Work that Works. It’s a snappy line, right? Concise and catchy. And yet, for such a short statement, there are still some things to unpack. Just exactly how does ‘work that works’… work?

I was presented with the challenge of analysing the slogan of 438 Marketing, ‘work that works’, and then trying to find an equivalent expression or translation in French. Initially I thought that it would be fairly straightforward, especially given that I was only dealing with three words. The task, however, was more complex than I had originally anticipated, and a certain expression immediately came to mind: les apparences sont souvent trompeuses (don’t judge a book by its cover!)

Work that works

Each ‘work’ in the line has a specific meaning and role in the overall interpretation of the catchphrase. The first of the two is the noun form of ‘work’. After narrowing down the intended purpose of the word within the sentence, we then need to determine its meaning.

‘Work’, as a noun, can have a number of meanings. In this context, the intended meaning is “something which you produce as a result of an activity or as a result of doing your job.” (Collins dictionary) So, in this case, the work is the end product.

But we need to go further. If we are considering ‘work that works’ specifically as the tagline of 438 Marketing, then the ‘work’ is what they, collectively as a company, produces. Rather than being very ambiguous work that any person or company produces, it is their work. Further than that, it isn’t the entire collective effort that has gone into realising a final creation; rather, it is just the final product, the ‘work’ is what is shown on the 438 Marketing website, for example.

Now, onto…

Work that works.

The second ‘work’ from the line is an action, and therefore a verb. It is doing the action of the noun of the line, which is again… the work. In other words, the work is working. We have to think about possible connotations of the meaning of ‘work’ as a verb, and in this context, it doesn’t mean that the work is sitting at a desk and doing a 9 to 5. Rather, it suggests that the work (that 438 Marketing is turning out) “is successful, effective, or satisfactory.” (Collins dictionary) I’m inclined to agree…

The other interpretation, which is slightly more nuanced, is that the work is working for you (the client). That is to say, that the work put out by 438 Marketing is so good that it is helping you (the client) with your work, or making your job easier. In that case, it would be more along the lines of ‘work that pulls its own weight,’ or ‘work that works for you.’

It has a certain je ne sais quoi

The main difficulty in attempting to translate the line ‘work that works’ into French is capturing the exact same meaning in so few words.

The first ‘work’ in the line, the noun, can be translated into French as ‘travail’. The context given for this translation is work as in a product of labour, with the following example: “ The work was obviously well done” – “ Le travail était apparemment bien fait” (Wordreference.com).

The second ‘work’, the verb, poses a little more difficulty. The appropriate equivalent in French would either be ‘marcher’ or ‘être efficace’. They can be used interchangeably, both meaning to be useful or effectual.

However, we could also modify the line to cut out the use of a verb altogether and just stick with nouns. For example, rather than saying ‘work that works,’ we could say ‘well-thought out work’ (travail bien pensé/ travail bien conçu) or ‘slick/polished work’ (travail rusé/ léché). It seems slightly too short this way, and so perhaps a better option would be ‘travail qui est bien foutu’ (work that’s well designed/clever). Of course, when translating a line such as that back into English, we could order it as either ‘work that is clever’ or ‘clever work’. It’s definitely worth noting that the order within the sentence isn’t equally flexible in both English and French.

And yet, when translating, we are rarely doing it very literally. When I studied translation as part of A level languages and my undergraduate degree, we were always taught to consider chunks of the source text at one time, rather than word by word, to get the gist and produce a more natural sounding translation. More often than not, translations are not word for word; a literal translation that remains strictly faithful to the text risks losing its meaning.

If we were to translate ‘work that works’ extremely literally, we could say ‘travail qui marche’, or ‘travail qui est efficace’. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it and doesn’t quite render the same meaning as the English.

Perdu à la traduction – lost in translation

One of my favourite aspects of languages is when things get lost in translation. A great example is comparing idioms from one language with their equivalent in other languages. There are some idioms that are translated, such as (from English) ‘like a bull in a china shop.’ The French equivalent is ‘comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaines,’ (like an elephant in a china shop) although this is likely to be an alteration of the earlier ‘un taureau dans un magasin de porcelaines’, itself a loan translation from English. (Wordhistories.net)

One which doesn’t quite hold its meaning in both languages… ‘sauter du coq à l’âne’. The literal meaning is ‘to jump from the rooster to the donkey’, but the meaning of the expression is to jump from one topic to another (in conversation for example). Again, the most literal translation is not always the best!

C’est dans la boîte – that’s a wrap

Translation is often about balancing two ideals: fidelity (the faithfulness of the translated text to the source text), and transparency (comprehensibility of the translation in terms of the target audience’s cultural perspective).

When it comes to ‘work that works’, a faithful translation most likely won’t ever be catchy, so it probably isn’t the number one choice for a company slogan. My best attempt at translating it is ‘travail qui vaille’, which roughly means ‘work that’s worth it’, but in this situation the catchiness is given more importance than it usually would be.

For now, it seems that perfectly translating ‘work that works’ est un travail en cours: it is a work in progress.