From Latin litterālis, literal it is something according to the letter of a text and to proper and exact sense of the words used in it. This means that the sense figurative or suggested.

For instance: “Raúl gave his father a hand” is a phrase that indicates that this men helped his father. The literal sense, however, would state that Raúl gave a limb to his father. It is clear that the literal sense is sometimes illogical.

“I’m going to listen to music to see if I can be inspired to write this note” is another example of a phrase whose literal meaning does not serve for its correct understanding. “Inspire” It is a verb that refers to attracting the outside air towards the lungs, but it is also used to name the birth of a idea in the mind.

Open book

The literal meaning is exact and is given by the proper meaning of the words.

The literal translation

A literal translationOn the other hand, it includes each one of the words of the original text and, whenever possible, in the same order. The translator, therefore, does not include his subjectivity or talent at the service of his work, but limits himself to carrying out a task of reviewing the grammar and vocabulary.

There are literal translations that lose the meaning: “I’ll call you back” is an expression in English language whose literal translation would be something like “I’ll call you back”. Therefore, the correct translation of “I’ll call you back” is not the literal translation, but an expression like “I’ll call you back”. Some automatic translators rely on this type of literal translations, which is why many times they do not offer us results acceptable.


To understand a text or a message, many times you have to go beyond the literal.

The challenges of the figurative sense

The problem of the literal understanding of the language is not new or unique in ours, but has been the subject of study for linguists and translators for a long time, both to improve language interpretation of foreign texts as to improve communication with the outside. For example, in an official conversation with a person from another country, the use of neutral language is recommended to facilitate the work of the simultaneous translators and to ensure that the recipient does not misinterpret the messages.

On the other hand, it is important to point out that some comedians benefit from this kind of duality to elaborate lines with more than one interpretation. This reminds us that humor is very important for the development of a culture, not only to relax but also to demand an unusual way of thinking, which can feed us as much or more than the study of a topic considered serious.

The literal and the renewal of language

Throughout the history of a language, it is inevitable that set phrases and expressions are formed whose words should not be understood literally or in isolation, but as part of a whole that often has a “whimsical” meaning. We are so used to using them that we usually do not stop to analyze them and for this reason they do not pose a problem until we have to explain them to a foreign person or a child. Returning to the example of “lending a hand,” it is so common in everyday speech that no one thinks about it. meaning literal.

However, since the youth are in charge of the renewal of the language, with each generation new constructions appear that make it difficult for the elderly to understand and reinforce that inevitable wall between the different age groups of society. If we add to this the incorporation of foreign terms, the situation becomes even more complex. In a conversation In chat, telling someone “delete me” is perfectly understandable, but an elderly man who has never used a computer may be perplexed by such a request.