Why a Literal Translation Isn’t Always Desirable

Accuracy is one of the main factors used to judge the quality of a translation service. However, some clients tend to go overboard with that – especially those without a good understanding of translation work and its intricacies.

Clients sometimes have the wrong idea about what the final result of the translation should look like, leading to change requests that ultimately lower the quality of the product and have a negative impact on the client’s own performance on the market.

You don’t need to be a translation expert to understand certain aspects of the work involved. And when you’re ordering translation services, it’s important to have realistic expectations for the final result if you don’t want to steer your project in the wrong direction.

Why a Literal Translation Isn't Always Desirable
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Language Peculiarities

Each language has its own unique features. Sometimes those translate well into other languages, sometimes not so much. Specific language pairs are often the most problematic factor on that front.

Good translation service providers need to understand the intricacies of the languages they work with. Sometimes this means changing the structure or flow of the message to fit it within the constraints of the target language more appropriately. This is always challenging, especially when working on projects intended for commercial use.

Understanding the Underlying Tone

The tone of the content is also important. Simply translating sentence by sentence as literally as possible rarely gets the same point across. Sometimes sentences have to be reordered or completely reworked to achieve the same impact in a different language.

Native readers can almost always tell when something has been translated from another language when the translation was done poorly. This can leave a lasting impression, even if subsequent content is translated more adequately. First impressions matter a lot when it comes to content of any type, making it important to work with a translation service you know you can trust to get the job done right.

Adjusting Your Content for a Specific Audience

Sometimes content needs to not only be translated, but also reworked so that it targets a different audience more effectively. A common example of that is translating casual content into something intended for marketing purposes.

This further emphasizes the importance of quality communication between the translator and the customer. A good translator will always probe as much as they can about the intended use of their work, the audience that will consume it, and other similar factors. And when you’re ordering translation services, you must be prepared to answer those questions as precisely as possible.

In some cases this transformation leads to a significant change in the underlying meaning of the message. This is not a bad outcome, as long as it’s carefully controlled by the translation provider and coordinated with the client at every step of the project. That’s why good translators will often come up with additional questions in the course of their work and adjust their approach accordingly.


Idioms are a classic example of something that gets lost in literal translation. Many idioms have their equivalents in other languages, but they pretty much never use the same words. Translating idioms literally can lead to confusion among the target audience, and may even offend people if the resulting translation has a completely new meaning.

Idioms tend to be a challenging part of translation work for many experts, but good service providers know how to work around them and integrate them into the new content in a way that makes sense. Sometimes certain phrases may have to be dropped completely because they simply don’t have an equivalent in the other language.

A Creative Angle

And in some cases, you might simply want your content to flow in another way compared to the original. Adding a creative angle usually means sacrificing some of the original meaning – or at least twisting it in different ways until the new content fits your requirements.

This work that requires even better translators than you’d normally use. It requires complete mastery of both languages in order to understand the intent behind the original message and translate it to the new language in a way that makes sense, reads well, and still doesn’t lose any important parts of its meaning.

Sometimes this also means stripping down that message to remove unnecessary bits from it. This is something that requires significant experience, ideally on the creative side. Simply knowing how to translate separate sentences is not enough. One must maintain a good overview of the general picture and put everything together in a meaningful way that doesn’t look like it was just cut and stitched.

SEO and Other Technical Issues

SEO adds another layer of challenge to translation work and is another good reason to avoid literal translation which simply takes the original message and converts it to a new language. Keywords, for example, should never be translated literally.

The translator should have a solid SEO foundation and be able to research keywords in the target language so that they can identify viable replacements that will still rank well enough. Otherwise, the translation might read well, but it won’t do the same job when it comes to ranking in search engines. And once it’s been published, it can be difficult to make adjustments without impacting the ranking of the post.

Sometimes, Literal Translation Is Practically Impossible

There are also cases where translating something literally simply makes no sense. A good translator should be familiar with those instances. They usually occur when translating between languages of completely different families which tend to flow in a different way and follow a different structure. Recognizing those cases is an important skill for any translator.

Those situations should be discussed in detail with the client before commencing on a job. Good translators must be able to work around these issues with minimal negative impact to the original content, and communicate any needed changes to the client as thoroughly as possible.


Literal translation works well sometimes, and in some cases it’s even desired – technical documentation is a common example. But in many situations, translating something literally is not a good idea and can lead to lots of problems with the content down the road. That makes it important to find a reliable translator who’s not only experienced in the specific pair of languages you’re looking to target, but also knows how to adjust their work according to creative constraints.

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