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What is a literal translation?

What does a “literal translation” mean, and why would a client specify a literal translation?Literal Translations

A literal translation is one that maintains the original content without changing the structure, form or style.

For example, let’s examine a common Spanish idiom: Te estoy tomando el pelo.

The literal English translation would be: I’m taking your hair.

This translation may have been done word-for-word, but it doesn’t actually convey the same meaning to an English-speaking audience. However, a “transcreation” translation would aim to make the original Spanish idiom understandable in English-speaking culture. Thus, the translator would instead choose the equivalent English idiom “I’m just pulling your leg.”

In most circumstances, a professional translator would recommend to not opt for a literal translation, because the intent is to make the translation not only well-written but also culturally relevant and looking as it had been originally written in the target language.

Nonetheless, there are a few cases where a literal translation may be needed. Recently, I had a client that needed us to provide a literal translation of a document, as their entire court case may have relied on the translation. The translator therefore had to include every grammatical and punctuation error, in order to preserve the integrity of the document.

Literal translations could therefore be used for legal documents, in order to avoid any contention that the translation purposefully left out any important information. If you are a translation services account manager, you should check with your client about how they need the translation of special materials to be done. In most cases, a literal translation should be avoided and could reflect poorly on the quality of the translation, especially when the client is marketing towards a specific audience. However, keep in mind that some clients may have different requirements for their translation, which you as a vendor should try to gauge once initiating the sale process.

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