Language learning

When you should translate literally

On Saturday we spoke about how translating literally makes things harder when learning a new language. Today I wanted to share one time when I think literal translations can actually be helpful to a language learner. This is mainly useful in the very early stages of a new language, and should only be used when needed.

Hyperliteral translation

A hyperliteral translation is when you translate the words but keep the word order and grammar of the first language.

Obviously, the majority of the time what results is a mash-up of the two languages and doesn’t make complete sense. But hold on, this works.

When you’re first learning a new language it can be difficult to get your head around the differences in word order and sentence structure. At least, it can be for me. In the beginning it’s hard to remember things like where the adjective goes in relation to the noun and other things like that.

Say you keep wanting to say ‘amarilla camisa’ because that is how we’d say it in English. You say it every time and you’re having trouble wrapping your head around it. Hopefully this idea will help you.

When you’re first learning a language, everything is spelt out for you. X in language 1 means Y in language 2. Everything has an equivalent. That’s not how it works in language – yet whenever you want to say something you think of your native language first.

You need to get out of that habit. You need to learn how to think in your target language. And it is difficult, I get it. I like to use these hyperliteral translations to get used to it. Here’s how you do it:

  1. First, when you have a a sentence in the target language, write it down.

    Tengo una camisa amarilla y me lo puse ayer

  2. Next, translate it word for word.

    Tengo una camisa amarilla y me lo puse ayer

    I have a shirt yellow and I it wore yesterday

  3. If you need to (this example didn’t), write a third line to clarify – if the translation is so weird you can’t make out the meaning. Only do this if the translation could mean something other than intended if you don’t clarify.

Now you have the only English translation you should use. It’s not technically correct, but the meaning is conveyed. From this, you can see the English equivalent of exactly what you need to say. If you do it for a number of different sentences you can easily make connections and see exactly how the language works – enough for a beginner to start making proper sentences, at least.

The kicker is when you’re using/studying/doing anything with your target language, you should be doing it in the language. Not reading it in the language, understanding it in English, thinking of the answer in English, and then finding how to say it in the target language.

But, sometimes we can’t help it, and I understand that. This is where hyperliteral translations come in. It helps me to stop having to wonder ‘how would I put ________ together in the language?’.

The best part about using this technique is it takes away all the guesswork. You don’t have to wonder what the purpose of ‘lo’ is, because you can see it. You’re not adjusting things into English standards, but learning how the language works all by itself. Which is one of the most important things to get your head around.

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4 thoughts on “When you should translate literally

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