Literal Translation VS Semantic Translation

What Is The Difference Between Literal And Semantic Translation?

Literal translations are word-for-word (or character-for-character) equivalents while semantic translations are more about finding the balance between figurative and literal meanings. Some linguists argue that literal translations show more loyalty to the source language than the target language.

Japanese To English Translation

I’ve picked two examples to discuss. One is an old Japanese saying: 


Literal translation: Even Monkeys Fall From Trees

Alternative translation: Nobody’s Perfect; To Err Is Human. 

Personally, either translation conveys a similar message but there are those subtle differences. 

Next we’ll look at a mistranslation that became a meme in the gaming community:

Screenshot by Salim Virji on Flickr


Mistranslation: All Your Base Are Belong To Us

Literal Translation: Your bases, CATS has received them all

Alternative translation: All your bases belong to us

It’s very common to see mistranslations like these all over Japan. For example, P.M. and A.M. are known to come after the numerals denoting time in English. In Japanese, however, they come before. When I visited Tokyo, I often saw signs that hadn’t been localized for English speakers.

 開業 A.M. 7-閉業 P.M. 9


English to Japanese

Take a look at these humorous English to Japanese translation mistakes in game localization. You’ll appreciate the laugh!


Errors like these happen in everyday conversation, not just video games. 


“I have a little sister” can be erroneously translated into 妹がある.


While いる and ある both mean “to exist,”  ある is only used for inanimate objects. The literal translation would be, “(a) younger sister exists.”


Still, it doesn’t necessarily help learners understand the fundamental difference between いる and ある, as there could still be confusion even if “have” were to be used instead.


There’s no such grammatical rule for saying “I have a little sister” in Spanish (Yo tengo una hermanita) but we can run into some other tricky areas.

Spanish to English And Vice Versa

There are many basic elements to get confused when translating from Spanish to English. Not just falsos amigos (false cognates) but smaller details like saying how old we are or differentiating between a romantic date (la cita) and a calendar date (la fecha).

I’ve had my fair share of these, as have other Spanish speakers! When I first started dating Javier (who is now my husband), I became his designated translator/interpreter. From ordering out at restaurants to  scheduling his doctor’s appointments, I suddenly had the responsibility to make everything coherent for him.

Which Type Of Translation Is Better: Literal or Semantic?

Literal For Beginners, Semantic For More Advanced Learners

I don’t believe that either form of translation can be associated with proficiency in a language. Sometimes literal translation can prove more challenging than semantic. An interesting discussion about literal translation over on JapanesePod101’s forum made me start thinking about “bad language habits.”


Omitting subjects from sentences does not lead to grammatically incorrect Japanese skills. It’s very common in speech, literature, etc. Not unlike the sentence lloró (he/she/it cried) in Spanish, the Japanese sentence 泣きました(なきました) also translates into a full sentence. 


I reached out to Japanese language translator and teacher Siskia Lagomarsino at Polyglotist blog. Sis offered a great take on addressing the unconventional beauty of Japanese grammar:

I used to start all my Japanese terms telling my students, “I need you to learn everything we’re going to go over, and at the end I’m gonna need you to forget it all,” because I believe that not EVERY  grammatical aspect is necessary for learning, but the basic building blocks most definitely are.

It’s misleading to associate literal translations with advance knowledge of a language. Rather, it is important to understand cultural literacy. If you think translating is hard, then consider a branch of translation that requires much more than knowledge of words.

Transcreation: The Best (And Worst) Of Both Worlds?

Transcreation is like opening the third eye of translation. It’s a major part of translation and yet it goes much deeper than what words mean. It’s not transliteration, which is transferring a word from one alphabet to another (like turning kana and kanji into romaji). Rather, it involves cultural literacy and creativity.

What Does Transcreation Look Like?

My experiences with transcreation have always been a collaborative effort. I worked closely with native Japanese speakers to write creative content, i.e. presentations, speeches, quizzes, and so forth. I’m always amazed by how “off” my initial “translations” are. 

My Japanese teacher would always stop me as I was drafting the words for Japanese speech contests and ask, “What are you trying to say?” 

Sensei and I transcreated speeches and other projects together for 4 years.

To this day, it’s a very simple yet complicated question to answer, especially in the literary field. In an ideal world, I could contact the author and they would tell me exactly what they want to say. But translation is an art that may require taking some liberties. It depends on how literal you’re willing to get! 

In writing speeches about my personal life, I was able to connect with my Japanese teachers and learn a lot about what parts of my story could translate into Japanese and which parts needed additional explaining. It’s rewarding to discover connections between the two cultures. Of course it’s a time consuming process, but you never see words the same after all the research and editing. 

(Free) Sites That Facilitate Transcreation

I believe that all language learners should be able to play with their target languages. It’s not about being able to say “oh, a non-native speaker clearly wrote this,” but it’s building language skills. Expressing yourself in another language is a pretty big deal! The more you do it, and the more mistakes you learn from, the better language habits you develop. 

I have plenty of fun memories with this site! It’s a lot of open learning and the suggestions come from native speakers and advanced learners. 

HiNative is a great resource for some of the more picky questions you might have about grammar. Ask any question about a language and a native speaker will answer it! Or maybe you’ll see that someone was already wondering the same thing that you were!

HelloTalk is like Facebook for languages. It’s a great way to get constant exposure to a language while connecting with other learners and speakers. Follow people whose interests align with yours and start a conversation with them! 

Best of all, post to your wall and let native speakers come to you with suggestions and corrections.

Semantic translation vs literal translation—which is better? Even after all that debating, the most I can say is that the answer is relative. So go out there and practice translation. You’ll never look at words the same way ever again!

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Errol de Jesús

Multilingual Mommy

Welcome to my blog. By day I’m a copywriter helping mission-driven brands grow. And by gosh I’m a busy single mom raising her autistic son multilingual. I speak Japanese, Spanish, and SEO—also currently learning German!

What languages do you speak?

Errol de Jesús

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