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Literal translation, direct translation or word-for-word translation, is a translation of a text done by translating each word separately, without looking at how the words are used together in a phrase or sentence.
The term "literal translation" often appeared in the titles of 19th-century English translations of classical, Bible and other texts.
Word-for-word translations ("cribs," "ponies", or "trots") are sometimes prepared for a writer who is translating a work written in a language he does not know. For example, Robert Pinsky is reported to have used a literal translation in preparing his translation of Dante's Inferno (1994), as he does not know Italian. Similarly, Richard Pevear worked from literal translations provided by his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, in their translations of several Russian novels.
Literal translation can also denote a translation that represents the precise meaning of the original text but does not attempt to convey its style, beauty, or poetry. There is, however, a great deal of difference between a literal translation of a poetic work and a prose translation. A literal translation of poetry may be in prose rather than verse, but also be error free. Charles Singleton's translation of The Divine Comedy (1975) is regarded as a prose translation.
"Literal" translation implies that it is probably full of errors, since the translator has made no effort to convey, for example, correct idioms or shades of meaning, but it might be also useful in seeing how words are used to convey meaning in the source language.
A literal English translation of the German word "Kindergarten" would be "children's garden," but in English, the expression refers to the school year between pre-school and first grade. Literal translations in which individual components within words or compounds are translated to create new lexical items in the target language (a process also known as “loan translation”) are called calques, e.g., “beer garden” from German “Biergarten.”
The literal translation of the Italian sentence, "So che questo non va bene" ("I know that this is not good"), produces "Know(I) that this not goes(it) well," which has English words and Italian grammar.
Early machine translations (as of 1962 at least) were notorious for this type of translation as they simply employed a database of words and their translations. Later attempts utilized common phrases which resulted in better grammatical structure and capture of idioms but with many words left in the original language. For translating synthetic languages, a morphosyntactic analyzer and synthesizer is required.
The best systems today use a combination of the above technologies and apply algorithms to correct the "natural" sound of the translation. In the end though, professional translation firms that employ machine translation use it as a tool to create a rough translation that is then tweaked by a human, professional translator.
Often, first-generation immigrants create something of a literal translation in how they speak their parents' native language. This results in a mix of the two languages in something of a pidgin. Many such mixes have specific names, e.g. Spanglish or Germish. For example, American children of German immigrants are heard using "rockingstool" from the German word "Schaukelstuhl" instead of "rocking chair".
Literal translation of idioms is a source of numerous translators' jokes and apocrypha. The following joke has often been told both in the context of newbie translators and that of machine translation: When the sentence "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (дух бодр, плоть же немощна, an allusion to Mark 14:38) was translated into Russian and then back to English, the result was "The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten" (водка хорошая, но мясо протухло). This is generally believed to be simply an amusing story, and not a factual reference to an actual machine translation error.