Why Copywriting Isn’t Writing

How 4 Principles of Translation will Transform your Copy.

In copywriting, people tend to think of themselves as, well, writers. A company needs to distill its message into some written words in order to transmit its message into the minds of reader, customers, and clients.


The more work I do in this field, the less inclined I am to believe that this is “writing.” I am not the company that has hired me. This is not my message, it’s their message. And their audience is not my audience, it’s their audience.


I’m not writing for this company, I am translating for this company. I’m getting the message from their own internal language into the prospect’s language.


Years ago, I translated Japanese stories into English and I learned some extremely valuable lessons applicable copywriting.


1). Know Your Audience. You need to know the cultural profile of the audience you are translating for. There are subtle shifts in language and style that can make or break a translation’s effectiveness. This means to a certain degree, you need to assume the role of the prospect, but yourself in their shoes, think how they think, use the words they use, find the rhythm and voice that reflects where they are at, not the company.


2) Translate meaning not literal verbatim. Your job as a translator is not to literally go through word for word and transcribe sentences exactly as they are. Your job is to express the core meaning of what is being expressed. This is a truly creative act and requires the pen of a poet. For copy, a given client or business has a core story or message that needs to be expressed in a language the prospect will understand. As a translator, you need to be fluent on both ends of the communication. You need to deeply understand the business and it’s language first. Then, you need to reframe and reorganize it into the prospects language. In order to get this to come through, a bit of artistic license is in order. It’s not what the client or company says it’s what they mean.


3).  Ask the author LOTS of questions and be clear about the original intent. For copy, this comes back to thoroughly educating yourself about the client’s business before getting started. If anything seems vague, if there’s some little thing you don’t understand, ask questions. Be clear. Sometimes small details and shades of meaning can change the whole meaning of a sentence. A slight change of implied intonation can “what are you doing?” go from curious and friendly to sinister and suspicious. Small details of a business’ process or product can be the key to properly getting the core of their message


4). Consider the Medium. A book will have different readability than a movie screen. Subtitles require brevity, and the film gives a rich context in which the reader can understand everything. Novels need be more expressive and wordy because the entirety of the meaning is in the words. Where is your copy ending up? On a mobile-friendly website? Social media? Email? Are there lots of pictures. Is it a video script with video aids? How much do you really need to explain? They all have slightly different requirements to take into context.


Give these some thought. They're simple, but widely applicable to any kind client work.

Jeff Kimes