What is the difference between literal translation and word for word translation?

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Elva Dahl eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is no difference between "literal translation" and "word -for-word translation." Both terms describe what we might call "direct translation," meaning that each word in one language is translated exactly into its counterpart in another language. This method of translation works well with languages that have similar grammatical structures. In languages with different grammatical structures or conceptual elements, word-for-word translation can lead to great confusion.

You can do a demonstration of this for yourself using Google translate. Type in any random phrase in English and then pick a non-romance language from the list of options to translate it into. When you translate the same phrase back to English, my bet is that it will now look like complete nonsense! That's because the Google translate algorithm largely translates each word individually as opposed to translating the general sense/meaning of a sentence.

Translation that does take into account different grammatical structures and conceptual elements is called "oblique translation." Rather than translating each word individually, oblique translation takes into account different organizations, grammatical structures, and conceptual elements of languages to create a translation that is more understandable to native speakers.

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Literal translation" and "word-for-word translation" are synonymous terms: they mean the same thing. These are both "direct translations." When we translate literally, we are translating one word at a time, hence, word-for-word translation.  We are not concerning ourselves with the intended meaning, the connotation, the idiomatic meaning as much as we are with the literal meaning of the words, the denotation.  A good translator does not do this because that sort of translation interferes with the reader or listener's language. 

A good translator must consider many different factors. One is word order, which differs from one language to the next.  Another is the use of idiomatic language. In English, for example, one might say it is raining cats and dogs, and that idiom is not familiar to the speaker of another language, so the translator might very well simply say it is raining hard.  Still another factor is cultural context, since the author of a text written for a "native" audience might assume an understanding on the part of the reader that will not exist for a foreign audience.  Sometimes a translator must provide that cultural context.  One of the most challenging tasks a translator faces is in the translation of poetry that rhymes.  The translator wants to preserve the author's rhyming scheme, but of course, this is nearly impossible in another language.  Translators must know a great deal more than the two languages they are working with. 

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