Do we actually know what a literal translation is?


8 October, 2015

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We decided to write a post about literal translation because we have noticed that many people are confused about it.

We often say that translators are language creators working with meaning, not with words, that sometimes clients expect you to deliver something that is completely different from the source language. I am afraid that, although this sometimes happens, it does so much more often in the translation of poems and other literature works, than in technical translation or localization.

Literal translation may sometimes be used in legal contexts, where the client wants to know, word by word, what the text is saying.

But there are literal translations that are indeed wrong.

When a literal translation is not valid is when you translate word by word and do not take into account context, culture or other references. For example:

It’s raining cats and dogs.

This is a widely known English expression whose origin is still unknown, and which means that it is raining very heavily.

Translating it into Spanish as Está lloviendo perros y gatos would be a literal translation that is wrong, as it is a word by word translation that makes no sense in the target language, and there is actually an expression in this language that has the same meaning, Está lloviendo a cántaros (cántaro means jug, hence the metaphor, since a jug can contain a big quantity of water.)

However, if you have a text like:

“We use the latest technology to provide the best service to our clients.”, you may translate it in several ways, but it will always make you think of the source text:

Usamos la última tecnología para ofrecer el mejor servicio a nuestros clientes.

Usamos la tecnología más avanzada para ofrecer el mejor servicio a nuestros clientes.

Gracias al uso de la tecnología de última generación, podemos ofrecer el mejor servicio a nuestros clientes.

Are these translations wrong? Of course not, but there are sentences whose structure, context and meaning are the same in both languages.

guidebooks-1425706-1920x1440We like creativity, but there are times when the text does not allow for much creativity, and that does not mean that it is a literal translation, or that it is wrong. Besides, getting too far from the source may lead to a wrong translation, so be careful with creativity.

We hope this helps you to better understand what literal translations are and when you can put a claim to your translator provider because you are not happy with the translation.

Remember that at Jensen Localization we can help you reviewing translations done by other translators, do not hesitate to contact us for further information.

Translation, Translation Errors

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