Eat your fingers off” in Mandarin. Hardly the message KFC wanted to get across to those customers.

It’s fun to look at translation mistakes like these but they do point to an inescapable fact – verbatim translations are not the right choice for creative content like marketing campaigns. For this type of content, creative translations that consider the context and local culture are required.


When translating medical, legal or scientific/technical content, verbatim translation is the right choice, but even in those types of documents, an experienced human translator must consider subtle differences in words and phrases and idioms.

When translating more creative content, such as marketing literature, books, news articles and scripts for videos and TV, creative translation is the method of choice. This content must be adapted for each language, country, and local culture to be effective.

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