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

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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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