The VN reading community likes to argue over the relative merits of so-called "literal" and "liberal" translation, with most people tending to perceive everyone else as being a hardline supporter of one or the other. While I'm sure everybody who knows my views would classify me as a proponent of liberal translation, I tend to think I'm more a proponent of being accurate to the intent of the original text. This blog post is going to outline a couple of specific uses of language which I believe show some of the weaknesses of attempting "literal translation." This isn't going to be anything like an attempt to provide an exhaustive argument against literal translation, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least trying to be a little bit convincing. Still, regardless of your position on that particular argument, you might at least find the examples enlightening. Broadly, I'm going to be talking about figurative language. That's a fancy phrase encompassing a lot of common expressions and classes of expression which exist in every natural human language, as far as I know, and certainly in both Japanese and English. Idioms, similes, metaphors, hyperbole, personification, symbolism: all of these are classes of figurative language.
For starters, let's talk about idioms. The relevant definition of "idiom", per wiktionary, is, "An expression peculiar to or characteristic of a particular language, especially when the meaning is illogical or separate from the meanings of its component words." The argument pretty much writes itself, right? By definition, if you try to literally translate the words in an idiom, you're going to end up with something at best inaccurate, and at worst completely illogical. Just googling "Japanese idioms" and reading what you see is going to find you dozens of examples of cases where you have to either avoid literal translation or end up with a translation that doesn't make sense. For instance, translating 十人十色 as "ten men, ten colors" isn't going to be comprehensible to an English reader, but the venerable English idiom "different strokes for different folks," which is equivalent in meaning if not exactly in tone, is probably going to fit the bill. Idioms offer pretty much a slam dunk argument in favor of liberal translation*. That said, idioms are not that common an occurrence. However, there are also lesser examples: cases where literal translation yields something meaningful and accurate, but still less accurate than a liberal translation could manage.
My personal favorite example of a Japanese expression which is not an idiom, but which still benefits massively from a "liberal" translation, is the combination of the noun 背中 (back) and the adjective 大きい (large, big). These two words are often put together in Japanese when praising men, as a way to say a man has a certain, protoypically masculine, attractive physical characteristic. The phrase also carries a subtextual metaphor of reliability: a big back can bear a lot of weight, presumably. Once you start looking for "big backs", you'll see them popping up in literal JP->EN translations all over the place, from Little Busters! to HoshiMemo. The problem is, there's a common English expression which means exactly the same thing as that Japanese expression: "broad shoulders." Now, no dictionary is going to tell you that you can correctly translate 背中, in isolation, as "shoulders." But what's amazing about this pair of Japanese and English expressions is that they not only have the same denotation, but also the same connotation. Both expressions describe the same physical trait, and they both also imply the same personality trait of reliability: a broad pair of shoulders, also, can be trusted to carry your burden.
The expression "broad shoulders", like its Japanese cousin, sits somewhere between simple non-figurative use of language and an idiom: just knowing the definition of the individual words gets you to the correct meaning of the expression, and even the connotation of implied reliability, when present, is usually obvious. So, by definition, they aren't idioms. But even so, if translated literally in either direction, the original phrase will end up as a pale shadow of what it should be. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be described as broad-shouldered than as big-backed.
*Unless you believe the purpose of a translation is to teach you Japanese idioms, in which case there isn't enough common ground to even have an argument. I personally like to read translated fiction for the same reason I like to read fiction originally written in English: to enjoy a well-crafted story.