I'm looking for a word (or a phrase) to describe a particular phrase or idiom which is directly translated from a foreign language and makes no sense in the language it's translated to.

For instance, in my native language "Phoning and Hanging up" directly translates to "Ring and Cut" and some people actually use that expression.

Is there a name for it?

  • mistranslation ?
    – Misti
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:49
  • Not entirely sure about that. For me a mistranslation would imply translating something wrongly such that it means something else, not just nonsense.
    – Haedrian
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:51
  • There's 'calque', but that's more like a word or phrase that already established itself in the target language, so it does make sense.
    – anemone
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:25

2 Answers 2


Apparently, one sense of the expression literal translation is pejorative, covering this occurrence. Wikipedia has (see especially paragraph 4 below). [tidied]

Literal translation, direct translation, or word-for-word translation is the rendering of text from one language to another one word at a time (Latin: "verbum pro verbo") with or without conveying the sense of the original whole.

In translation studies, "literal translation" denotes technical translation of scientific, technical, technological or legal texts.[1]

In translation theory, another term for "literal translation" is "metaphrase"; and for phrasal ("sense") translation — "paraphrase."

When considered a bad practice of conveying word by word (lexeme to lexeme, or morpheme to lexeme) translation of non-technical type "literal translation" has the meaning of mistranslating idioms,[2] for example, or in the context of translating an analytic language to a synthetic language, it renders even the grammar unintelligible.

The concept of literal translation may be viewed as an oxymoron (contradiction in terms), given that literal denotes something existing without interpretation, whereas a translation, by its very nature, is an interpretation (an interpretation of the meaning of words from one language into another).


There is in English the idiom

  • [something was] "Lost in translation"

This can refer to actual language translation that completely loses the original meaning. It can also be used in a more general sense, such as when cultural norms are misunderstood by foreigners.

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