On a foggy March day, a KLM and a PanAm passenger jet were taxiing on the runway of Tenerife North Airport. A short while later, the KLM plane started to take off, accelerating down the runway unaware of the other plane, and collided into it, killing 583 people and causing the deadliest aviation incident in history.
The controller was astounded. He had not issued clearance for takeoff. Why did the KLM captain speed down the runway? Was this a devastating human error?
Yes. In the end, it was a simple but grave language error: a literal translation.
Seconds before the disaster, the Dutch captain of the KLM passenger jet announced in English, “We are now at takeoff.” He intended to convey that the plane was already in the process of taking off, a meaning better expressed in English by the progressive construction “We are now taking off.” The unfortunate English phrase—translated in his mind from his native Dutch—was simply a word-for-word translation of the Dutch progressive (-ing) construction “We (we) zijn (are) nu (now) aan (at) het (the) opstijgen (takeoff)”. But since English syntax works differently, the progressive meaning got lost.
The flight controller understood “We are now at takeoff” as an inceptive action; that is, an action that is about to happen but has not started yet. He thought that the plane was standing still, waiting for the signal to go, so he did nothing.
The miscommunication that took hundreds of lives was caused by a simple literal translation. Most literal translations are not this serious, but they are ubiquitous and cause problems all the time. Let’s look at how incorrect literal translations happen and how to minimize them.
What are literal translations?
A literal translation, or metaphrase, is a word-for-word translation where the target language copies the source exactly. Although often technically correct, literal translations can sound awkward and stiff, causing readers to put effort into working out the actual meaning, if there even is one. For monolingual readers, this is difficult and not always possible.
Literal translations come in various forms and degrees of severity. Structural literal translations preserve the word order, punctuation and exact phrasing of the source language. These translations are hard to avoid and often very hard to spot because they do not necessarily result in grammatically wrong phrases. They may produce correct phrases, but with a different meaning, such as the fatal cockpit message of the KLM captain—which was correct grammatically, but horribly wrong at the same time.
A more easy-to-spot type of literal translation is the word-for-word translation of an idiom, which renders the meaning of each word in the source phrase separately, failing to relay the meaning of the idiom as a whole. Such direct translations are easily recognized since they often make no sense in context. They can be quite funny, too.
A Spanish example: Ponte las pilas.
The literal translation is "Put your batteries on." But what it actually means is "Work hard."
Why they happen
Literal translations most frequently happen because of poor knowledge of the source language. Occasionally, literal translations are due to insufficient mastery of the target language, too: for instance, translators who have not mastered the punctuation rules of their native language tend to just copy the punctuation of the source, which can cause problems in the target language.
Literal translations of idioms can be also caused by something as trivial as a lack of context. An actual piece of cake (pastry) is a “piece of cake” (easy; with minimal effort) to translate in the context of a bakery menu, but not so easy when used in an isolated sentence—a translator may have to make a guess.
That’s the way translation works
No matter the cause, translating literally is an inherent part of the translation process. During translation, two languages come in contact, and in this contact a third language is born: the so-called interlanguage, which has features from both the source and target languages. Literal translations are simply a manifestation of the interlanguage.
Literal translations are thus the first translations to come to the translator’s mind as a result of the bilingual environment in which they work. They shouldn't remain the final versions, though: a good linguist recognizes the flaws of this process and takes steps to make the translations accurate.
How to minimize the risk of literal translations
High-quality translations have a review and edit phase in which an experienced linguist polishes the target language to make sure the translation is accurate and not inappropriately literal. If your budget allows, you can also perform a source analysis in which a linguist reviews the source and, if it contains idiomatic language or would be prone to literal translation for some other reason, provides explanatory comments to help the translator understand the correct meaning.
Literal translations can make the language evolve
And while we all agree that literal translations can cause serious problems, sometimes they positively influence the language. The literal translations of foreign phrases and idioms can enter a language and become part of its lexicon. Words like “gentleman” and “flea market” entered English as literal translations from French but are now considered regular English words. So, believe it or not, a literal translation that just seems flat wrong today may be perfectly natural 20 years from now.
Literal translations naturally occur in the localization process and can have some positive effects on language in the long run. But we must be vigilant that they do not cause grave errors or misunderstandings. Providing as much contextual information as possible and conducting one or more review passes are key to forming accurate translations and avoiding misunderstandings…or worse.