Word for Word Translation

By Chiara Grassilli
In Translation
Feb 29th, 2016

Advantages and disadvantages of Word for Word Translation

Word for word translation or literal translation is the rendering of text from one language to another one word at a time with or without conveying the sense of the original text. In translation studies, literal translation is often associated with scientific, technical, technological or legal texts.


A bad practice

It is often considered a bad practice of conveying word by word translation in non-technical texts. This usually refers to the mistranslation of idioms that affects the meaning of the text, making it unintelligible. The concept of literal translation may be viewed as an oxymoron (contradiction in terms), given that literal denotes something existing without interpretation, whereas a translation, by its very nature, is an interpretation (an interpretation of the meaning of words from one language into another).



A word for word translation can be used in some languages and not others dependent on the sentence structure: El equipo está trabajando para terminar el informe would translate into English as The team is working to finish the report. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. For example, the Spanish sentence above could not be translated into French or German using this technique because the French and German sentence structures are completely different. And because one sentence can be translated literally across languages does not mean that all sentences can be translated literally.

Literal translation can also denote a translation that represents the precise meaning of the original text but does not attempt to convey its style, beauty, or poetry. There is, however, a great deal of difference between a literal translation of a poetic work and a prose translation. A literal translation of poetry may be in prose rather than verse, but also be error free. Charles Singleton’s translation of The Divine Comedy (1975) is regarded as a prose translation.


Machine Translation

Early machine translations were famous for this type of translation because they simply created a database of words and their translations. Later attempts utilized common phrases which resulted in better grammatical structure and capture of idioms but with many words left in the original language.

The systems that we use nowadays are based on a combination of technologies and apply algorithms to correct the “natural” sound of the translation. However, professional translation agencies that use machine translation create a rough translation first that is then tweaked by a professional translator.


Mistakes and Jokes

Literal translation of idioms results quite often in jokes and amusement among translators and not only. The following famous example has often been told both in the context of newbie translators and that of machine translation: When the sentence “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak was translated into Russian and then back to English, the result was “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten. This is generally believed to be simply an amusing story, and not a factual reference to an actual machine translation error.

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About "" Has 116 Posts

Since an early age I have been passionate about languages. I hold a Master's degree in Translation and Interpreting, and I have worked as a freelance translator for several years. I specialize in Marketing, Digital Marketing, Web and Social Media. I love blogging and I also run the blog www.italiasocialmedia.com

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