What is a literal translation? What is a free translation?
Thread poster: Phil Hand

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:19
Chinese to English
Sep 5, 2015

Wendy's post a couple of days ago (http://www.proz.com/forum/proofreading_editing_reviewing/290840-proofreading_a_very_liberal_translation_advice_needed.html) got me thinking about this issue again. It's come up a few times in conversations with clients, and I often think that we have difficulties because we have different ideas about what literal and free translations are.

(I should mention that often I think clients don't use the words in a meaningful way at all. Often it's simply that the client doesn't like the translation, and wants to say it in a way that saves face for everyone. So they say, "We think your translation is too free, and we'd like something more literal." Or, you can reverse the words 'free' and 'literal' in that sentence, and it will make no difference to the meaning at all. Because in these cases, it's not really about literalness/freeness, and you just have to talk it out until you find out what it is that the client wants.)

Anyway, I thought I'd open a post to try to find out if my ideas match up with my colleagues'!

I think for me, a literal translation is: one which attempts to keep as much of the grammatical/structural/discourse form of the source text as possible at the same time as conveying all of the meaning.
A free translation is: one which aims to convey all of the meaning, but is not constrained by the form of the original at all.

A couple of examples from my own experience:

In Chinese dialogue, the word "said" is used almost exclusively. It is sometimes modified to convey the tone.
...," he said, laughing.
...," she said angrily.

In English, I sometimes choose to translate it as above - and I regard that as literal translation. Sometimes, though, I use some of the other speech verbs that we have available in English. I regard this as a more free kind of translation:
...," he laughed.
...," she snarled.


Another example is order of clauses. Sometimes the source has a series of logically-linked clauses that build up to a conclusion, but it would be clearer in English to have the conclusion first, so that the reader knows what this section is about.
Source: Exports are up, construction is growing, the economy is booming. (Chinese often omits linking words between clauses)

Literal version: Exports are up and construction is growing, so the economy is booming.
Free version: The economy is booming: exports are up and construction is growing.


So that's how I think about free and literal translation styles. I regard them as two valid approaches, and I switch between them as needed. But I'd very much like to hear what other translators think.

Do you regard yourself as a literal translator or a free translator?
Do you think one is better than the other? Why?
Do you choose more literal/free approaches depending on the client? On the type of translation?
Do you think the way I've defined these words is right? Or do you mean something quite different by 'literal' and 'free'?


 

Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 17:19
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
My situation Sep 5, 2015

Phil Hand wrote:

I think for me, a literal translation is: one which attempts to keep as much of the grammatical/structural/discourse form of the source text as possible at the same time as conveying all of the meaning.
A free translation is: one which aims to convey all of the meaning, but is not constrained by the form of the original at all.



Do you regard yourself as a literal translator or a free translator?
-Literal
Do you think one is better than the other? Why?
-Free translation is better: I can use my imagination.
Do you choose more literal/free approaches depending on the client?
-Yes e.g. for fiction writer.
On the type of translation?
-Yes e.g. literal translation for technical texts.
Do you think the way I've defined these words is right?
-Yes
Or do you mean something quite different by 'literal' and 'free'?
-I remind of machine translation. Is it a type of literal translation?

Soonthon L.icon_biggrin.gif


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:19
Member (2008)
Italian to English
It depends Sep 5, 2015

It depends on how idiomatic and stylistically creative the source text is, which may be full of allusions or associations; it may also be ironic, satirical, sarcastic, etc.

Obviously in such cases, the translation has to be "free" without, however, adding anything to the meaning or taking anything away. It has to stylistically reproduce the meaning and intent of the original, but completely faithfully.

I regularly translate "breezy" consumer magazine articles written by name journalists, who write in a particular style they've spent years perfecting. My job is to convert all of that into the target language: not only the meaning, but the spirit.

On the other hand if the text is technical or strictly written in language that requires lucidity and comprehensibility, it would be wrong for the translator to "use their imagination". In such cases they should be rigorously true to the source text and resist all temptation to make their own intepretations or add nuances, adjectives, etc that are not in the original.

It's always quite clear which of these two approaches would be correct.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 12:19
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Phil Sep 5, 2015

Phil Hand wrote:
I think for me, a literal translation is: one which attempts to keep as much of the grammatical/structural/discourse form of the source text as possible at the same time as conveying all of the meaning.
A free translation is: one which aims to convey all of the meaning, but is not constrained by the form of the original at all.


That is a good attempt at a definition. Before I read your definition, my thinking was this:

A literal translation is one that attempts to transfer only or largely the most obvious meaning, and specifically at the word or phrase level (in other words, translate each phrase or chunk of words as if the chunk is a free-standing text, obviously keeping in mind correct grammar for sentences). A free translation, on the other hand, tries to evaluate the potential meaning (or intention) of those words and phrases in the light of surrounding phrases and sentences.

Another way to explain it might be that a "literal" translation is one in which the source text (as a written text) is regarded as authoritative, as opposed to non-literal translation in which the *meaning* or intention of the source text is considered the thing to retain.

However, theory aside, your examples from Chinese prompted me to think about this issue specifically in terms of my own source and target languages (English and Afrikaans).

In my target language, a literal translation can be said to be one in which the translator assumed that most words, word chunks and phrases in English have an ideal or "best" one-to-one equivalent in Afrikaans, and in which the translator assumed that the source text author's choice of words is ideal (i.e. the words in the source text most accurately convey the meaning intended by the source text author), and that the target text should therefore use the usual translations of those words. Amazingly, if done right and not taken to extremes, this approach can actually result in good-looking translations (i.e. target text readers will be impressed by the text, even if they don't fully understand it but don't realise that they don't).

Take the sentence "Please review the whole document before signing your name", for example. In this case, "review" simply means "read" or "read carefully". However, in a bilingual dictionary of my language pair, the dictionary entry for "review" will not contain the word that means simply "read". A literal translation of that sentence will translate "review" with a word that means "review", not "read".

Or take the sentence "Please contact us for further information". Firstly, a literal translation in my target language will likely contain a word that means "please". The translator sees the word "please" in the source text, and he knows what "please" is in Afrikaans, and so he includes it to the target text. It is not relevant to him that "please" in Afrikaans is used mainly for pleading, and not so much for inviting. In this sentence, "please" actually means "feel free to do so" and not "we beg of you to do this", but the literal translator believes that it is more important to include a word for "please" because omitting it would be judged by his peers as having not translating everything. Secondly, "further information" here is simply a verbose way of saying "information" (or possibly: more information). The dictionary will, however, contain a translation of "further" (in the figurative sense, obviously), and the literal translator will likely use such a word in his translation.

I realise that this is not quite what is meant by "free" and "literal" internationally.

Do you regard yourself as a literal translator or a free translator?


Free. I believe that the translation should follow the source text's intended meaning closely, specifically taking into account the purpose of the text, and I do not regard the source text (or its author) as infallible. I generally don't care if target text readers become aware of the fact that they're reading a translation, as long as they understand it instantly. However, this may simply be due to the types of text that I usually translate.


 

Lancashireman  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:19
German to English
Clients who think they know the target language Sep 6, 2015

A literal translation is one that will convince a client who overestimates his/her ability to evaluate the result that you have been faithful to the original (plus). It may, however, be excruciating to read (minus).

A free translation flows naturally so that the target readership could even think that the text was written in their language in the first place (plus). It may, however, cause the aforementioned client to suspect that his/her prose has been mangled and ideas misrepresented because of incompetence on your part (minus).


 

jyuan_us  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:19
Member (2005)
English to Chinese
+ ...
i think either way the original information would be distorted Sep 6, 2015

and the correct approach lies somewhere in between.

 

MurielG
France
Local time: 12:19
English to French
neither free or literal Sep 6, 2015

I agree with Jyuan. I'm neither a literal or free translator, because neither of these approaches would really be satisfying. However, it's true that I tend to translate more literally when working on a technical translation. But when translating a work of fiction, you have to be careful: the structure may be me of paramount importance because in literature you use the form in order to convey a particular meaning. So you can betray the text by being too "free".
On the other hand, a technical translation that is too literal may result in a heavy going text that is difficult to read and to understand...
So, I think that if you define "free" and "literal" this way, picking between those two would be as irrelevant as favouring target or source language (very shortly: between conveying the feeling of estrangement given by the source language or totally adapting the text to the understanding and cultural environment of the target language).
Anyway, thanks for this interesting posticon_smile.gif


 

Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 11:19
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Literal vs free translation Sep 6, 2015

As others have said, it depends mainly on the type of text to be translated. I have been translating full-time for over 30 years and some jobs are “freer” than others: one has to apply a quite different approach when translating a medical handbook than a marketing brochure. The only clear cases of literal translation I can remember having done were sworn translations. I was a sworn translator authorized by the Belgian Courts for 15 years and as a sworn translator you must always produce a literal translation of the original document which means, no amendments, e.g. correcting spelling mistakes, can be made.

 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:19
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks Sep 6, 2015

Interesting comments, all.

A couple of you have commented that literal translations are often bad, source-dominated translations. I guess that's true, but I really want to get away from the idea that one is better than the other. As I said above, I see them as two equally useful strategies.

Muriel and Teresa both gave good examples of where literal translation might be better: literature where you are trying to reproduce the form, and legal, where literalness is required for the courts.

Technical translations, on the other hand, strike me as a place in which you can be free. In a technical document, the form doesn't matter. So if the target language demands a different form, you can put it in a different form - just so long as you get the technical content right.

(In practice, you often don't have to be 'free' in technical documents because they are highly standardised; but I still think that you can be.)


 


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