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No one is born knowing it all. This applies to everything in the world. The road to translation is the same. There will be mistakes in the beginning. So, what is the most common mistake a rookie translator would make? From my experience as an English-to-Vietnamese translator, it is “literal translation.”

Scripted by
Mai Nguyen

Literal translation and examples

Literal translation, also known as word-for-word translation, means the sentence is translated close to the only meaning known to the translator, regardless of the context or the polysemous nature of a language. A literal translation is only correct in terms of separate words. Still, when combined, it sounds rigid, even obscure in some cases. I suddenly remembered a movie segment where some characters were sitting at a banquet table. The male character stood up to raise a glass and said, “I would like to make a toast.” The subtitle now appears, “I would like to eat toasted bread.” Like many other viewers, I was confused because I couldn’t see any bread, and the subtitles didn’t match what happened next in the movie. Another time I was watching this movie, the screen was showing a crime scene, and the surrounding scene was fenced with a tape that said, “crime scene.” The subtitle says, “crime scenery.” Based on the context, we can easily understand that a “crime scene” is a location that may be associated with a committed crime. Still, the translator could not make a connection with the context and decided to give us a literal translation. To say it is a literal translation is an understatement in my book. If the above “toast” case still carries a sense of meaning without context, this “crime scenery” is just obscure.

“So, what you are trying to say is that literal equals bad?”

Despite what I said earlier, there are also cases where, from my humble point of view, a literal translation is much more appreciated. For example, in the case of README, the name of a file that contains essential instructions in which the software developers beg for some attention from the users when they install the software for the first time. Possibly for intelligibility, some translators would translate it as “instruction” or “notice.” If avoiding literal translation is their mantra, then I respect their choice. Honestly, it is still a good choice of words. However, as someone who embraces the spirit and style of the original text, literal translation will get my vote this time around. Because this file is named to grab the user’s attention, a literal translation would rightly express the command and directness, just like it is in the source text.

The examples above show that literal translation is not entirely bad, but this case is on the rarer side. At the end of the day, regardless of language, contextual consideration is the most crucial factor when you perform a translating task, not to mention the required amount of knowledge on specific subjects. Therefore, a literal translation should be avoided as much as possible unless it is your intention.

“Alright, how can I avoid literal translation then?”

First, we need to consider the context. In the example above, I mentioned the phrase, “I would like to make a toast.” Here, considering the context of raising a glass, the translator should understand that the character would like to “raise a glass to say a few words.” “To make a toast” is an expression in English, while “toast,” understood without context, also means “toasted bread.”

Another typical case is idiom translation. Like phrasal verbs, English uses a lot of idioms in their way of speaking. Imagine someone saying “Break a leg” to you! With your limited vocabulary, you will probably look at them in shock, “Why… why would you want to break my legs?” This is just a misunderstanding! This idiom originated from a theater context. At the time, the actors told each other to “break a leg” as a wish for luck before going on stage! Since then, “break a leg” has been understood as good luck! You see, that’s how important it is to know context, expressions, and idioms! The lesson learned is that in the process of translating and reviewing, if you encounter something that makes no sense or is difficult to understand, it’s high time to look up and do some research to see whether it could be an expression or a phrasal verb.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is that English does not have a hierarchical system like Vietnamese. You need to pay attention to the context and the target audience to choose the most appropriate way to address them. Take the word “you” for instance. In some projects that I often encounter, like surveys or flyer content that requires a friendly tone, “bạn” will be the most appropriate word choice for “you.” However, for content that involves formality, such as the medical consent form, “quý vị” will be the most formal address. For movies or literary content like stories or novels, the relationships between the characters or their age should also be taken into account.

Vietnamese and English are pretty similar in terms of S-V-O structure. However, Vietnamese uses passive voice less than English. This difference is why many translations, although understandable, do not sound natural at all. This is the case in many contract documents. For example, “Outside doors are not to be propped open under any circumstances.” A tip I often use in this case is to put the verb in front. Following the Vietnamese writing style, a natural translation will sound like this: “Do not prop outside doors open under any circumstances.”

Above are some cases I often encounter during the translation process. Besides these specific cases, you can also improve your translation skills by putting yourself in the shoes of your target audience, reading more books and articles to expand your knowledge and vocabulary, looking up and researching effectively for odd phrases, and don’t forget to review your translation afterward! You will likely find quite a few errors in this step. Reading this far, you may wonder, “Isn’t it okay to translate correctly as it is? Why do I take care to consider so many factors?” Please keep in mind that an accurate translation is needed but not sufficient. A translation that is both accurate and natural is a translator’s success. Depending on the requirements of each specific project, your translation needs to be accurate or natural. Still, a translation combining these two factors will always be highly appreciated. Achieving this, you will become clients’ first choice in an already fiercely competitive market like translation.

Those are my thoughts on the literal translation issue I have encountered as an in-house translator for Hansem Vietnam. These hard-earned lessons came from getting exposure to various projects ranging from easy to complex. Despite it all, thanks to the help from our dear leaders and colleagues, although these challenges may be tough, they are a valuable source of knowledge that I have accumulated here in Hansem. I guess you would be interested in our services if you made it this far down, aren’t you? If so, don’t hesitate to contact Hansem Vietnam! We are committed to providing the best translation at the most competitive price in the market!

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