Creativity in Translation: A Practical Guide

Creativity in translation is a key skill. However, to what extent and in what way can the translator be creative? Find out everything in this guide.

Micael Pinto • Updated on January 23, 2020
Micael Pinto • Updated on January 23, 2020
A lamp on a table, representing the concept of creativity

First, I would like to mention that I will mainly address the practical aspects, and illustrate them with examples, rather than the theorical ones. Those I am going to leave for another blog post in order to keep things simple and easy to assimilate.

Creativity in translation is dependent, limited and a conscious effort. This is exactly why translation is a creative act – the translator must play with what they have. In short, the translation is dependent on a text type and limited by a source text, which serves a purpose regarding a certain culture and target audience. All this creates a context. Then, the translator makes a conscious effort in order to come up with a creative equivalent solution within that context.

There are different perspectives regarding creativity in translation, and even if yours is slightly different from the one reflected here, that’s not a problem. This is a subject that is still highly debatable within the translation community.

Creativity in Translation: Why?

Creativity in translation allows you to convey the message with clever and natural-sounding solutions. More than if you totally stick to the source text and try to make the translation read like the original.

However, the truth is that things are not always this easy and linear. It’s important to consider and have an overview of the aspects mentioned above in order to decide if a creative solution may or may not work within a certain context.

After figuring out why creativity in translation is important, the next step is to find out when and how you can use it.

Creativity in Translation: When and How?

The most important step in the whole creative process is to identify when and how it is possible to put creativity in practice. So, as said above, it’s important to have an overview of the following aspects:

Text type. Some text types, such as literary and advertising texts, require creativity, others not so much, as for example legal and technical texts. It depends if you are working with a creative or commercial text.

Culture. The more different both cultures are, the more creativity might be useful in order to apply a cultural filter. For example, if a French text uses a small city as a reference to explain something, it would be a good idea to use a city with similar characteristics within the target culture in order to explain the idea.

Target audience. It’s totally different to write for kids and adults or for native and non-native English speakers. Imagine a situation where a Spanish hospital needs to translate an informative leaflet about the flu disease from Spanish to English, so tourists and exchange students can inform themselves. The discourse should be as simple as possible because their English level is not the same as a native speaker. Otherwise they won’t understand it and the leaflet will be useless.

Purpose. Every text serves a purpose, whether to inform, to convince or to simply entertain. It is also written in a certain context and for a certain target audience. That’s no different when it comes to translation, otherwise the translation would be useless.

Take the flu leaflet as an example. The purpose this leaflet serves is to inform. If those people can’t understand the leaflet because the discourse doesn’t fit the target audience’s English level, the purpose is not achieved. Convey the same message with simpler words definitely requires creativity.

Skopos Theory

I would like to briefly mention the skopostheorie, first introduced by Hans Vermeer in the 1970s. On the surface, this theory defends that a translational action is determined by its skopos, which means “purpose”.

This theory was further developed by Katharina Reiss and Vermeer in their book published in 1984, originally written in German and later translated as Towards a General Translational Action.

Jeremy Munday also addresses this theory in his book Introducing Translation Studies, as well as many other relevant theories within the Translation Studies field. It is must-have book for everyone that wants to dive in the theorical side of translation.

For those interested in exploring more the role of creativity in translation, I would recommend learning more about the skopos theory because it carries a strong connection with creativity in translation.

Practical Examples of Creativity in Translation

Game localization. I used to play a game where there was a non-player character called Jumbo Mumbo, what clearly is a reference to the word “mumbo jumbo”, which means “nonsense”. In the Brazilian Portuguese translation, it appears Babo Zera, which comes from the word “baboseira” that also means “nonsense”.

Basically, they looked for a Brazilian Portuguese word with an equivalent and appropriate meaning and worked around it in order to keep the nature of the character in the target language.

Audiovisual translation. It’s very common to neutralize swearing within the field of audiovisual translation. In European Portuguese, it’s rare to read subtitles that don’t neutralize swearing, mainly in movies broadcast at prime time. In order to not hurt the viewer’s sensibility, the translator opts for softer words.

For example, when the f-word is said to express anger, it isn’t literally translated. Instead, they opt for something like raios, a softer word which literally means “disgrace” and is often used in this context.

Tips to Improve Your Creativity in Translation

There are several techniques to develop our creativity bearing in mind the optimization of the translation process. Some of the most popular ones are:

Reading. Read about everything, including technical and literary books. For a translator, knowledge is gold. The more you read, the more you know about different things, cultures and the better you can handle translation problems. Note that reading in your native language is as important as reading in your foreign languages.

Idiomatic expressions, sayings and figurative words. Sometimes an idiomatic expression in the source language doesn’t have a direct equivalent in the target language. Having a dictionary with these and flicking through it can help you manipulate your working languages better.

Writing and producing content. Either writing for yourself or producing content for blogs or social media, it is always great to keep your writing up to date and enlarge your vocabulary.

Understanding cultures. One of the most important things is to understand the differences between the source and target audience’s cultures. So, trying to understand the habits and beliefs of each one is important in order to not hurt their sensibility.

Translating. Of course! The more you translate, the better you become at handling creativity in translation.

Things That Influence Creativity in Translation

There are still other things that influence creativity in translation, such as:

Background. Every single life experience adds value and shapes who you are, which also contributes to your creativity skills. Your capacity of creating is also strictly related to your beliefs, habits, tastes, personality and your vision of the world.

Writing style. Translating is a form of writing. The same text translated by two different translators will result in two different translations. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better than the other.

Sensibility. Translators with an accurate sensibility read between the lines in order to find better ways to transmit information. Whether it is rephrasing or reinventing, they reach an equivalent word or sentence without interfering with the original meaning.


Having a solid knowledge about creativity in translation is important in order to decide whether a creative solution is needed or not. The process is not only about being creative but also knowing in which circumstances it may improve the target text.

We would like to hear your opinion regarding creativity in translation. You can reach us via e-mail at [email protected] or via our social media.

Spread The Word ❤

Did you find this content valuable or has it contributed to your personal or professional development? Then consider sharing it on your social media or with a friend. That way you will be helping Alumiar Elísio grow and bring translation to more people.

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Micael Pinto
Micael Pinto

English and French to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.

Recommended Reading

© 2020 Alumiar Elísio. All rights reserved. Created with red heart emoji by Micael and Mónica.