Why a Good Translation Isn’t Necessarily a Literal One

Marketing, Technical, Translation Services

Depending on the type of text you need to have translated, there are several different ways to go about it.

A text can be translated directly, word for word, or the translator can take creative liberties with the text.

If you’re unfamiliar with the process of translation, it may seem like a literal translation would be the most appropriate method, but this is often not the case.

Certain texts, especially those more closely related to marketing, require a more creative translation approach in order to convey the same meaning.

For these types of texts, a literal translation can feel clunky or unnatural. It could even be completely incorrect.

Understanding when to expect a more literal translation from your provider, as opposed to when a more creative approach should be taken, can help you feel more confident about the translation of your company’s materials.

What is literal translation?

Literal translation, sometimes called direct translation, is the word-for-word (or sentence-by-sentence) translation of a text from one language to another.

This is a straightforward translation that may or may not convey the sense of the original text, as it leaves little room for the translation team to take creative liberties.

While the word order or sentence structure may change to make it read naturally in the target language, the actual content of the text itself does not inherently change.

When a direct, literal translation makes the most sense

A more literal translation is typically used for more technical texts that rarely contain word choices and phrases like idioms, slang, or other similar plays on words.

Linguists will translate a text in such a direct way when the exact meaning of each word and sentence is of utmost importance, as opposed to a text that is meant to evoke an emotion.

These types of texts should have no gray areas, and as such, they require a more literal translation of the source content.

This style of translation is most commonly found in medical or scientific texts, textbooks, legal paperwork, instruction manuals, and other similar technical texts.

In these cases, a more literal translation is necessary in order to relay information correctly and factually, without potentially negative consequences if a word or section is misinterpreted.

When a literal translation is not the best choice

Outside of these more technical text types, translators are more likely to take some creative liberty (provided they still remain true to the source material) in order to convey the original source text’s meaning and intentions.

Literal translation may be straightforward, but it does not necessarily account for idioms, slang, slogans, tone or other similar word plays and choices.

Choosing to translate a piece of marketing copy literally can really hinder the ability to connect with the target audience, rendering it ineffective, and a poor choice for your company’s marketing campaigns.

A direct word-for-word translation is usually poorly suited for more creative projects like these.

Other such examples include advertisements, social media posts, slogans, or essentially anything your company has written or created where the emotional response and tone of the text is just as important as the words themselves.

Just because a particular slogan or advertisement written in English goes over well in the United States, it doesn’t mean that a straightforward translation of that exact text will perform well in other languages or abroad.

The advertisement should be created with your new audience in mind, which may mean that the translation team assigned to your project will need to take certain liberties in order to achieve that result.

What is the alternative to literal translation?

When a translation team takes these creative liberties, it is often referred to as transcreation (“translation” + “creation”).

This type of creative translation takes the context of the source text into consideration, so that it is adapted specifically for the culture of the target audience and does not simply focus on the grammar and linguistic nature of the two languages.

The translation team’s goal will be to make sure the message’s original tone and intent remain the same in the target text while increasing the likelihood that it will resonate with the market it’s intended for.

In this case, it’s unlikely that the text will remain 100% true to the source material in terms of language. The idea is to use language that feels authentic for the target audience, even if it no longer matches the source text exactly.

How transcreation can benefit your global marketing strategies

Creative texts and marketing campaigns are generally created to evoke an emotional response from the consumer, usually with the end goal of driving your audience through your sales funnel and converting them to paying customers.

If a text does not feel authentic or does not make much sense in the target language, a consumer in a foreign market will be able to tell that what they’re reading is a translation, and less likely to resonate with them.

The emotional response that you get from your English-speaking market will not carry over to your foreign-language market unless the text is adapted properly.

A language team skilled at transcreation will be able to adapt the text so the desired emotional response is achieved.

This also shows your foreign-language audience that you value them, which will, in turn, make them more likely to trust and turn to your brand for current and future purchases.

Achieving this will have great benefits for your company and brand, potentially allowing you to achieve more success in your efforts to launch your products or services to a new audience, especially when paired with other strategic approaches while taking your business global.

What you should know about texts adapted via transcreation

Since linguists who adapt text via transcreation do take extra liberties with how the text is translated and adapted, you should expect that the target material will differ slightly in meaning from the original source text.

If you have people in your office who speak the language of your newly transcreated content, they may mention that some of the text is not translated directly. This does not necessarily mean that the translation is wrong.

Remember, the idea is to evoke the same response in your target audience that you have with your original audience.

To achieve this result, some text may be different to appeal to the target audience. Jokes, idioms, specific references to a society or culture itself, and slogans are all examples of things that will need to be adapted for a foreign-language audience to make sense and will therefore not be translated literally.

For example, if your original copy has the phrase “hit it out of the park” (a reference to baseball), the translation team might include a soccer-related reference instead. While baseball is considered an American pastime and this phrase works well with U.S. audiences, the same reference wouldn’t resonate with consumers in a market where baseball is not a popular sport.

In addition, visual elements like layout, images, and fonts may also be updated and localized to be more appealing to your target market.

If you have preferences about items that absolutely cannot be adapted, make sure to let your language provider know about these ahead of time. As we understand that certain elements of a text or image selection may be a critical and integral part of a company’s brand.

If you have any concerns about how something you may wish to keep the same will be received in the context of the target audience, your language provider can let you know and will help you uncover the best solution for maintaining your brand while still appealing to this new market.

Of course, if you have any concerns about the quality of the text you receive from your translation provider, let them know! Their teams are specialized and should be able to answer your questions or adjust the content if needed.

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