Literal translation

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Literal translation, direct translation or word-for-word translation, is a translation of a text done by translating each word separately, without looking at how the words are used together in a phrase or sentence. [1]


In translation theory, another term for "literal translation" is "metaphrase" and for phrasal ("sense") translation — "paraphrase."

Literal translation leads to mistranslating of idioms, which is a serious problem for machine translation. [2]

The term as used in translation studies


The term "literal translation" often appeared in the titles of 19th-century English translations of classical, Bible and other texts.


Word-for-word translations ("cribs," "ponies" or "trots") are sometimes prepared for a writer who is translating a work written in a language he does not know. For example, Robert Pinsky is reported to have used a literal translation in preparing his translation of Dante's Inferno (1994), as he does not know Italian.[ citation needed ] Similarly, Richard Pevear worked from literal translations provided by his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, in their translations of several Russian novels.[ citation needed ]

Poetry to prose

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.

As bad practice

"Literal" translation implies that it is probably full of errors, since the translator has made no effort to convey, for example, correct idioms or shades of meaning, but it might be also useful in seeing how words are used to convey meaning in the source language.


A literal English translation of the German word "Kindergarten" would be "children's garden," but in English, the expression refers to the school year between pre-school and first grade. Literal translations in which individual components within words or compounds are translated to create new lexical items in the target language (a process also known as “loan translation”) are called calques, e.g., “beer garden” from German “Biergarten.”

The literal translation of the Italian sentence, "So che questo non va bene" ("I know that this is not good"), produces "Know(I) that this not goes(it) well," which has English words and Italian grammar.

Machine translation

Early machine translations (as of 1962 [2] at least) were notorious for this type of translation as they simply employed 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. For translating synthetic languages, a morphosyntactic analyzer and synthesizer is required.

The best systems today use a combination of the above technologies and apply algorithms to correct the "natural" sound of the translation. In the end though, professional translation firms that employ machine translation use it as a tool to create a rough translation that is then tweaked by a human, professional translator.


Often, first-generation immigrants create something of a literal translation in how they speak their parents' native language. This results in a mix of the two languages in something of a pidgin. Many such mixes have specific names, e.g. Spanglish or Germish. For example, American children of German immigrants are heard using "rockingstool" from the German word "Schaukelstuhl" instead of "rocking chair".

Translator's humor

Literal translation of idioms is a source of numerous translators' jokes and apocrypha. The following joke 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" (дух бодр, плоть же немощна, an allusion to Mark 14:38) was translated into Russian and then back to English, the result was "The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten" (водка хорошая, но мясо протухло). This is generally believed to be simply an amusing story, and not a factual reference to an actual machine translation error. [2]

See also

Related Research Articles

Machine translation, sometimes referred to by the abbreviation MT, is a sub-field of computational linguistics that investigates the use of software to translate text or speech from one language to another.

Idiom Combination of words that has a figurative meaning

An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase; but some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms occur frequently in all languages; in English alone there are an estimated twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions.

In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal word-for-word or root-for-root translation. When used as a verb, "to calque" means to borrow a word or phrase from another language while translating its components, so as to create a new lexeme in the target language.

Pleonasm is the use of more words or parts of words than are necessary or sufficient for clear expression. Such redundancy is a manifestation of tautology by traditional rhetorical criteria, and might be considered a fault of style. Pleonasm may also be used for emphasis, or because the phrase has become established in a certain form. Tautology and pleonasm are not consistently differentiated in literature.

Holman Christian Standard Bible

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a modern English Bible translation from Holman Bible Publishers. The New Testament was published in 1999, followed by the full Bible in March 2004.


A paraphrase is a restatement of the meaning of a text or passage using other words. The term itself is derived via Latin paraphrasis from Greek παράφρασις, meaning "additional manner of expression". The act of paraphrasing is also called "paraphrasis".

Untranslatability is the property of text or speech for which no equivalent can be found when translated into another language. A text that is considered to be untranslatable is considered a lacuna, or lexical gap. The term arises when describing the difficulty of achieving the so-called perfect translation. It is based on the notion that there are certain concepts and words that are so interrelated that an accurate translation becomes an impossible task. Some writers have suggested that language carries sacred notions or is intrinsic to national identity. Brian James Baer posits that untranslatability is sometimes seen by nations as proof of the national genius. He quotes Alexandra Jaffe: "When translators talk about untranslatable, they often reinforce the notion that each language has its own 'genius', an 'essence' that naturally sets it apart from all other languages and reflects something of the 'soul' of its culture or people".

Youngs Literal Translation Translation of the Bible into English, published in 1862

Young's Literal Translation (YLT) is a translation of the Bible into English, published in 1862. The translation was made by Robert Young, compiler of Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible and Concise Critical Comments on the New Testament. Young used the Textus Receptus (TR) and the Masoretic Text (MT) as the basis for his translation. He wrote in the preface to the first edition, "It has been no part of the Translator's plan to attempt to form a New Hebrew or Greek Text—he has therefore somewhat rigidly adhered to the received ones." Young produced a "Revised Version" of his translation in 1887, but he stuck with the Received Text. He wrote in the preface to the Revised Edition, "The Greek Text followed is that generally recognized as the 'Received Text,' not because it is thought perfect, but because the department of Translation is quite distinct from that of textual criticism, and few are qualified for both. If the original text be altered by a translator, the reader is left in uncertainty whether the translation given is to be considered as that of the old or of the new reading." A new Revised Edition was released ten years after Robert Young's death on October 14, 1888. The 1898 version was based on the TR, easily confirmed by the word "bathe" in Revelation 1:5 and the word "again" in Revelation 20:5. The "Publishers' Note to the Third Edition" explains, "The work has been subjected to a fresh revision, making no alteration on the principles on which the Translation proceeds, but endeavouring to make it as nearly perfect in point of accuracy on its present lines as possible."

Green's Literal Translation, is a translation of the Bible by Jay P. Green, Sr., first published in 1985. The LITV takes a literal, formal equivalence approach to translation. The Masoretic Text is used as the Hebrew basis for the Old Testament, and the Textus Receptus is used as the Greek basis for the New Testament. This translation is available in book form and is freely available online for use with the e-Sword software program. Some also refer to it as the "KJ3" or "KJV3".

There have been various debates concerning the proper family of biblical manuscripts and translation techniques that should be used to translate the Bible into other languages. Biblical translation has been employed since the first translations were made from the Hebrew Bible into Greek and Aramaic. Until the late Middle Ages, the Western Church used the Latin Vulgate almost entirely while the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople, mostly used the Greek Byzantine text. Beginning with the 14th century, there have been increasing numbers of vernacular translations into various languages. With the development of modern printing techniques, these increased enormously. The English King James Version or "Authorized Version", published in 1611, has been one of the most debated English versions. Many supporters of the King James Version are disappointed with the departure from this translation to newer translations that use the Critical Text instead of the Byzantine text as the base text. There have also been debates regarding the benefits of formal translations over dynamic equivalence translations. Supporters of formal translation such as the King James Version criticize translations that use dynamic equivalence because the accuracy is compromised because this technique tends to reword the meaning of the text instead of translating it accurately in a word for word fashion. Additionally, these supporters are critical of translations using the critical text because they believe that biblical text has been deliberately deleted from the original autographs. Debates of this type involve theological concepts as well as translation techniques which are outlined in the process of textual criticism.

On Translating <i>Beowulf</i> Essay on Old English poetry and metre by J. R. R. Tolkien

"On Translating Beowulf" is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien which discusses the difficulties faced by anyone attempting to translate the Old English heroic-elegiac poem Beowulf into modern English. It was first published in 1940 as a preface contributed by Tolkien to a translation of Old English poetry; it was first published as an essay under its current name in the 1983 collection The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays.

Poglish, Polglish, or Ponglish – a blend of two words, or portmanteau word, in Polish and English – denotes the product of macaronically mixing Polish- and English-language elements within a single speech production, or the use of "false friends" or of cognate words in senses that have diverged from those of the common etymological root. Such combining or confusion of Polish and English elements, when it occurs within a single word, term, or phrase, may, inadvertently or deliberately, produce a neologism.

Statistical machine translation (SMT) is a machine translation paradigm where translations are generated on the basis of statistical models whose parameters are derived from the analysis of bilingual text corpora. The statistical approach contrasts with the rule-based approaches to machine translation as well as with example-based machine translation.

A set phrase or fixed phrase is a phrase whose parts are fixed in a certain order, even if the phrase could be changed without harming the literal meaning. This is because a set phrase is a culturally accepted phrase. A set phrase does not necessarily have any literal meaning in and of itself. Set phrases may function as idioms or as words with a unique referent. There is no clear dividing line between a commonly used phrase and a set phrase. It is also not easy to draw a clear distinction between set phrases and compound words.

Franz Kafka bibliography Wikipedia bibliography

Franz Kafka, a German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, was trained as a lawyer and was employed by an insurance company, writing only in his spare time.

Translation Communication of the meaning of a source–language text by means of an equivalent target–language text

Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source–language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. The English language draws a terminological distinction between translating and interpreting ; under this distinction, translation can begin only after the appearance of writing within a language community.

Mother tongue mirroring is the adaptation of word-for word translation in language education. The aim is to make foreign constructions salient and transparent to learners and, in many cases, spare them the technical jargon of grammatical analysis. It differs from literal translation and interlinear text as used in the past, since it takes the progress learners have made into account and only focuses upon one specific structure at a time. As a didactic device, it can only be used to the extent that it remains intelligible to the learner, unless it is combined with a normal idiomatic translation.

Sense-for-sense translation is the oldest norm for translating. It fundamentally means translating the meaning of each whole sentence before moving on to the next, and stands in normative opposition to word-for-word translation.

Humour in translation can be caused by translation errors, because of irregularities and discrepancies between certain items that translators attempt to translate. This could be due to the ignorance of the translator, as well as the untranslatability of the text as a result of linguistic or cultural differences. In addition, translation errors can be caused by the language incompetence of the translator in the target language, resulting in unintended ambiguity in the message conveyed. Translation errors can distort the intended meaning of the author or speaker, to the point of absurdity and ludicrousness, giving a humorous and comedic effect. Translation errors can cause accidental humour, which is similar to intentional humour. Like intentional humour, accidental humour is also a combination of linguistics and culture-specific features, with humour generating devices embedded in it, and is just as competent in conveying humour.

Literal Standard Version A formal equivalence English translation of the Bible published in 2020 by Covenant Press.

The Literal Standard Version (LSV) is a Modern English translation of the protocanonical books of the Bible with a number of distinctive features. It is billed as the most literal translation of the Bible into the modern English language. The first edition was published on February 2, 2020.


  1. "LITERAL | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 2019-09-21.
  2. 1 2 3 John Hutchins, "The whisky was invisible", or Persistent myths of MT, MT News International 11 (June 1995), pp. 17-18.

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