Literal Translation

The above photo is of a box I came across recently in a shop in Liège, and is a classic example of how literal translation will usually lead you astray.

(I know I shared this a few weeks ago on the blog’s Facebook page, but I’ve kept thinking about it and wanted to look at it in more detail). When I first saw this I was bemused: what were they trying to say, and how had they mangled the English language so? Fortunately, on the other side of the box there was the original French:

First off, I should say that what they’re trying to communicate is awkward to say in either French or English. But it’s certainly much more comprehensible in French. What they want to say is:

Make your shoes shine the best.


Make your shoes shine as well as possible.

You see what I mean about it sounding awkward, even if the idea is fairly straightforward. If I’d been translating this by the way, I’d probably have said the former, as it’s snappier and gets the idea across fairly well. Though ideally, I’d say something like:

Get the best shine for your shoes.

That’s easy for me to say though, and I wouldn’t expect a non-native speaker of English to come up with that.

But of course, in Space Year 2017, you’re not going to expect someone to spend too long racking their brain trying to translate a sentence: they can just pop it into Google Translate and that’ll do the work for them. It didn’t use to be perfect, but it’s much better now and usually has no problems with a straightforward sentence. I suspect they did use Google, and this is what it gave them:

make shine the best of your shoes. (note: this is with a lower-case F in faites. Capitalising Faites gives you Shine the best of your shoes)

Which of course doesn’t really work. This is probably just a case of the normally-reliable Google Translate struggling with an awkward structure that doesn’t really translate cleanly into English.

I did wonder though, if perhaps the person in fact decided to translate the sentence themselves. Only, they probably weren’t too confident in their English, so they decided to take it one word at a time, and that’s what I’m referring to when I talk about literal translation. Here’s how they might have done it:

Faites (make) briller (shine) le meilleur (the best) de (of) vos (your) chaussures (shoes).

They could easily have got the same result through literal translation (and I suspect that Google Translate, not finding any recognisable structure easily translated to English, fell back on literal translation too). Though it could have been worse. Strictly, briller, as the infinitive form of the verb, should be to shine, and meilleur without le is just better, so they could have translated le meilleur as the better (which is in fact a very common mistake for French speakers).

Most people (and Google Translate) know that literal translation isn’t always accurate. It can often work with languages that are broadly similar. If I want to tell someone I speak French, I say:

Je (I) parle (speak) français (French).

That works fine, though I still need to remember that languages aren’t capitalised in French. But if I want to say I know how to speak French, it doesn’t quite work:

Je (I) sais (know) parler (to speak) français (French).

Just losing that little how makes a big difference, doesn’t it?  And generally the more complex the piece of language you want to translate, the less likely it is that literal translation will work. Though the little things will trip you up too. Recently, on a flight from Dublin to Brussels, the flight attendant asked Who does this bag belong to?, and a French-speaking woman answered, It’s to me. Now in French, the word mine can be directly translated to le mien/la mienne, but it’s common to say C’est à moi, which literally translates to It’s to me in English (though as a preposition, we can’t even say that à always translates to to). An easy mistake for her to make, of course, but a potentially confusing one.

And no matter how savvy we are about how other languages work, it’s easy to fall into the trap of literal translation. Often it’s simply because we’re so used to the structures of our native tongue and can’t help but try to use them in other languages. Often in a lesson, a student will be midway through a sentence, and then say something like, Is it make or do? And even if I know the French word they want to translate, I still have to say I need to hear the rest of the sentence first, because exactly what they want to say in English often depends on the context provided by the rest of the sentence.

Sometimes of course literal translation is down to laziness, or at least the desire to find the quickest way to learn a language. At a school I’ve worked in, we offered free classes after the standard English lessons. They were of different types, but by far the most popular were the vocabulary and pronunciation classes. I wondered about this for a while, as the others seemed more fun, and finally came to suspect that some people wanted to simply learn a lot of English words, and how to pronounce them, and that was the key to learning English. They could replace all their Spanish/French etc. words with their English equivalents and, Hey Presto!, they can speak English.

And that’s not such an unusual attitude. I’ve heard about awful “dictionary classes” from people who’ve taught in certain countries. These simply involve the teacher reading or writing a long list of words, followed by their English translations. It’s incredibly inefficient as it ignores the grammar which shows students how to put these words into sentences, and doesn’t give them any opportunity to practise using these words, to help them remember them.

But sadly, some language teachers don’t always have an adequate knowledge of the language they’re required to teach. And adult students in particular often simply aren’t interested in putting in the hard work required to learn a language, and will instead look for the quickest shortcut. But sadly, learning a language is always going to be hard. You have to learn to think about things differently, use your imagination, and beware of all the little differences between your first and second language.

I’d like to leave you with another really bad case of literal translation, this one very satisfying as it involves a misguided racist looking decidedly foolish (seriously, I recommend reading it, it’s a great post).

You may have also seen this on the blog’s Facebook page (do you think I should plug my Facebook page and other social-media links in a transparently cynical attempt boost traffic?), but you can never laugh at racists too much.


16 thoughts on “Literal Translation

  1. Translation is an art, not a science…

    This is quite timely and ironic. I have been trying to help someone who has long-term “issues.” (Let’s keep it generic.)

    I was having a discussion this week with German friends about how to solve his issues once and for all. How to get “closure,” to use an Americanism. The challenge in Germany is how to avoid using the expression, and I do not write in jest, “final solution.” It is not easy. In the end I used the Americanism in quotation marks. “Wir brauchen ‘closure’.”

    Not sure if there is an Irish equivalent? “There may be troubles ahead.”

    Not forgetting the mobile phone company, who once had a slogan, “The world is turning Orange.” (Not on the Falls Road or in large parts of Stroke City.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a software developer. I also speak German, and a long time ago was certified as a translator of German into English.

    It amazes me how often the small software companies for which I have worked have thought that simply running their user interface elements through Google Translate would give a “good enough” translation. The results are usually laughably bad — but since the people perpetrating this deed don’t speak the target language, they don’t know. But when I’ve seen the German results, I’ve sometimes had fits of giggles, they’ve been so wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve noticed recently a lot of shop names and slogans in slightly-misused English in Belgium and France. It makes me wonder if we’re seeing the development of a new form of English made of mistranslations and misused, shared by people on continental Europe.


  3. Some of the direct translations are perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek.

    My German friends and I often say in English, “I press you the thumbs,” a direct translation of the German equivalent of “Fingers crossed.”

    Time to listen to a bit of AC/DC! RIP, Malcolm Young.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Translation is difficult, especially with idioms. I’ll never forget hearing that Kentucky Fried Chicken was a failure in China because Finger Lickin’ Good translated into Bite Your Fingers Off, or something to that effect!

    Liked by 1 person

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