Hitler’s Hot Jazz Band (Transcreation II)


Although the Nazis claimed Jazz was “Negermusik” – devised by Jews to undermine Aryan culture – they did have a Hot Jazz band of their own, called Charlie and his Orchestra.

It was part of the weirdest propaganda effort of the war, devised by Joseph Goebbels and aimed at subverting the morale of Allied civilians and invading troops.

aaaaahitler and goebbels dancing to hot jazz

Charlie and his Orchestra featured a crooner, Karl Schwedler, who’d lived in the USA before the war and could warble his way through the latest hits with a tolerable, if decidedly Teutonic, accent.

Hitler's Crooner, Karl Schwedler

Hitler’s Crooner, Karl Schwedler

More to the point, he could twist the original lyrics to give them pro-Nazi slants – transcreation avant la lettre (or rather, seiner Zeit voraus)…

So Cole Porter’s You’re the Top‘s lyrics, which started out like this:
You’re the top! You’re a Waldorf salad/You’re the top! You’re a Berlin ballad. /You’re the boats that glide /On the sleepy Zuider Zee, /You’re an old Dutch master…

would become:

You”re The Tops, You”re A German Flyer/You”re The Tops, You”re Machine Gun Fire/ You”re A U-boat Chap With a Lot Of Pep/ You”re Grand, You”re A German Blitz, The Paris Ritz…

Many of the lyrics are battier even than this, with ludicrously sinister insults about Jews (I’m fightin’ for democracy/I’m fightin’ for the Jew, from I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams)  and “Negroes”:

“A negro from the London Docks,” Schwedler raps over the intro to the St Louis Blues, “sings the Blackout Blues.” Schwedler goes on to sing: I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down – cos da Germans, dey don bomb dis town! and blames “Churchill’s bloody war” for making him “feel so sore.”

More than a quarter of the British civilian population is estimated to have listened to the German broadcasts which played these recordings. Churchill is said to have found them hilarious.

In any case, this pioneering example of transcreation is a cautionary tale – transcreation can be used for evil, as well as good objectives. And, even under the direction of a Kommunikationsgenie, a Strategiemeister like Goebbels, it’s a weapon which can backfire badly – if you go for the wrong, badly-devised strategy, and sing from the wrong song sheet…



Lost in Translation – Transcreation – 1

transcreation may seem a bullshitty type of word, a neologism we didn’t need.

but is it?

here’s a stab at some answers:

no, it isn’t bullshit:

it fuses the words translation and creation. this is a new discipline, especially geared to international advertising campaigns which are developed in one country and then adapted for others.

yes, it is bullshit:

adapting ad campaigns has always involved more than word-for-word translation – creation has always been part of it, so the word didn’t need inventing.

in fact, translating anything creative, be it the works of du fu, nizami, snorri sturulson, dante, or a line of copy, always requires additonal creativity if it is to succeed. in this sense, distinctions between translating and transcreating could be seen as superfluous….

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… but in that case – if all translation is creative, where does that leave word-for-word translations?

are they worthless, then?

no – they are essential, even if somewhat limited in what they do. they”re an essential part of good translating. they”re like a first draft, and more than this:

they are the best means of arriving at a precise idea of the sense of the original.

in other words, word for word translations are of great use –

either for highly technical documents, about scientific or legal subjects,say,

or any text where a perfect replication of the sense of the original is paramount,

or as a basis for a more “creative” translation (more creative, for example, in adding poetic rhythm analogous to the original to an otherwise dry and unrhythmic translation purely of the meaning).

but word-for-word translations go no further than giving the sense, and that limits them – because they struggle to get across the ideas, concepts, sound and voice of the original.

in fact, the husband and wife translating team richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky (celebrated for their translations of tolstoy) split their duties, with volokhonsky doing a literal word for word version which her husband (whose russian is basic) uses as the basis for his far more literary, structured – sophisticated in its echoes, terms, and symbolism – more reader-friendly final version.

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

they are widely seen, today, as the best translators of classic russian novelists operating today, and their translations are masterclasses in translation.

of course literary and advertising translation are different animals.

but i do think we can take some lessons from their example. what it suggests to me is that to produce a worthwhile, effective translation, a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of the language must be combined with creative insight.

that creative insight covers a wide scope of abilities.

first, the ability to immerse oneself in the whole world created in the original text (or campaign).

and then, from this basis, to shape a translated version which may only be a version, but is the truest approximation possible of that world in another language.

second, the ability to mimic the sound of the original in a way that works in the target language.

the sound of language operates most obviously at the level of the word and the sentence, and the cadences they create, which carry paragraphs and make them soar with verbal music.

it also extends, in hypnotically cumulative ways, across chapters and beyond – whole books, epics and series of novels.

from homer and virgil through vondel, shakespeare, gibbon, tolstoy, dickens, balzac, proust, pound and waugh and powell, the essence of classic works is often found in that characteristic sound, which some would call the writer’s voice.

that voice can never be captured.

(and as time passes, so one generation’s attempts to do capture it come to sound dated, limited, inadequate to the next…)

but, in the more workaday world of advertising, campaigns and messages and language are more about today’s consumers than timeless literary quality. and the concept of an advertising voice is not established (except in the sense of a brand voice, or the tone of voice we want the advertising to express).

in advertising, the essence we try to adapt from one language to another comprises

  1. the overall campaign concept or idea
  2. the tone of voice (eg. humorous, ironic, hard-sell, corporate etc)
  3. the link to the target audience which 1 and 2 embody.

this third aspect is the strategic consumer insight.

this insight into the consumer connection may be the very hardest of all to transplant from one culture to another (leaving aside problems of language alone)…

and this may be the single most compelling argument in favour of transcreation (as a term) – the fact that (unlike most classic literature) the best campaigns may not be strictly translateable at all, because they speak so directly – uniquely – to their target in an inimitable voice which expresses their innermost culture…

campaigns like that cannot be translated: they can only work if they are re-created from scratch.

so what’s my bottom line on that term, transcreation?

bullshit or not?

not wanting to hedge my bets, i’d say

it sort of is but it describes something very important

Something crucial to making ideas understandable in different languages and across different cultures, and something which is partly but not wholly conveyed in the terms “translation” and “adaptation” because in some cases, the only way to get an idea across is to recreate it virtually from scratch.

what do you think?