Avoiding literal translation /

What is literal translation?

“Literal translation” is a term used to describe a word-for-word translation that sticks too close to the source text. It is a translation that sounds unnatural in the target language, is usually hard to read and does not convey the meaning of the original text.

Knowing how to avoid literal translations will help boost the overall quality of your translation, ensuring the message conveyed by the original text is communicated to the audience in the target language.

  • In this guide, we’ll teach you how to spot literal translation and how to avoid it, creating a more natural, easy-to-read translation.

Why avoid literal translation

When customers receive their translation, they use only the translated text. The #1 reason that customers reject a translation is because it sounds awkward, unnatural or “stiff” in the target language. All of these are telltale signs of literal translation.

Remember that, in most cases, the audience reading your translation will be monolingual in the target language. Unlike the translator, they will not be looking at the source to help them understand the meaning of the translated text.

Literal translations are not only hard to read, but also hard to understand. A translation that sticks too close to the source loses the intended message of the original text.


Here are two examples of texts translated literally into English. The highlighted parts are literal translations, showing both sentence structure that follows the source exactly, and separate terms translated literally. You don’t need to know the source language to understand these examples. Read just the two target texts. How do they sound? What is the intended meaning?

Example 1:

Debido al producto que es muy buena calidad, muy buenos nutrientes que tenían para nosotros,
entonces mi familia siempre nos acostumbró a consumir esos productos.

Due to the product being of outstanding quality, very good nutrients that it has for us,
so my family got used to always consuming those products.

Example 2:

Jolies boucles d’oreille à clip anciennes de Chanel avec perles fantaisies.

Pretty ancient clip earrings from Chanel with fantasy pearls.

Literal translations have the following characteristics:

  • Technically correct
  • Readability
  • Original meaning

Following the source structure and terminology too closely leads to a text that does not convey the meaning of the source. Learning how to avoid these is an important step in polishing your translation skills.

Follow these steps for a natural translation

Avoiding literal translation will help your text sound natural in the target language. The ability to provide a natural translation is the sign of a skilled translator. Making these steps a part of your regular translation workflow will ensure an easy-to-read, natural translation:

Step 1: Make sure your punctuation and sentence structure does not copy the source 1-to-1.

Step 2: Read the translation aloud to yourself.

Step 3: Take your eyes away from the screen for a few minutes. Come back and read only the target to check for how natural it sounds.

But shouldn't a translation follow the source?

Now read the natural translations of the previous examples and see what has changed. What is the difference between these translations and the ones shown previously?

Example 1:

My family has always been used to drinking these products, due to their high quality
and the very wholesome nutrients they contain.

Example 2:

Pretty antique Chanel clip-on earrings with imitation pearls.

Accurate and natural translations have the following characteristics:

  • Readability
  • Original meaning
  • Sounds natural
  • Not word-for-word

Like with all good things, balance is important. A translation must be two things:

  1. An accurate representation of the original text
  2. A natural and grammatically correct text in the target language

Being accurate in a translation means accurately conveying the message of the source, not the order of the written words or sentences. The target text must read as if it was written in the target language, so feel free to move sentences around and change word order to achieve a natural flow.

Wrap up

Main takeaways

1. Literal translation
Is a translation that follows the source text too closely.

2. How to avoid
Proofread just the target text before submission.

3. Accuracy and flow
A translation should be accurate and flow naturally in the target. Always aim to re-order sentences and don’t stick to the word order of the original.