Language learning

The trouble with translating literally

Everyone has seen Google’s sometimes hilariously literal translations…

When I asked a week or so ago on Facebook for everyone’s struggles with learning languages, Chirag mentioned he had trouble when trying to translate between his native language and his target language. I wanted to talk a little bit about that today.

Often when translating from one language to another, the impulse is to keep the translation as literal as possible.

Literal translations are those with a word for word translation, as opposed to those with a more colloquial translation of the idea conveyed.

In my opinion, one of the worst things you can do when learning  new language is translate literally. It causes so many problems when you try to speak or write something –

Problems with translating literally

  • Slows you down as you think first in your L1 and then try to find the word in the L2.
  • Can lead to not using the best or most appropriate word but the one that is most similar to the L1 word.
  • Can lead to embarrassing moments when you think you’ve found a cognate that turns out to be a false friend.
  • Usually leads to incorrect grammar due to differences in word order.

Ways to avoid literal translations

So how can we get around this? There are a few things you can do to make speaking in your target language more natural.

  • Don’t think of the L1 equivalent first. If you’re writing, don’t write a draft in your L1. Try to think in the language you want to produce.
  • Accept that you will come across more child-like than you would like. Your speech and writing will be much simpler to begin with. This does not have to be a bad thing, though – you will be getting used to using your target language as it is used by natives. That is, without translating into it.
  • Know ways of getting around words you don’t know. By this I mean knowing how to say things like ‘stuff’ or ‘thing’ or other words like that which will allow you to circumvent other words you don’t know. For example, don’t know the word for grass? If you can say ‘the green stuff on the ground outside’, you don’t even need the word ‘grass’.
  • Accept that what may sound clumsy or stilted to your English brain can sound perfectly natural in your target language.
  • Turn off your English brain. It might help to listen to something in the L2 before you go out to speak it. Find what works for you to get in the zone.
  • I feel like I say this as an answer for everything, but if you read a lot you will become more and more familiar with the way the L2 is put together. You’ll learn more about what works and what doesn’t – which you can then go and put into practice.

Can you think of any other benefits to not translating literally? Or any other tricks for avoiding it? Let us know in the comments if you do!

P.S: Next week I’ll be sharing the one time I think it’s acceptable (beneficial, even) to translate literally, so be sure to check back for that.


3 thoughts on “The trouble with translating literally

  1. This was an awesome post! Thank you so much for some new ideas on how to express myself inSpanish! The panache and passion that I can convey in English, is always lost when I translate, but one day I will have the same flair in Spanish!

  2. Pingback: When you should translate literally |

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