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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (April 2013)


How Mature Are We, Really, When It Comes to Language?
By Nataly Kelly

I will never forget the first time I heard the word “transcreation.” I was attending a health care conference and a physician friend of mine was explaining how some of his colleagues used a new process that enabled health education materials to provide more culturally relevant information. He explained that, instead of just converting the information from one language to another, transcreation took into account cultural nuances, adapting the format, the images, and much more.

“But we already have a word for that in the translation field,” I countered. “It’s called localization!” The fact that I was reacting so severely to a word—any word—was a pretty bad sign. After all, anyone with a background in linguistics knows that we should always look at words objectively, with professional interest, but never with disdain. Unfortunately, sometimes even those of us who pride ourselves on our professionalism can forget this momentarily, letting our passion for words run wild. In this case, I could not stop myself from uttering a question to my friend that I have come to despise: “Why do people see the need to invent a new term when we already have one that means the same thing?”

I look back on that incident with embarrassment, for it was clearly a moment of linguistic immaturity on my part. Obviously, people invent new terms because this is the nature of language itself. It is growing and evolving constantly. Would botanists chastise a plant for changing its color to adapt to a new environment, or shake their heads in dismay if a species of bird began to grow fewer feathers in a warmer climate? Surely not. They would take note of it, observe it, and use the information to go about their work. They would not blame the plant or animal. So why do those of us who work in the language field often take things so personally when it comes to language?

In a previous article, I wrote about the fact that as translators and interpreters, we are in a relatively small linguistic group of our own.1 Even the way we define the word “translation” often differs from the way the general public uses this term, and from the way most dictionaries define it. Even though translators and interpreters are language professionals, we often become irate when we hear people use a word in a way that we believe is incorrect. Ironically, most professional codes of ethics specify that we should carry out our work in a way that is free of bias.

Do we really always adhere to that? I would argue that most of us find it difficult, and that viewing language in an unbiased way takes time, practice, and the most critical ingredient—awareness. Let me offer a few common examples.

• Do you believe that one regional version of a language is “better” than another? If so, you have a bias. A linguist would point out that those regional varieties are merely different. The question of which one becomes standard and which ones are viewed as nonstandard is typically linked to economic, political, and societal reasons—not purely linguistic ones.

• Do you believe that language should remain “pure?” There is a term for this in the field of sociolinguistics: “linguistic purism.” This mindset attempts to prioritize the language as spoken by one group over others in order to shield it from outside influences. Had the linguistic purists in Shakespeare’s day been successful, the English language would never have benefited from the hundreds of new words and phrases he popularized, such as “fashionable,” “sanctimonious,” “full circle,” and many others.2 At that time in history, playwrights were not viewed as intellectuals. They were found at the very bottom of the literary totem pole, like a modern-day version of a celebrity gossip magazine. Tempted to shake your head at the words “cray-cray” and “wackadoo” in the latest headline of the Enquirer? Stop to consider that these are simply an accurate reflection of modern language evolution.

• Do you laugh when people pronounce things “wrong?” If you snicker every time someone says “nuc-u-lur” instead of “nu-cle-ar,” ask yourself why you believe that millions of people living in the southern part of the U.S. do not have the right to pronounce the word as they see fit. After all, many Brits look down at Americans for
“mispronouncing” the word “aluminum” because we do not say “aluminium” with the extra “i.” What is considered standard in one place is not standard in the next, but that does not mean it is incorrect. Obviously, there is such a thing as a language learner or even a native speaker completely botching a pronunciation. Do not be too quick to assume that someone’s pronunciation is incorrect, or you might be reflecting a bias on your part.

• Do you cringe when you hear an Anglicism in another language? I have seen many a mournful look cross the faces of translators and interpreters when discussing Anglicisms that are supposedly “contaminating” a language. This view is another version of linguistic purism. Imagine what English would be like if we had tried to ban all of the terms from Latin that entered the language. The reality is that no one can stop people and cultures from coming into contact with each other, and as they do, languages change. This phenomenon is natural and has existed for as long as people and their languages have.

When I worked as an interpreter trainer, I often found that the interpreters in my orientation trainings would complain about how people speak a regional variety of a language. In the case of Spanish, my interpreters from Spain often struggled with Caribbean Spanish. People from some parts of South America would have trouble with Mexican regionalisms. Sometimes, interpreters from an urban setting would complain when they had to interpret for people from a rural area, even if they were all from the same country! I recall one interpreter who told me that whenever someone from Mexico used the word mueble, a regional term for “car,” she made sure to “teach” them the proper word, which, according to her, was automóvil. The way she explained it was condescending and judgmental. I quickly pointed her back to the impartiality tenet of the interpreting code of ethics, but she remained convinced that her word was right and theirs was wrong.

My unfortunate outburst with my physician friend was simply another manifestation of the same snare trapping that interpreter—an overly emotional attachment to language. As years went by and I did more research, I was forced to admit to myself that I had been dead wrong. The research proved that transcreation is in fact a very different thing from localization.3 Transcreation is used in several very specific fields, including the video gaming industry, the advertising industry, and in cross-cultural health settings. I learned that instead of being billed on a per-word basis, transcreation services are billed by the hour. I also learned that instead of starting with a source text, transcreation starts with a creative brief. I discovered that instead of having an objective of rendering the same information faithfully, transcreation’s goal is to produce a desired outcome, even if it means using completely different words, images, and media. I now know that transcreation is a much more common term in the U.K. than in the U.S., and that many companies even count it as a separate revenue stream from translation. So, as it turned out, I had been dead wrong. Transcreation actually does not have that much in common with localization after all.

Any time we find ourselves judging, especially in a negative way, the way someone else uses words, we are diminishing ourselves as professionals instead of opening our minds to the beauty and diversity of language itself. It is one thing to identify attributes of a word in a detached and neutral way so that we can select the perfect option. It is quite another to react negatively to a newly created term, a nonstandard pronunciation, or a creative use of grammar. After all, if we want our professions to thrive, we need to evolve right along with the ever-changing, ever-growing languages in which we work.

Today, I make a conscious and concerted effort to keep an open mind when it comes to language, not only because of the professional vows we all take to translate and interpret with objectivity and impartiality, but because I believe it is a sign of maturity when it comes to understanding language from various perspectives. I have to work as hard as anyone else to remind myself of the importance of this. And, even though I know it can hurt to hear it, I also feel it is important to remind others of this responsibility.

The point? Even if we find them abrasive initially, terms like “transcreation” and “cray-cray” will never stop popping up and taking us by surprise. We can either adopt an open, accepting approach to language or a fearful and purist one. Which one sounds more mature? Language evolution will never go away, so there is really no point in being emotional about it. If we want to show true professionalism when it comes to language, we must leave linguistic loathing to the amateurs.


1. Kelly, Nataly. “The Words We Use to Describe Ourselves,” The ATA Chronicle (October 2012),

2. Vernon, Jennifer. “Shakespeare’s Coined Words Now Common Currency,” National Geographic News (April 22, 2004),

3. Ray, Rebecca, et al. “Reaching New Markets through Transcreation,” Common Sense Advisory (March 2010),