Transcreate, not translate: How we make our nudges available in 22 languages

Jake Goldwasser
Team Humu

Translation isn’t easy. There’s an old Italian saying: “translator, traitor”—at Humu, we never want our translations to betray the spirit, and science, of our nudges.

That’s why we’ve taken such care in translating thousands of our behavioral-science nudges into more than 20 languages. What have we learned? That sometimes we have to get creative to make sure that the magic of nudges doesn’t get lost in translation. Here are some of our secrets.

1. We start with great copy

When your content is clear and engaging, you’re already setting your translators up for success. When we’re writing, we make sure that that each and every nudge meets these criteria:

  • Our language is crystal clear. We avoid clichés and figures of speech. Instead of “have a bone to pick” we write “take issue.” It’s more concise and more descriptive.
  • Our text is relatable. You’d be surprised how much baseball makes its way into English: “out of left field,” “on deck,” “strike out,” “touch base,” “rain check,” etc. Fun as they may be, we keep these phrases out of our nudges, because they can alienate anyone who might not be familiar with the context.
  • Our examples are universal. Translation bridges cultural contexts. With this in mind, we start out with text that isn’t tied to a single country or region by using examples, names, and situations that resonate with a diverse and far-reaching audience.

Following these principles keeps our copy cleaner and more inclusive for everyone, all while simplifying the translation process.

2. We know when to translate—and when to transcreate

Translation refers to the process of bringing text from one language into another. Transcreation, on the other hand, means adapting a text to fit another cultural context. 

For simple user-interface text and technical writing, a “straight translation” is usually the best choice. For copy that entails particular nuance or sensitivity, transcreation is the way to go. 

Humu nudges are written to connect with employees and inspire action. Because of the particular voice of our nudges, a “straight translation” would fall flat. Instead, our translators transcreate nudges, bringing their creativity to every nudge they translate.

Getting creative

One of our most popular nudges encourages employees to make a “smile file” of positive feedback that they can revisit when they receive more critical feedback or have a tough day at work. But how to translate the rather strange phrase “smile file”? Our translators transcreated that term to make sure the nudge works in their respective languages:

  • Albanian: “A folder of happy things”
  • French: “A ‘heart balm’ folder”
  • Romanian: “Optimism, a click away”
  • Spanish: “An archive of smiles”

Accounting for untranslatable words

We think it’s important that our nudges are written in a way that reflects how real people talk about their work. In some cases, that means using words that don’t have obvious translations in other languages.

Take the sentence “Nobody wants to be micromanaged.” In French, a direct translation exists: “microgéré.” But in Latin American Spanish, there’s no word for “micromanage”—we chose to translate this sentence as “Nobody wants every step of their work monitored.” Our nudges require scores of these tiny decisions, all of which add up to a voice that sounds natural, no matter what language we’re nudging in.

Tapping into the local culture

Making recommendations about the workplace can be sensitive, especially since workplace cultures vary so much by region.

In China, for example, giving critical feedback isn’t as normalized as it is in the US, so our translators work hard to make our feedback nudges relevant to Chinese employees. In one nudge, to illustrate the importance of soliciting feedback, we make use of a Confucian proverb that is instantly recognizable to Chinese-speakers: “There’s a teacher in every three people that walks by.” Modifications like these frame recommendations in a cultural context and help readers relate to the underlying science.

4. We plan for inclusive language

Defining inclusion in each language

Inclusive language is critical.  But the care and attention that goes into selecting specific phrases and words can get lost in translation, especially when languages have substantially different grammars or cultural backgrounds.

As an example, Humu nudges often use the singular “they” as a gender-inclusive pronoun (e.g. “Ask your coworker about their weekend.”) This is an easy way to make a statement without assuming the gender of anyone involved, and it’s been a convenient feature of English since the 1300s.

It’s not so simple in Russian. “Russian genders not only nouns and adjectives,” says Evgenia Lokis, one of the translators working on the project, “but also verbs in some cases.” In order to maintain the original, gender-neutral language, she sometimes re-works entire paragraphs, turning the original structure on its head to fit the Russian context.

This is why planning early and often is critical. At Humu we have rich conversations with our translators about our expectations for inclusive language—and how we can adapt for every language. A well-supported translator will be empowered to use their expertise to navigate these grammatical predicaments.

Preparing to be culturally nimble

Inclusion also means capturing more than one experience or perspective in nudges.

In one nudge, for example, we recommend taking an action during a lunch break. That seems straightforward enough, but this apparently mundane phrase “lunch break” posed a problem in Spain, where there is a divide in how and where lunch breaks are taken.

“People who live in big cities like Madrid or Barcelona are more likely to have lunch at work or near the office,” says Spanish translator Álvaro Díez. Workers from smaller cities, on the other hand, and employees at workplaces with long hours, like shops and call centers, tend to go home for lunch in the middle of the day. 

This nudge was a perfect candidate for transcreation; we re-wrote it specifically for employees in Spain, making sure to include options for both kinds of lunch-eaters. 

Tying it together: centering employees

Humu customers have employees all over the world. So when it comes to our content, we can’t afford to make translation an afterthought. When we write words in English, we’re always planning for how those words will appear on screens across the globe, in all of the languages we nudge in.

The good news is that, while translation is a challenge, it has a huge payoff. Translation allows us to make work better, everywhere. And in addition to that, keeping translation top of mind makes our nudges clearer, more inclusive, and ultimately more effective.