The curious case of two words: Transcreation v. gjendiktning

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M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Reading and writing between two languages invariably involves translation, which may be of two sorts, depending on whether a text is descriptive or creative. Descriptive texts aim to inform. So the main goal of translating them is to make information in one language available in another. In the extreme, as in translations of laws and contracts, faithfulness to the original is required.

The translation of creative texts is another matter. Recreating the intent of a text in another language is tricky, as aura, appeal, style, and tone are often more decisive than the words and idioms used. In the extreme, as in the libretto of an opera, only recreation through translation and rewriting will convey intent.

There are words that denote the process, such as transcreation in English and the equivalent gjendiktning in Norwegian. They have similar definitions. In English, trans- is a prefix designating change, so transcreation means “changed creation.” In Norwegian, gjen- is a prefix equivalent to re- in English, meaning “again,” and diktning is a verb meaning “to write poetry.” So gjendiktning means “to write (the same) poetry again.”

Most obvious on the everyday scene in English, public relations and advertising professionals now tout transcreation as a means of tailoring messages to target audiences. Even a modest internet search will reveal innumerable transcreation gatherings and publications initiated in and released by PR and advertising agencies.

The flurry is a bit late. Transcreation was not invented within the last decade by marketing professionals. As listed in the print version of the complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word was coined in the 1830s by English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to designate an act of creating in transmission.

Photo: Writers Workshop /  courtesy of Ananda Lal Left: Purushottama Lal, translator of the Mahabrarata, in the 1990s.

Photo: Writers Workshop /
courtesy of Ananda Lal
Purushottama Lal, translator of the Mahabrarata, in the 1990s.

Indian poet, translator, and publisher Purushottama Lal (1929-2010) sensitively used transcreation, most notably in his translation into English of the 100,000 slokas (couplets of Sanskrit verse) of the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic that is the world’s longest poem, dating at least from 400 BCE. As he worked along, Lal published installments of his work, most famously the meditative Bhagavad Gita, in which the god Krishna prepares the archer Arjuna for battle. In 1968 he explained his practice of transcreation in an essay, “Myth, Literature, and Transcreation,” that in 1972 was published in book form under the title Transcreation: two essays by P. Lal (further reading).

Even so, after its first listing in the print version of the complete OED, lexicographers apparently felt that the word transcreation had become obscure, as it has yet to be listed in the electronic OED or in any concise English dictionary in print.

On that count, Norwegian is ahead of English. The verb gjendikte and noun gjendiktning have long been in Norwegian dictionaries, first in Norsk Ordbok that was compiled starting in the 1930s. Today they are commonplace words; an announcement of a theatrical production in Norwegian of a work originally written in another language routinely will list the translator, Gjendiktet av (name), literally “poetry re-written by (name).” That straightforward connection suggests that transcreation may not have become as prevalent because English lacks a single-word verb meaning “write poetry.” That said, on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, American poet Mark Nowak suggests that the word “poetry” should be accepted as a verb, with the conjugation “I poetry. You poetry. He/she/it poetries. We poetry. You poetry.” Might future English dictionaries then include transcreation as another word?

Further reading:
Transcreation: two essays by P. Lal, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1972 (city name changed in 2001 to Kolkata to match Bengali pronunciation); the two essays are “Myth, Literature, and Transcreation” and “On Translating ‘Shakuntala,’” Out of print but still listed by used booksellers in the UK and the USA.

This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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