As an industry based on communicating, advertising is sometimes remarkable for overlooking the role of language in its daily operations. Particularly in Japan, the absence of sensitive interpretation in an international working environment means good ideas can easily fall through the cracks.
In most agencies, the interpreter (if there is one at all) is an uncelebrated presence. Things seem a bit different at TBWA Hakuhodo, where Eric Ellefsen cuts a distinctive figure. Ellefsen is not labeled a mere interpreter, but the director of interpreting, languages and transcreation.
Since joining the agency in 2015, the Japanese-Norwegian has come to play an essential role, not just by relaying messages between offices in different countries, but in facilitating the creative process itself. Chris Iki, TBWA Hakuhodo’s chief operating officer, says Ellefsen changed things at the company by trying to understand and convey what people really mean—as opposed to simply what they say. His efforts can be seen to embody what should be at the heart of interpretation, but often isn’t.
Ellefsen, a photography graduate who grew up in Hong Kong, Singapore and England as well as Japan, says his aim is to “build bridges” between people. Misinterpretation is a fact of life, he says. “You think you’ve made a point but has the other person perceived it in that way?” he says. “Often, we’ll find we haven’t been able to fully penetrate the meaning of what we said.”
This was something he first became aware of working for Peace Boat, an NGO, where he experienced how emotions, preconceptions and “untruths” regularly obstruct the true essence of a point. He has translated that experience into a very different kind of environment but one with similarly high levels of emotions and pressure.
The ‘transcreation’ part of his role, which was not part of his former NGO life, has seen him enable the adaptation for accounts such as Uniqlo, working with the Chiat Day office in Los Angeles.
“Tokyo and LA had to get what they were each saying,” he says. “When it comes to very condensed words, you can’t rely on mere translation. That’s when you get into the real enjoyment of dealing with different languages. At times it’s a fine line between translation and copywriting. I have to have deeper discussions with creatives to hear what they’re saying in order for them to be confident.”
Outside TBWA Hakuhodo, non-Japanese creatives working in Japan have said that difficulty communicating can sometimes be a boon to the creative process by leading to unexpected places. Ellefsen agrees that this scenario can have merit, and says people don’t always have to communicate through words; music or visual cues can be equally effective. But there are nonetheless times when only a clear verbal or written exchange will do.
Ellefsen manages a team of three translators, which Iki says is kept “extremely busy”. Ellefsen says he has made a point of looking for people who are on the same wavelength to others in the company and can pick up on popular culture references. Too often, he says, translators are trained in patents and legal work but are incapable of nuanced writing.
“We need translators who are like storytellers around a campfire,” he reflects. “We want people’s characters to flourish rather than an adherence to form. They need autonomy otherwise it’s no fun to come to work every day.”
The same could be said of almost any profession, but Ellefsen sees a particular “dearth of talent” when it comes to translators who can function in the marketing communications field. For that reason, TBWA Hakuhodo has started extending these services to Hakuhodo itself, and Ellefsen says he wants to create a more defined business model around what his team does.
The question as to why Japanese advertising professionals tend to lack confidence in their English-language ability relative to their peers in other non-English-speaking nations, despite often being perfectly competent in the language, is difficult to answer. Ellefsen says he thinks the traditional but unfounded belief that “we’re really bad at English” is largely to blame.
“If enough people believe it, it can come true, but what we believe to be a truth can be just a myth as well,” he says, but adds: “In an ideal world, we would be able to shift away from thinking if you don’t speak English you’re being left behind. Wouldn’t it be equally useful if you spoke another language like Russian or Chinese? That kind of shift in mentality would be healthy.”
Whatever language one uses, Ellefsen seems to have a firm opinion as to what makes a good communicator. Perhaps aware of the fondness many in advertising seem to have for their own voices, his advice is to tone down the ego.
“You have to listen before you speak,” he says. “I don’t mean that you have to censor yourself… but when talking about creative content, which is subjective, you really have to think, what is this person saying to me; what grander design is behind them and their needs, and what do they have to get out of this exchange. Then, what emotional state are they in. Only by digesting this can you approach the subject and come back with what you have to say. It sounds basic but it’s the truest, most fundamental thing.”