Translation is an oft-misunderstood trade. People tend to believe that it’s as easy as following a certain mathematical input/output formula. That’s why literal translation is still sadly frequent even among bilingual people. Not even those who have a great working knowledge of grammar and language rules seem to be able to escape it. And don’t get us started on machine translation!

The process of translation is more complex than what people give credit to. It requires the mental equivalent of juggling balls in the air — think about it! A translator has to keep in mind all the complexities of two languages in mind when doing their job. They have to understand how a word may mean something in the source language but not in the target one. They have to untangle the complexities of idioms, cognates, false cognates, dialect idiosyncrasies, and more!

If this all is starting to sound like a forgotten dialect to you, don’t worry, you don’t need a translator. What’s good is that you don’t need a literal translation either. You just need experts to trace a path through the obscure terminology.

Fret not! When we’re done you’ll know why you don’t have to fear — nor rely on — literal translation! Onwards to a safe port!

But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:

Translation ABCs

Translation is easy enough to define; it means converting words from one language into another. Languages in the translation process are referred to as:

  • The source, or the original language.
  • The target, or destination language.

Translation can also be performed with both text and audio across mediums. What’s more, the translation trade is roughly divided into two camps, so it gets a little more complicated:

Translation refers strictly to translating text sources into another text. Think about books, papers, articles, magazines, etc.

Interpretation refers to translating what’s being said by another person or persons. This is normally done in rea-time and is called simultaneous interpretation. Think about the famous “U.N style” interpreting done in conferences.

Both of these translation types can be subdivided into categories and specializations. Translators may need to become certified in different categories in order to be eligible for jobs. Also, some translators may do interpretation and vice versa, but not all engage in both activities. This is something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a translator’s services!

Additional subdivisions apply, with about eight categories for translation and six for interpretation. If you want to learn more, check out our article.  Also of note is that many (if not most) translators are freelance or independent. Again, additional information can be found in this article.

Are any of these categories free from the perils of literal translation? Sadly, no. While getting the services of certified, specialized professionals is preferred and will save you hassle, no one’s perfect. A certified pro will, though, be aware of these issues to a far greater degree than a non-pro.

But before we get ahead of ourselves…

Literal Translation One Person Translating Literally Word by Word

Literal translation: getting it straight

If translation is about conveying the meaning behind words, a literal translation is just about the words themselves. That means that key concepts like specialty, localization, context, nuance, etc. get thrown right out the window. Does this give us an excuse to use the word “defenestration” and this sweet montage? Yes. Yes, it does.

Word-for-word or literal translation is devoid of shades of meaning. It does not convey the greater intent behind a text, which a translator has to have a firm grasp on. It is just an attempt to find word analogs between two languages. A sort of textual “pin the tail on the donkey” game.

Language is a multifaceted, sometimes arbitrary game. Let’s take a common example that works across three languages to illustrate this.

We all know what kindergarten is. It’s a word that refers to such a common thing that we rarely think about its origins. It turns out that it etymologically comes from 19th century German. That’s why it’s a 1/1 transfer of its German counterpart kindergarten. The word itself comes is probably a sort of portmanteau of kinder und — sorry, and — garten.  It means “children’s garden”, or “garden of children”. Quite evocative, huh?

So, say you’re a German to English translator and come up on kindergarten. You’d say that common sense would guide you through unscathed and you’d translate kindergarten as is, right? Well, we’re willing to let that slide because it’s you, but in our experience, it’s not so simple. If we had a penny for every time we’ve seen an egregious mistake like “children’s garden”, this’d be us.

It gets more complex in Spanish, where kindergarten translates as jardín de infantes, which is the literal meaning of kindergarten. See how it all gets complex quickly?

Literal translation and its effects on the world

It’s not all bad, though. Not everything requires such a strict level of control and oversight. Literal translation has also had positive effects on the world at large.

Take, for example, the life and tribulations of immigrants. Tasked with understanding a new language and culture, first-generation immigrants have to decode a complex set of symbols in order to integrate. It’s, then, no wonder that they sometimes end up bunching together in order to prop each other up.

The results as they take their first forays into their adoptive culture is a synthesis of old and new. The first attempts at communication may be a sort of literalized, simplified language. This is called a pidgin tongue, or patois. This new attempt at integrating into the new language may contain many literal translation examples from the old. Ever heard of Spanglish? You should, as there are roughly 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US alone!

This brings us to our other consideration for this article. Perhaps where literal translation can be found most alive and well is in the area of machine translation.

Machine literal translation

You’ve heard the hype by now. We’re close to living in a post-scarcity society, every need is going to be catered to; automation is taking everyone’s jobs, blue-collar and white-collar, we’re all bound for the unemployment line; Terminator 2 was actually a documentary, etc., etc.

You probably already take these proclamations with a grain of salt. It’s not the first time ardent futurists have been a little overzealous when making predictions. One of the areas where the hype has hit hardest has been in the area of machine, or AI translation.

Since their inception in 1962 machine translations have relied mostly on a database system. That means that they worked on a very simple input/output system. Word A in English means word A2 in Spanish, for example. This completely negates context, changing norms, common use and other complexities of language.

Literal Translation One Text Being Translated Literally to the Next

But wait, haven’t things changed?

You bet they have! More powerful, cloud-based machine learning systems are now available. They’re also accessible to the masses, which means that we have access to translation software that’s close to the state-of-the-art. Google Translate gets better and better every day. Other companies have analogs that are perfectly workable for day-to-day stuff like emails. Unfortunately, these still mostly fall under the realm of literal translation. A lot has been done for these systems to “recognize” context. They still end up being high-level calculators, in the end.

Higher-level AI-assisted systems are also available. Pay-by-the-minute/second systems can be leveraged for mass translation and are at the beck and call of companies with enough funding. These systems use supercomputers and neural analogs to go beyond the merely literal. The process is no longer so linear; engineers are trying to figure out the roundabout ways in which humans think and conceptualize.

Still, even the most ardent proponent of AI technologies recognizes how far away from a human these technologies truly are. While Google Translate can be a decent facsimile when seen from a distance, it’s far away from reaching the level of even a mediocre human.

So, it appears translating engines and “deep” neural networks are still lacking; it turns out they get the “deep” from their amount of layers, not from any other depth. They are valuable tools, but without actual understanding (which would be revolutionary), they still do a form of literal translation.

What are my options, then?

Always go for proven professionals. Mind you, it’s not enough to go with people who are bilingual. They need to have a proven track record with translation. That means understanding nuance, idioms, colloquialisms, subtleties, and being actual wordsmiths. Knowing two languages does not guarantee avoided literal translation in the slightest. It’s a very common misconception to have, so be careful!

It’s not always necessary to go with certified translators, of course, unless the particular category necessitates it. Legal and medical translations may require some authorized certification.

If not, any professional translator worth their salt will do their best to avoid a literal translation. Even better, if they’re backed by a solid QA team, the chance of falling into that trap is almost 0%.

In conclusion

Literal translation is everywhere because bad translators are everywhere. Not only those who abuse machine translation systems and pass those translations as their own; it’s because most people doing translation online don’t have a deep enough knowledge of language. That means that they may not even understand that they’re mistranslating or being too literal. Proper localization — an essential feature of translation — requires up-to-date knowledge of the target culture. Without that, translation remains at the “children’s garden” level.

Moreover, a literal translation just makes your project look bad, and by extension, your brand. Always ensure that you’re hiring the services of bilingual, experience and updated translators. Otherwise, you’re putting your whole message at risk!

Aren’t you glad that you stopped by this article first, then? Don’t thank us, just avoid the perils of literal translation!