Literal Translation: Definition, Drawbacks & Examples
Literal translation refers to any translation that replaces words from one language to another without evaluating the cultural contexts. Word-for-word translation is a common path while learning a language. Nevertheless, you cannot retain the message of the original content when you literally translate one word at a time, meaning literal translation has significant limitations for businesses.
The article looks at several literal translation examples, highlighting issues that come from directly substituting words between languages. We also discuss another better option for business translations: creative translation or transcreation.
Examples of Literal Translation
Many online translation tools provide a word-for-word translation. The resources are usually free and do not require specific knowledge of the target language or other technical skills. The translations are produced by algorithms that literally translate sentences one at a time; that’s why they sound mechanical and automatic.
We decided to include a list of English and Italian idioms to identify the differences between a natural and literal translation. In these literal translation examples, it is fascinating to understand how the word-for-word translation does not match the accurate translation at all:
- “Tocca Ferro” is an idiom used when avoiding bad luck. This phrase literally translates to “Touch Iron” in English. However, the correct translation is “Touch Wood”, which translates word-for-word to “Tocca Legno” in Italian.
- “I vestiti non fanno l’uomo” in Italian translates literally to “The clothes don’t make the man” in English. However, the actual English saying is “The cowl doesn’t make the monk” In Italian, the literal translation is “L’abito non fa il monaco”.
- “In bocca al lupo” is a phrase which means “Good luck” or “Break a leg” in English. However, the literal translation of the Italian phrase is “In the mouth of the wolf”. Comparatively, “Break a leg” translates literally to “Rompersi una gamba” in Italian.
Why Should You Avoid Literal Translation?
The above literal translation examples should already give you an idea of the problems that come from word-for-word translation. A literal translation is easy and quick but often without a correct meaning. Even when the sentences do make sense, a literal translation does not sound natural. It reads like a computer language: automatic and mechanical.
When machines translate literally, they do not consider the nuances of a language, namely structure, grammar, idioms, and context. Your sentences are deprived of emotions and tone of voice, significantly impacting the desired effect of your content on your audience. They also increase the risk of delivering or creating a text with a different meaning.
What is Creative Translation?
To avoid errors like those in our literal translation examples, consider creative translation. Unlike a literal translation, creative translation can keep the original meaning of the message using the right tone and context for the target language. The goal of creative translations is to maintain the content of a message, changing words and structure accordingly.
To translate literally requires basic language skills, but creative translation requires a deep knowledge of the target language. Words can have different meanings, which vary according to the context and the language. This variety of expressions creates a wide range of choices for translation, and only skilled translators can choose the most suitable version that elicits the desired response.
Innovation and creativity also play a crucial role in correctly translating and interpreting business messages. In fact, creative translation plays a considerable part in a business aiming to reach as many clients as possible. They enable companies to engage worldwide with their audience by delivering the right message and tone through easy-to-read text.
Literal Translation vs Creative Translation
To highlight the differences between creative and literal translations, here is a quick comparison:
- Literal Translation: Literal translation is accurate and quick, yet mechanical. It does not consider the grammar and the structure of the target language and literally translates words without considering the tone and meaning. They often come from online resources like Google Translate (where we got our literal translation examples).
- Creative Translation: Creative or natural translation aims to create texts specifically for the target audience. Context and culture are fundamental elements, ensuring the right tone of voice and meaning. Creative translations are performed by human translations offered working at professional translation services
Three Steps for a Natural Translation
Getting a literal translation using online tools can be tempting, but it will not sound natural or effective. As you’ve learnt from our literal translation examples, your content might lose its meaning entirely when you literally translate each word.
Creating natural and engaging translations is more challenging, but it is essential for any global business. And with these three steps, natural-sounding content is possible:
- Localise Content: Localisation plays a crucial role in translation, considering regional and cultural nuances. For example, Spanish is spoken in Spain and South America, but the culture, pronunciation, and some words of these countries are quite different. Localising the content will probably result in two different translations, both in Spanish.
- Tone of Voice: Words can significantly impact consumers’ decisions, so it is essential to transmit the same tone and emotions when translating from one language to another. This is impossible with a literal translation, as culture significantly impacts how content and ideas land. Something humorous in the UK might be offensive in China, for instance.
- Simplify When Possible: Copywriting and translation are essential in a robust global marketing strategy and branding. Creativity is necessary to adapt the content in different languages, and a spot-on translation maintains the core meaning of the message to deliver. If the translation of a text is too complicated in the target language, simplifying concepts can result in a clear, easy-to-understand message.
Trust Our Professional Translation Services
Literal translations lack a deep knowledge of the target language. When you literally translate words and phrases, you cannot maintain tone and your content sounds mechanical. As our literal translation examples proved, you can even lose the meaning of the text entirely.
For businesses, creative translations are far superior. However, creating texts that resonate with the philosophy of a company means adapting words and structure, interpreting the context, and being able to transmit the message accordingly. It is a complex task, and working with a reliable language services provider, and a member of the ATC, such as Renaissance Translations, is essential.
We have pooled the talents of native translators and thousands of professional linguists internationally, covering most languages and subject areas. If you want to discuss your language translation project, please get in touch with our project managers or request a quote online.