Literal translation is a translation technique that is strictly necessary for some sectors. Although it may appear simple at first glance, there are a few pitfalls you should avoid. Here’s how to produce the perfect literal translation and when it might be better to adopt a free translation approach instead.

literal translation

What do we mean by “literal translation”?

A “literal” (or “to the letter”) translation is a translation technique that seeks to produce a translation that is as close to the original text as possible.

There is little or no room for interpretation by translators using this technique. Every aspect of the source text must be replicated to keep the meaning, tone of voice, and communicative purpose of the original content the same.

How to create a literal translation

When applying this approach, translators pick from several dictionary terms and opt for the one that is most appropriate to the context at hand.

In fact, the accuracy of terminology is key to this type of translation. Ideally, translators should seek to replace every single word in the source language with a corresponding term in the target language.

Translators wanting to produce a good translation will need to use terms that are appropriate to the time period in which the text was originally written. They will also need to refer to previous texts to better understand the meaning of a term that could be open to different interpretations, producing different translations as a result.

The difference between literal and free translations

If literal translations are essentially “reconstructions” of a source text in a target language, free translation uses an entirely different approach.

The latter aims to convey the intent and nuance of a source text, in addition to its strictly literal meaning.

For this reason, free translations can become quite detached from the original text. Translators choosing this approach might opt to use equivalent expressions in their target language, even if they don’t strictly align with the source text’s literal meaning.

A typical example would be translating the English idiom, “it’s raining cats and dogs”, which is an expression used to describe heavy rain. A professional translator working from English to Italian would most likely translate the idiom as “piove a catinelle”, which literally means “it’s raining in basins”.

When to use literal and free translation approaches?

Literal translation should be used in technical and scientific fields, where it is essential to ensure that terms correspond perfectly in the original and translated versions of a text.

Professionals translating news-related texts should opt for a literal translation approach, as well as when translating official documents, such as legal texts, trade contracts, instruction manuals, and so forth.

Free translation, on the other hand, is more suited to literary and poetic contexts, where the message’s effectiveness is linked to the text’s musicality and the feelings it evokes.

Advertising and marketing translations tend to do better with a free translation approach to ensure they are as persuasive as possible, respecting the cultural references and specificities of the target language.

The translators who provide EuroTrad’s professional translation services understand these different approaches and know when it’s best to produce a literal translation. At EuroTrad, we translate all sorts of texts. All you need to do is send us your original document and we’ll get back to you with a free quote in no time at all.