Direct translations almost always come out sounding strange, unnatural, and even nonsensical. Depending on the language, you probably wouldn't want to go around a new country letting a dictionary hold your conversations for you (I'm sure at least some of you can attest to that). Our goal as language learners is to sound natural, so of course you don't want to directly translate for the purpose of conversation. While at first it may seem like an unnecessary topic to discuss, the importance of using direct translations for the purpose of learning should not be understated.

In cases such as watching movies or reading song lyrics purely for entertainment, a direct translation will undoubtedly miss the poeticism or the pragmatism of a proper translation, that is, a translation that makes sense in the listener's or viewer's native tongue. For business purposes as well, direct translations could prove extremely frustrating. Imagine a large company using nothing more than Google Translate; you'd end up with a lot more advertisements like you often see throughout Asia. So yes, direct translations can certainly hurt the utilitarian aspect of language.

While many of us here at italki likely consume foreign media or partake in international business, we are here for a higher purpose: we genuinely seek to understand and become proficient in our target languages, and to understand the cultural framework in which that language is set. As such, a closer analysis of how to deal with translations is necessary. Let's look at some specific examples.

If you ask, ‘How are you?’, would ‘Yes’ be a suitable response? Of course not. Any speaker of English should know that. Well, looking at the proper Japanese translation of ‘How are you?’ gives us the phrase ‘genki desu ka?’. Okay, so how do you say ‘good’ in Japanese? ‘ii desu.’ Got it, now you can have a conversation!

A: genki desu ka?

B: ii desu.

Well now you have a problem, because that's not right at all. It would raise a lot of Japanese eyebrows. When we learn a new phrase, we not only carry the meaning of the originally translated statement or question, but we also carry along with it our own culturally-biased expectations of how to use it and how to respond. In this case, English speakers will think that the correct way to respond to ‘How are you?’ is ‘good.’ And of course, in English that's fine.

But, when given a proper translation, these biased cultural expectations can create problems. To get around this, you would have to avoid learning anything in isolation. You would have to learn both question and response together, every time. But when we look at direct translations, we see that in Japanese, the cultural norm is not to say ‘how are you?’ Rather, the cultural norm is to literally ask ‘are you in good health?’. Now that we know the direct translation, we can extrapolate that it makes a lot more sense to respond by simply saying ‘yes,’ or ‘hai’. Now, we have:

A: genki desu ka?

B: hai.

This is a perfectly acceptable conversation in Japanese, but when we look at proper translations, it goes right back to the confounding ‘yes’ response to ‘how are you’. On the other hand, when we understand the true meaning of the words, we gain insight as to what might and might not be acceptable responses. (For your information, Japanese speakers will very often respond with a full sentence, ‘I am in good health’ (genki desu), but both are acceptable).

Lets look at another example. In English we ask, ‘how old are you?’ and we answer, ‘I'm 24.’ But if someone asks you in Spanish, ‘cuantos años tienes tú?’ (how old are you?), you'd better not say ‘yo soy veinticuatro’ (I am 24). Why not? It makes sense in English. Well sure, but no one ever asked you how old you are, they asked you how many years you have. cuantos = how many, años = years, tienes = you have, = you. So we literally have ‘how many years you have you?’ It sounds kind of funny in English, but now we know that we have to say ‘I have 24 years,’ or ‘tengo veinticuatro años’.

A: Cuantos años tienes tú?

B: Tengo vienticuatro años.

And again, we see that using the direct translation helps us understand both the cultural framework that informs conversational norms and appropriate responses. It empowers us to make educated guesses about what comes next.

Now, to be completely honest about our previous example, saying that ‘genki desu ka’ directly translates to ‘are you in good health?’ is not the full story. In the phrase ‘genki desu ka,’ there is actually no mention of the word ‘you’. In this case, it is implied. But, you can also ask the full question: anata ha genki desu ka.

Now, let's break this down in its entirety. anata = you, ha = topic particle, genki = good health, desu = copula (to be), ka = question particle. Now we have: ‘You (topic particle) good health be (question particle)?’ If we look at this complete direct translation, we suddenly learn so much about Japanese grammar. The question ‘(anata ha) genki desu ka?’ tells us:

  1. the subject can be omitted (our first example had no ‘anata ha’)
  2. the subject is denoted with an extra word that we don't have in English, or ha (pronounced wa, by the way)
  3. the verb, or copula, comes at the end of the sentence, unlike in English
  4. the word order (at least for yes/no questions) is different from English question word order
  5. if we ask a question (or at least a yes/no question), we need a whole new word that doesn't exist in English, or ka

That's a lot of grammar we learned from looking at just one question. Let's do the same with the Spanish example, cuantos años tienes tú?’:

  1. question word order in Spanish is almost the same as English (at least for wh- questions, lucky day!)
  2. there is no Spanish equivalent of the word ‘do’ as in ‘do you have?’
  3. even though ‘tieneshas ‘you’ built into it, we can still add on a second ‘’ or ‘you’ after the verb (at least for questions).

Not bad. Maybe we got a little more out of the Japanese example, but that's simply because Japanese has more differences coming from English. We still gained a working formula for building wh- questions in Spanish by looking at just one question.

Maybe this more time-consuming method isn't for everyone, but if you have the mind of an engineer, it almost certainly is a good method for you. If it isn't broken, take it apart and see why. Because we are ‘taking it apart’ in some sense, it is always important to start with the target language and work backwards, so as to reverse-engineer it. We take apart these sentences to understand the mechanics of the language. Doing this allows us to use these sentences in the correct situations, and to immediately turn it around and build our own sentences.

Culture and language are inseparable, and to properly translate to your mother tongue is convenient and practical, but to use these translations exclusively sets up roadblocks for learning your target language and target culture. By using direct translations, not just of individual words but of full sentences, we gain insight into the cultural expectations of the use of language and how to properly respond. It also lets us jump on the fast-track for understanding the underlying grammar of our target language, especially in the beginning phases of language learning. So my recommendation is that when you put together your useful phrases notebook, add a third column for literal translations, and take time to contemplate their consequences.

The formulas you discover from digging deeply into what you know and learn will likely be refined as you expand your knowledge of your target languages. But it is, in my opinion, a far superior springboard to simply regurgitating memorized phrases.

Image Sources

Hero image by parhessiastes (CC BY-SA 2.0)