"If You Do Not Do, It Will Not Become"
I blinked hard and raised an eyebrow quizzically at my lecturer. “So let me get this straight, if you do not do…. then it will not become” I mouthed the koan soundlessly (and meaninglessly) to myself once more then added “So what exactly is it that will not become?”
That was just shy of twenty years ago now. It was my first year of studying Japanese at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. A time of cheap rent, broad northern tones, freezing weather and Greggs’ pasties. Fast-forward to today, where I lead the transcreation service offering at Tag Collective Arts, entrenched in everything culturally and linguistically oriented, but I’m getting ahead of myself here…
The grammatical riddle above was in fact, a lesson about the construction of ‘must’ clauses in Japanese, i.e. “You must submit your essays on time Rik-san”. It turns out that rather than having a single word to express the idea that is simply bolted onto a verb as per in English, in Japanese it dons a robe of inscrutability, nodding at you enigmatically like Mr Miyagi, urging you to let go and use the lessons he has taught you by waxing cars and windows and realise that the strange linguistic constructions strewn about your feet which seemed so hard to grasp at first, were not, in fact, divulged occidentally.
What this meant was that I had two options: I could struggle to wrap my English mind around this nonsensical grammatical hodgepodge, painfully trying to apply English rules to it for ‘ease of understanding’. Or, I could simply accept the idea itself, erase my preconceptions and embrace it as a concept, and begin to feel it instinctually, not to know it merely academically.
Logic can be shockingly relative like that, culturally speaking. As a culture begins to speak to you, one of the first truths you must realise is that language does not pivot around you, you must instead pivot around it. The logic of one language might dictate that grammar functions in reverse. The logic of another might have different notions of how things are quantified, how onomatopoeia functions, how idiom flows. Whether a bull rampages in a china shop or an elephant is unleashed in a fish store as in Russian. Whether a cat is let out of the bag, or as in French where you stumble upon the ‘pot of roses’.
Positive and negative can fluctuate freely, what we have assumed as a given in our home culture might not equate neatly to another. Is the stranger at the door an ominous shadow, or do they project welcoming shade from the heat?
As the French adage states, “You can’t teach an old monkey to pull strange faces” – because he knows them all already due to his age and wisdom. This runs counter to the English, where we use a similar idiom to state that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – because he is stubborn and set in his ways.
In a Covid-afflicted world, where – isolated as we are – the need to feel connected is more prevalent than ever, advertising must, at its heart, feel welcome. Not an unsolicited intruder darkening a doorway, but a welcome guest; unexpected yet delightful company, like having Stephen Fry dropping in for a cup of tea.
Transcreation does exactly that: deploy a range of tools to gauge linguistic sensitivity and cultural awareness to strike the balance between data-driven direction and the art of copywriting. We need to be different, but foster familiarity; stand out, yet still fit in. This is the challenge facing all brands as we move into uncertain times and media territories. Remain globally applicable, but locally relevant.
Fluency, true fluency within a language, stems from being able to let go of one cultural identity and embrace another. This is where brands will have to adapt to remain relevant, to adjust and accept other ways of thinking. For whilst we might not all be able to travel at the moment, it doesn’t mean we can’t go on a journey.
After all, it’s not always about trying to extend what you know, it’s about admitting what you don’t. As the sixteenth-century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi once said, “It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet.”
For if you do not, then well, it will not come to pass. Turns out my lecturer might have had a point there after all…