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Four Things to Watch Out for if You Want to Avoid Literal Translations

Because English and Russian are different in so many ways, perhaps, the biggest challenge for translators and end users is avoiding literal translations. Translators often find themselves between a rock and a hard place as they’re struggling to find phrases that both sound well in Russian and completely reflect the original message. Since it’s so much easier for a translator to focus more on the message and less on the style, it’s quite common for an end user to get literal translations, which do get the message across, but fail to sound well. This makes it extremely hard to understand them even when the message is right. Let’s take a closer look at what causes some of the literal translations.

1. You leave the word order intact. You translate all word combinations exactly as they appear in English, without any attempt to adjust the flow of words according to what makes the most sense in Russian.

Source: uses knowledge of the marketplace to drive the development…

Literal translation: использует знания рынка для стимулирования разработки…

Improved translation: опираясь на знания рынка, стимулирует разработку…

2. Even if a word can and should be omitted, you leave it intact. If you translate each “any” or “please,” you can be sure that the text you produce will look like translation. If you want it to appear as if it was originally written in Russian, develop a habit of removing things that sound alien or excessive in translation.

Source: Please click this button.

Literal translation: Пожалуйста, нажмите эту кнопку.

Improved translation: Нажмите эту кнопку.

3. You keep the original punctuation. The most common example is when you keep a comma after an adverbial modifier in the beginning of a sentence. Or you keep the semi-colon in the middle of a sentence where a comma would be much more appropriate in Russian. Or you start a new sentence after a colon, failing to replace a colon with a dot.

Source: A year from now, things will be different…

Literal translation: Через год, все изменится…

Improved translation: Через год все изменится…

4. The last, but not least is failing to find a Russian word or word combination that is an identical or similar counterpart of the English one and choosing to translate the original text word for word. Failing to do so means either that a translator is incompetent or doesn’t care enough to spend a few minutes on going beyond the first dictionary meaning. I believe that this is where rubber meets the road in translation. If you do have a flair for translation, you understand the importance of finding those Russian counterparts to make the translation sound well.

Source: in both verbal and written terms

Literal translation: как в вербальной, так и в письменной форме

Improved translation: как в устной, так и в письменной форме

Summary

Whether you are an in-house translator working on large legal documents or a hobby translator doing a translation upon your friend’s request, one of your most important tasks is to make it easy for your customer to understand the translation. To do so, you must know what literal translation is and make an effort to avoid it in your work. Improving in this area is one of the best and fastest  ways for a translator to get better professionally.

5 comments

  • Veronica Lupascu says:

    Great article and great tips!
    I guess it happens for all languages/language pairs.
    Something that really bothers me in EN>RO translations of websites, company profiles, support/help services is the literal translation of pronouns. For example: “Our company”, “our services”, “we will help you with your needs”. Usually such constructions get translated literally, with all pronouns at place and they sound bad (i mean, BAD) in Romanian, so fake. Of course, there are many such mistakes, this is just the first that came into my mind.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hello Veronica,
      Thank you so much for reading our stuff and leaving a comment. Your example with pronouns makes so much sense and is also a problem with EN>RU translations. I should’ve listed it as an example myself—you beat me 🙂
      Thanks a lot again,
      Roman

  • Veronica Lupascu says:

    Hi Roman,
    It is my pleasure really! And I am subscribed to your blog 🙂
    Have a nice evening!
    Veronica

  • Kristina says:

    Nice content and great guidelines! It is true that most literal translation can’t hold the essence of source language and that translation look like as life without a soul. Translator should give more time to make translation accurate and metaphoric. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank you for the comment, Kristina!
      “Look like as life without a soul”, I like that! Personally, I just feel so much better as a translator when I can come up with a translation that doesn’t look like the original at all while still conveying the message well. Something that sounds so natural in the target language that there is no way anyone will think it’s a translation.
      Thanks for reading our stuff,
      Roman

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.