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1 sep. 2010

Primer on literal translations + 4 ways to spot them

What is a literal translation?

Literal translations, or word for word translations, are translations in which the content of a document is communicated by replacing one word with another, regardless of whether the resulting translation is accurate or reads well in the target language.

How do literal translations happen?

There are two main types of translators that can typically produce literal translations: 1) novice translators with limited experience and training in the genuine art of translating; and 2) translators of varying levels of skill and experience translating into a language that is not their first language.

For example, an English translator (whose first language is English) translating a document into French may adopt awkward syntax or non-standard idioms to keep the translation close to the structure of the original English. At first glance, you might assume that the translation was produced by a Francophone with an incomplete command of the French language; however, it can quickly become clear that the document may have been translated from English or another language by a non-native speaking translator.

But what’s the harm in a word for word translation? Are the translations of poor quality?

Many documents, when translated literally, result in mistranslations, language and grammatical errors, and calques (words improperly “borrowed” and “re-translated” from the source language). If you’ve ever used a machine or online translator to translate a website written in another language, you should have an idea of what a word for word translation looks like.

Although the perils of literal or word for word translations are well documented, many clients may not understand how important it is to hire a translator who is capable and experienced enough to translate the meaning, rather than the structure and words, of the original document.

But I don’t speak the target language. How can I tell if the translator I hired has produced a word for word translation?

There are a couple ways to spot—and stop—a word for word translation in its tracks. Since my main languages are French and English, I will focus my comments on those.

One way to spot a literal translation is by looking for words that seem out of context. A translator substituting each word for an equivalent in the target language may translate the same word every time regardless of its context.

For example, the translator sees the word “caisse” and translates it as till every time. However, caisse in French has many meanings, including credit union, case, crate or even checkout. The English word till can mean a drawer in a cash register where money is stored or to farm/cultivate land for planting. A yard can be a backyard, a front yard, or a unit of measurement. Homonyms can occasionally challenge even native speakers, so these are especially important to watch out for in word for word translations.

Another way to spot a word for word translation is through false cognates, false friends or faux amis. These are words that may look and even sound similar in both English and French but that may have completely different meanings.

A few examples: The word chagrin in French can mean sorrow or grief, while chagrin in English usually refers to embarrassment or annoyance. Actuellement in French does not mean “actually” in English but instead currently. A tissu in French is not “tissue” in English but instead a piece of fabric. If words seem like they are out of context, the translation may not have been done by an experienced or professional translator.

A third way to spot a word for word translation is to look at where the adjectives are placed in a sentence. In English, adjectives always come before the noun. In French, they usually come after the noun. So if you are reading a document that’s been translated from French to English, and your sentence says something like: The scenery beautiful took my breath away. You’ll know that it might have been translated word for word by an inexperienced translator or one without a strong command of the target language.

And a good general rule of thumb is that if it sounds awkward when you read parts of it aloud, it probably reads awkwardly too!

Source: Plush Text Communications, the Blog.

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