Rik discusses his route into the language industry; from working as a Lead Account Manager to entering the creative industry with Tag Collective Arts. He outlines the careful process behind recruiting transcreation talent and their varied copywriting, agency, or client-side background.
Rik shares the challenges involved in localizing for different markets, especially when technical, linguistic, and cultural barriers are prevalent in certain locales. He also advises on how to help clients appreciate the value of transcreation and its impact on getting through to the customer.
Rik touches on the role of language technology in Tag’s workflow and pricing models for transcreation versus translation. He rounds things off with his industry outlook as digital content continues to grow and customers seek personalized experiences.
First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with a funding round that shocked the language industry as multilingual transcription company Verbit.ai raised USD 250m in a series E, which valued the startup at USD 2bn.
Florian talks about the recent acquisition of Ireland-based LSP LocalEyes, a localization provider to Apple, by Star Group company STAR7. Esther then touches on 10 different language jobs Big Tech companies like Apple, Meta, Amazon, Google, and Tencent are hiring for, which go beyond the traditional translator role.
Florian: Tell us a bit more about your professional background, when you joined, what you do now in the language and creative crossroads of this industry?
Rik: My background in languages started when I was a kid and I had an idea of foreign cultures and foreign climes and the idea of venturing to the other side of the world. Just because the golden age of exploration clearly passed in the 1920s and thirties, I did not want to believe that it was not possible to go further. I realized that I would have to go even further than I thought and what could be further than the far side of the world in Japan. I studied Japanese at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Japan, the Birmingham of Japan, the fourth largest city out there. I came back after graduation and began working for a specialist Asian language translation agency called Asian Absolute, who are based in London, for about four years. I was the lead account manager before transitioning over to Tag which was on January the 10th, 2011.
It is scary in a good way to realize how much time it has been. I am the Transcreation Partner at Tag Collective Arts, what does it mean? It means I look after all language and cultural services executed by Tag, so across any language and culture and any client. Let us face it, those are the people who keep my life interesting. The clients we deal with, what they do, what they look after, and what they stand for because more often than not in the world of transcreation, at least, what we are being asked to do is transform one identity into another language or culture, and that is where the fun lies. I would be lying if I said I would not still be here after all this time if I did not find that fascinating. I have never had the same day twice in the decade that I have been here. That much I can assure you.
Florian: Did you keep in touch with Japan, the Japanese culture, the Japanese language, or do you come across it at Tag?
Rik: I realized after I graduated, I better get a job that uses the language because if I do not, then you are going to lose it. It is the same for anybody who has ever studied languages. You are in that wonderful and terrifying sweet spot when you are at university or you are studying and doing Erasmus or your year abroad and you have to face that horrible prospect of going back to your home country and finishing your studies. You have to go back and you have to graduate. I remember a friend of mine at the time telling me stories of how his mother had studied Russian at university and now later on in life, she cannot remember a word and I thought, that is terrible. I do not want that to happen to me, so I wanted to make sure that I had a job that used my language skills. Fast forward 15 years to where I am now, do I get to use them? Yes. It is a combination of being a massive weirdo, sheer determination, and having the luck of being able to use it within the sphere that we operate. I am one of the very few Japanese speakers in terms of English natives with that skill set. I do get to use it in reviewing copy, assessing creative, assessing the efficacy, and a lot more on the cultural side of things. Japan is a very weird and wonderful place as those in Europe can attest to it. They do things differently in Japan. Assessing the cultural points that might steer a campaign or a creative to respond better, to make sure people resonate with it, is very cool. You feel that you are at the cutting edge of advertising, the confluence where advertising and language meet, and that is where I primarily get that. We have an office in Tokyo, so I quite enjoy emailing my colleagues. It certainly keeps my formal Japanese in check, especially if you are not using it on a regular basis.
Esther: Can you give us a bit more background to Tag Collective Arts, so you have got this specialism in the transcreation space and you also offer a wider range of services, so what do you identify as some of the core services and most important clients segments?
Rik: Tag Collective Arts is a hotbed of creative production expertise and a bit of swagger. If you are going to do something, you have got to make it look good. It is all about the amplification of creative production, so you will have agencies and clients who come up with ideas that could change the face of a particular sector or sphere or the particular advertising that they are working on. But if those ideas are not amplified to the right volume, the right size, the right color, the right smell, taste, and flavor, they can fall flat. If your advertising fails to get noticed then, as Bill Bernbach said, it fails to be a piece of advertising. Tag Collective Arts is the house of all of those specialist skills, so copy origination, creative development, post-production, visual effects, voiceover, digital applications because we have a variety of different media formats and the extension to that becomes language and effectively, we are bolting on the transcreation offering. We can effectively take any idea and give it a global passport and send it around the world in whatever media format or voice that needs to be sounded out in. It could be a piece for a Metro station somewhere in Paris. It could be material developed to lead the consumer through the local supermarket. It could be, and it is often giant out-of-home installations at airports, which is where I see a lot of the work we have been working on as you travel through. It is about the amplification of ideas and creative.
What sectors and clients does that link up to and which are the biggest? That is hard to say. Anybody who is selling a thing, arguably is someone within that target, within that cone of influence. Over the years I have certainly dealt with everything from children’s toys to business process optimization, communication companies through to FMCGs, who could be selling anything from air fresheners through to cheesy biscuits through to brands like Coca-Cola, Sony, Crayola, Amazon. You have got technical translations, which could be anything from legal to petrochemical to pharmaceutical. The trick is when the transcreation starts to veer into a horizon when you have got those elements where it still needs to sound a certain way, it still needs to be appealing, it needs to stand for something. We are far beyond the point of the old doldrums of the 1990s, where websites were placeholders in many ways. If you look at Caterpillar, who make boots, I imagine that their website in the early nineties was very little more than just investor relations, contact us, these are our offices. It did not tell a story.
Whereas these days, it is all about the experiential, and whilst I am happy to say that bricks and mortar shops and stores are still a thing and we all very much enjoy walking into them and being treated like a prospective customer, it is the digital stage where that needs to be all the more apparent. You need to have that experience of walking in and being spoken to. It is that experience you need to have with brands because people are fickle. Buying their loyalty is very hard and you need to be convincing but you have also got to be genuine and there is a very fine needle between those two points. If you get it wrong, people will ignore your brand. People will start disliking things for the smallest little comment or something that they do not like. If your brand equity is attached to that, it is very dangerous if you are not clever about the way that you approach it, so that lesson is equally applicable to any client that operates within that sphere of wanting to stand out yet still fit in.
Esther: What is your approach to recruiting the right people, onboarding them, and then nurturing that talent once you have got it? Both for full-time and also freelance transcreation talent.
Rik: On both sides of the fence, the answer would be, carefully. There is no rushing into this. The right writer, the right personality, or the right staff are worth their weight in gold because we, first and foremost, are a transcreation house. That is our bread and butter. That is where we came from back in 1989. Transcreation is not a product, it is a service and like the bricks and mortar stores, you want people to feel welcome, to tell you about their campaign, about their creative. We are going to go on a journey. We are going to get there in one piece. We are going to make it smooth. But you have got to engineer the situation to get there and you could not do that without the right people. How do we pick the linguists and copywriters in our network of people, of which we have over 4,000 globally? How do we find them? Like I said carefully, so we listen and see who is out there, but it is also the testing. Just because a writer or a translator is interested in doing transcreation, it is not to say that they can do it. It is like saying that anybody with fingers is a writer. No, you can hold a pen, but it does not necessarily mean you should be doing so. We have tests in place to test the ability to translate and the ability to transcreate. Some of them just require a chance and they can open up more and get more used to the approach, which is probably the biggest divider between what creates transcreation, and what constitutes it and what does not.
I have certainly been to enough lectures that I have held where people have said, transcreation is just good translation. There is a difference between these things and that does require jumping down the rabbit hole a bit in order to get there and the same mentality applies with regards to style. We need creative, flexible thinkers, people who get excited at the idea of how an ad might travel. Once you have been involved in transcreation, your tube commuting journeys will never be the same again because you are looking at the adverts and you are thinking, that would not work, that would not work, that could, and then your mind starts jumping to how you would adapt these things and how you would transform these things. That curiosity never fully goes away. As someone once said to me, if you employ creative people, you own them full time. Their jobs do not stop at nine to five. Their mind is always working. Even when they are idling, it is still there, so those creative individuals are the ones that you want to attach the transcreation discipline to. Project management is key. You need to understand localization at the basic level. You need to understand CAT tools, what they are, how they function, when they should be used, when they should not be used, and all of the stuff you would expect any solid translation manager or translation project manager to have under their belt. The key thing is the sparkle. It is a curiosity. It is the drive.
Florian: Do the experts that are producing the transcreation have a copywriting background? Are they translators that have a knack for this or is the type of backgrounds people have varied?
Rik: It is really varied and that is probably one of the best things. You could get someone who is a lawyer that speaks five languages but even though they have a hardcore legal background and know their stuff in terms of language adaptation, it does not mean that they can be creative. They have got to have the appetite for it. We have got writers who have come from long copy translation who have been doing it for 10, 15 years as a freelancer. There are others who have worked agency-side. There are others who have worked client-side. You might be someone who is in the Czech Republic and you have worked agency-side as a midway creative, and you think, I am going to go freelance, I am going to do that, that is what I enjoy, and those are the people who come to us and say, I hear you specialize in transcreation, I would like to do a bit more. Then the testing and so on begins, and we get quite a clear steer on who is up for it, who maybe needs a little bit more training because I am not expecting anybody to walk in the door and understand it, otherwise they would have my job. But it is a training process, there is a curve there. Most people find their groove. They might be good at children’s toys and children’s books. They might be good at corporate communication, the more business side of things. You just do not know until you have tried it and if we can open a door for any linguist to try this on for size because it might change your world and if it does then we are all the more honored for it.
Esther: Can you help us to understand what some of the main challenges are when it comes to localizing for different markets?
Rik: If you imagine a needle on a gauge, from the left-hand side you have got the technical aspects, so we are talking about coding, how a website is built, or the fonts you are using. If you are doing work in After Effects or Premiere or Flame, if you do not have the fonts loaded for certain languages, you are not gonna be able to render them. You are going to end up with horrible hits, decimal squares. We have all seen character corruptions in Arabic and right to left languages not flowing properly. You have got the technical challenges and anybody within translation has probably dealt with those to a degree. When the needle starts to flick more toward the subjective, which is the doorway to transcreation, then we start seeing the potential cultural issues and they are varied indeed. Certain visuals may not be appropriate for a certain locale and that could be anything from the depiction of a person to, one obvious example, too much skin being shown in the Middle East. It can extend to colors. Certain colors mean different things to us. White is a funerary color in Asia while black would be used here. Different things, ironically, mean different things in other countries and you cannot just assume that what you know is going to work for this. If you have got a creative which is very anglo-centric, it has been developed in the UK or America, which is often the case, the idea is that they can be culturally unqualified. It is true because naturally, you do not think about locales beyond what is within your own head.
Cultural understanding and awareness are like a rubber band. We are all products of the places that we were brought up in and you can stretch the perception of other countries or the places that you have gone to, that you have visited, that you have lived in, but like a rubber band, it will spring back to the fundamentals of what you know. It is the same with the development of creative concepts. It is almost impossible to try to consider 46 countries culture-wise. You would have to have the unique experience of all those places to better do it and I do not know a single person alive that does. There were polyglots in the 18th century who spoke more than 30 or 40 languages, for example, Ruffian Dick being one of them, the Richard Burton translator of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. There are not many of these people, so how do you assess that? You have to break down the elements. What cultural barriers might there be? What linguistic barriers might there be? What technical challenges might there be? It is a combination of all of those three things that will steer and embolden, not only the creative but also the agency or the brand that is standing behind it.
When someone comes to you with a request for transcreation or cultural consultancy, what they are struggling with is doubt. They are sitting in an ocean of cultural doubt. If I give you a section of Arabic texts to put in InDesign, you are terrified, you do not know what to do. You know that it is right to left, you will be as careful about it as you can be, but it represents doubt. What we deliver through transcreation, through cultural assessments and then awareness, is confidence. They then know when they step into whatever part of business that they are looking into, however well-regarded their brand is or however new the brand is, they can do so with confidence that they did not have before. That is worth more than anything if they can understand it and if they are willing to go the distance because it is a journey. When someone asks you for transcreation, what they are really saying is could you write this the way that I would write it if I had the time and money to do it myself? The answer to the question is yes if I get to know you, if we get to understand how you write, how you speak. It is the same with any linguistic and transcreation approach.
Esther: Are there any locales that stand out as particularly challenging for one reason or another?
Rik: Unsurprisingly, the more esoteric the language and cultural combination, the more a leap of faith creative will have to make if it is going to travel safely in those places. That is not to say that adapting for the French market is easy because it is not. Those of you who have ever dealt with the ARPP, the French clearance regulatory body, will know that they have very strict restrictions on what you can and cannot show. Every country has its own regulatory body and clearance. Some are stricter than others. There are lots of weird rules within the world of broadcast clearances, so getting adverts on TV pushed through the system. Going back to countries where things are tricky, it is the ones you might expect, the Middle East is always going to be a bit tricky, for a variety of reasons. I do not just mean if you are trying to advertise alcohol, but if you are trying to advertise cigarettes. You cannot advertise as directly as was the case in the 1980s.
Other markets are challenging not only from a cultural perspective but because of how fastidious people can be about the language itself. Some of the high context languages have a lot more subjectivity to them than others. They are a lot less straightforward, so there is a lot of linguistic hidden context and via systems like back translations and rationales you can see these, but if you are the head of marketing for Central and Eastern Europe and you only speak a handful of the languages, how are you going to assess a language if you do not speak it? This is where back translations help, but that does not give you the flavor. Language always mutates when you take one phrase to another, even the simplest of things. Something moves because languages are not neat, they are not one-to-one exchanges. Sometimes you do get sentences that are exactly the same and that is great, but they are usually the exception rather than the rule. Something always shifts and moves, and it is the way you represent that. Transcreation in that aspect is the art of demonstrating, not only why that is the case, but why that needs to be the case.
If I pick on Nike, an easy example is “Just Do It”, what is “It”? “It” is not a good example of English grammar because it is not the subject of a sentence, it is gloriously absent. “It” means energy, aspiration, inspiration. It is a way of life. It is a methodology. It is, why are you sitting there on the sofa? Get out there and do some sport. It does not matter what it is, whether it is tennis, lacrosse, or karate, go out there and do it, so it is about capturing the energy. If you were to do that in Italian with “niente scuse”, no excuses, does that say, “Just Do It”? No, but does it communicate the energy. Yes, it does. Does it sound a little bit bad-ass? Yes, it does, and that is exactly the energy that brands are looking to latch on to. How much you can unleash and open the taps in a given locale depends on a lot more factors. How does that culture speak about its advertising? Do they shout, do they whisper? Do they want to change the status quo? Just because other advertisers might be speaking at this volume, it might mean that you want to break the ceiling and do something different, but that comes at a risk and a potential reward. The further we go down the rabbit hole, the deeper this whole thing gets and becomes a lot more complicated but also interesting. That is when we will get quite excited. Then we can begin to explore that with a client if they are willing to go the distance.
Esther: How do you help clients understand exactly what it is that you are going to be doing when you are transcreating. How do you communicate that? Do you find that people get it from the offset? Especially if they have never even dealt with or heard of transcreation previously?
Rik: Some do, some do not. Some will and some will not. Our tagline in the distant past was “We Get It”, go figure, and certainly a big chunk of my job is helping clients get it. The best clients that we work with are the ones who are willing to stand up and say, I do not know, please show me the way and those are the ones that tend to make steadfast allies quite quickly, because they are willing to say, I do not fully understand this. I know it is important. How do we navigate this world? That is where we begin to embark on that journey, so we go through it carefully and slowly. We have to show what good could look like. Obviously, there are a lot of misconceptions out there from Google Translate through to neural machine translation engines and all those things in between to someone with a non-linguistic mind. Not to say that they are ignorant, just merely they have never seen that world before. It can be hard to grasp. If we start talking about semantics and diacritical characters in weird idiographic compound languages, then it usually will go straight over people’s heads. You have got to frame everything down to the core of the idea. Your words, your ideas, your creative that you have put together will modify when it moves. It is going on a journey.
As much as you wrap it up neatly and put it on a ship and it looks great in the port, it does not mean that when it arrives at someone else’s port, that it is going to be received the same way. You have to be careful when you set out on a journey. Even if it is qualified in the right way and it is framed and it is understood, and the cargo is packed the right way, it can be unpacked in a different way when it lands on the shores. That requires a bit of a stretch of confidence for a client to trust you. For those who have the humility to do so, and that is paired with the desire to make that happen, it will go well. There is a lot of legacy in the translation industry, and I say this with respect, but the translation methodology and approach do not equate the same at the service level with transcreation. It is subjective, but it is how you manifest it, it is how you frame it. A lot of people do a wealth of MCGs and worked with translation for 20, 30 years, but the local markets are not necessarily happy. They are feeling that it just does not pop. There is something that is missing. That is normally when the word transcreation begins to get passed around. Then we have the conversation and then we analyze what does not work for them, what does. Who do you want to be today? Who do you want to be tomorrow? It has got to be the easiest question that I would ask any brand if they are serious if transcreation could do something for them.
Florian: How important is language technology. You mentioned machine translation before, are you using any of this? Is it helpful for productivity in any shape or form or not at all?
Rik: It is to a point. For the things that require translation, the needle of the machine will rise to a certain point of where it is. It is useful and it is beneficial, it saves time. Once we go beyond a certain point and we start moving to creative interpretations of concepts and the use of concepts with double entendres or portmanteau, different mechanics to represent something beyond the confines of what the actual words mean, that is when it starts to fall away. Without going too heavy down the technical side of things, I am talking about CAT tools and segmentation. You will break machine translation if you try to take highly idiomatic phrases that have been tailored to produce a certain feel or flavor or taste and you are trying to apply the mechanics or a literal translation and segmentation and translation memory, unless you are locking everything within a bespoke glossary and linking it down by phrase. The play on words that we use in a conversation or even in advertising in the context of what they attached to is fine, but if you try to pre-populate a document with a set expression, for example, let the cat out of the bag, maybe you are selling a service where you are delivering cats to people who want new kittens and they come in special bags, that phrase has a lot more meaning than the original phrase would. How is that going to work when it works in other languages? It is not, and if you have got 100 percent matches within a long-form document, it is going to take that frame, pop it in every time, but it is not going to be correct because it is going to be linked to the interpretation made at the creative advertising or campaign level and that is where the mechanics of that technology starts to fail. Yes, you can bolster it with MT. You can do human post-editing for copy up to a certain point on that scale of creativity to the point where it is just going to cause a problem because it is not going to understand it.
I can think of a million examples of languages where that would not work, where it would start to destroy things. Katakana in Japanese is the obvious one. Loanwords have a certain sound, but a machine can not identify what they are unless you have fed that into glossaries beforehand, but then you run the risk of it sounding mechanical anyway. If we look at SEO optimization that is designed to replicate an algorithm, it still looks a little bit like an algorithm. I will be very impressed the day someone sends me an email specifically for me. When I see that, I will rethink my position. I do not think we should be writing things just by SEO and other mechanical functions like that, but that is more of an art versus science debate.
Esther: You were talking about sort of the service level differentiation between transcreation and translation. Does it normally involve a different pricing model when you are talking about transcreation versus translation and how does the positioning work to differentiate the two?
Rik: Naturally, there is a difference. Translation, as most people know, is on a per word basis. It is usually inclusive of translation, proofreading. Elements of project management can be baked in, proofreading can also be applied in hourly charges. In Switzerland, sometimes I have seen a page rate, which is funny when you think, I can just increase the number of words on a page by changing the font and surely I have tricked the system. But when it comes to transcreation, look at the example of “Just Do It”. How many words? Three. Are we going to charge that at a per word rate? That would be £2.50, there you go. The amount of time that would go into creating a tagline of three words, five words, seven words is vastly superior to the per word rate that you would use for translation. In a nutshell, we base transcreation on the impact of the media pieces which they represent, so cost for a TV commercial script, or cost for a digital banner, cost for a campaign headline. It is more heavily linked to the value in terms of creative of those assets and to the time that a copywriter would spend working on that. For example, somebody came up with the slogan in the 1980s for Coca-Cola that said “Coke Adds Life”, which apparently got misinterpreted in the German translation. At the time it was “Coke brings you back from the dead”, which I think ironically now would go down quite well, but at the time, obviously, it was a bad idea. Nevertheless, somebody spent months building that creative.
I find oddly in the localization world, in the world of language, there is an odd culture irreverence. It is very much an attitude of English first and I do not think it is the right way to grasp things. If you have taken three months to develop or even two weeks to develop an English tagline, you have thought about all the marketing aspects, the single-minded proposition, all the things that it takes. Why do you think it is appropriate to get the ‘translation’ of that done the next working day at 9:00 AM. You need time to make these things work. These are not just languages. They are not mechanical. They are not cold. They are warm, they are warmer than you would believe and you need to put that energy and time and fundamental respect in to make sure that they will yield something that somebody somewhere in Paris or in Mongolia looks at and goes, that is cool. They do not look at it and say, that was a baseline English master. That to me is when we tick the box of transcreation when someone looks at a piece of creative and says, that is a good piece of creative. They do not see that it came from a process, a science, an art form that we have effectively put towards them, and all of that needs to be incorporated into the financial rate because we are a business. We do make money from this and that links to what we call executional costing, so the size of it and the impact that it ultimately will drive in the market.
Florian: In terms of the outlook, how do you see the next three to five years in terms of growth and for your business in the future?
Rik: I mentioned bricks and mortar storefronts and shops, and obviously, we have all seen it, places closing down, which is a shame. However, what everyone is looking for in general, is a sense of personalization. You want things that are made for you, the text made for you, your shoes made for you, your coat, your jacket. All of these things. Everything is about the bespoke and every brand that is advertising, which has got more of a digital footprint than they had in the past, is all about that personalized experience. As I said before, people are fickle and they want to and need to in a way feel like they are being catered for but not pandered to and that is a dangerous difference. It is very easy to mess up with the proliferation of media formats moving into a brighter light than perhaps they were before. Now it is a different story and what was once considered a placeholder for copy, simply a tick box to have your name on a website, to be able to go and research it, now is the digital storefront to your shop, which is the conduit to the personalized experience that every consumer is speaking.
When I latch on to a brand I like, I read about this. I want to get closer to them. It is a natural human instinct, no matter what it is, you tend to want to get a bit closer to it, so as a result, you look for places where that story is broadcast and illustrated. Which naturally turns to digital content media. I do not just mean social media, I mean content in general out there that is on websites that are easily accessible to everybody. They are the footprints and the fingerprints of the things which are intangible, but we still want to get our hands physically upon and therefore that needs to link very closely to the transcreation experience because people want that copy in that website, no matter what it is, no matter how expensive it is, they want it to feel genuine. Tapping into that sense of genuineness is the key to unlocking responsibility, reliability. People will then buy more into brands because it feels like it means something. Somebody has made an effort. Somebody has cared about this and loved it and they presented it in front of you and it makes it all the more appealing for them, so that would be more interesting in the next couple of years, apart from the tech side of what happens within neural machine translation and the neural learning in that sphere will be one aspect entirely.
Looking to the other side of creative and where creative is deployed. You will get brands who in the past were more functional, who will become more tactile and as a result, they will demand the results of transcreation in their language content. Will they be willing to pay for it? I do not mean just in terms of money, I mean in terms of time, that is another question. But if they want it, it is there. It does not come cheaply and I tie it back to the respect that we must have for linguists, copywriters, translators, interpreters, whatever you call yourself, you care so much about transmitting, not just information, but an experience, an idea in whatever format that you work in. That needs to be paid for and it has been a long time in the industry where it has not been given it is due and if we need to bring that under the auspices of the umbrella of transcreation, to get more of an understanding there, I am happy to lead the charge. For anyone who has gone out of their way, gone to another country and thrown themselves in the deep end, learnt a language, learnt a culture, learnt the way people think, and spent all those years of effort trying to do so, I think it might be time from now they get a bit more respect than they were given before.