Literal Translation: A Challenge for Translation Novices

Literal Translation: A Challenge for Translation Novices

What is Literal Translation?

Some individuals hold the misconception that the process of translation is straightforward and uncomplicated. They believe that anyone who possesses knowledge of a foreign language in addition to their native tongue can easily undertake translation tasks. However, this is a fallacy. In reality, many translators, especially those in the early stages of their careers, grapple with the shortcomings and rigidity apparent in the translations they produce. They find themselves perplexed by this phenomenon, even though they are fully committed to faithfully reproducing the original text. In truth, this is the root cause of the deficiencies and inflexibility often observed in translation.

Literal translation entails the transfer of words and phrases from one language to another in a “word-for-word” fashion or to the closest equivalent words in the target language. Some may refer to this as “direct translation.” The term “literal translation” initially surfaced in the 19th century within the titles of English translations of classics, the Torah, and other texts.

Examples of literal translation

Examples of literal translation include phrases like “It rains cats and dogs,” which, when translated literally, becomes “إنها تمطر قططًا وكلابًا.” However, a more professional translation would read “إنها تمطر بغزارة,” effectively conveying the intended meaning.

The disparity between literal and professional translation is substantial. Literal translation does not demand the same level of time and effort regarding review and proofreading, whereas professional translation necessitates additional time for refining the sentence and its style, followed by a comprehensive review of the translation.

In numerous instances, literal translation does not require a native language translator. Anyone armed with a language dictionary or even reliant on machine translation tools like Google Translate can execute literal translation. For instance, Robert Pinsky employed literal translation when he translated Dante’s “Inferno” in 1994, as he did not possess knowledge of Italian. Richard Pevear also made use of literal translations provided by his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, in their translations of several Russian novels.

Conversely, professional translation calls for a translator who is proficient not only in both the source and target languages but is also well-educated, well-read, and endowed with linguistic expertise. Additionally, they should possess a repertoire of supplementary skills.

Can Literal Translation Be Trusted?

Certainly, yes. Literal translation is not invariably an ill-advised choice. It can prove beneficial in specific situations where the objective is not to comprehend the text but rather to recognize its constituent components. This is particularly advantageous in the early stages of learning a foreign language. Furthermore, literal translation can be deemed “more precise” when translating particular phrases, sentences, or terminology, such as technical or medical translation. However, the suitability of literal translation hinges on the nature of the text to be translated.

Of course, a seasoned professional translator must possess the requisite experience to discern when to employ literal translation for certain texts and when to evade the pitfall of literal translation while conveying the meanings of texts.


In conclusion, while literal translation undoubtedly has its merits, particularly in specific scenarios, it is imperative to recognize that professional translation extends beyond the confines of a mere word-for-word approach. Instead, it aspires to delve deep into the heart of the original text, capturing its essence, preserving its style, and conveying its subtleties. Thus, novice translators must remain acutely aware of the inherent constraints of literal translation and ardently strive to nurture their skills, thereby honing their capacity to furnish translations that are not only precise but also intricately attuned to the contextual nuances of the source material.

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