Methods for Rendering Literal Meaning in Italian Translation

Translation can be defined as “a written communication in a second language having the same meaning as the written communication in a first language.” The primary purpose of translation, then, is to communicate meaning. Meaning can be defined as that which language and words aim to convey. For the purposes of semantics, it is important to point out that meaning can signify two different things: literal/lexical/denotative meaning, and connotative meaning. The literal/lexical/denotative meaning of a word is stated in the dictionary. The connotative meaning is not stated in the dictionary (for example, “red” has the connotative meaning of “danger”) but is developed through usage and associations.

Different Difficulties when Translating

Lexical, Literal and Denotative

One would think that lexical/literal/denotative meanings are straightforward and easy to pin down. But the flexible and open-ended nature of words manifests itself in denotative meanings too, and as such, it is not possible even for the dictionary to list all the literal meanings. The issue is aggravated by the fact that the meanings of words are always shaped by the contexts in which they appear. In Italian translation, the issue is more complicated because all Italian words are a direct product of the culture and the language in which they appear. Correspondence can be assumed to exist, and that is what makes Italian translation possible, but identical literal meanings do not exist, and that is what makes Italian translation difficult.

Synonymy, Hyperonymy and Hyponymy

Synonymy, hyperonymy and hyponymy are the three degrees by which literal meanings of words in two languages, or even the same language, exhibit their lexical similarity with each other. They are also terms used to describe methods for rendering literal meaning in Italian translation. Synonymy occurs when two words or phrases have the same meaning, and the meaning remains identical in all contexts, in every instance that the words or phrases are used. Synonymy also assumes semantic equivalence.


As a method for rendering literal meaning in Italian translation, synonymy occurs when a word from one language can be used as a substitute for a word from Italian without setting off other denotative and connotative meanings. Synonymy is most easily achievable in translating nouns; otherwise, full synonymy, implying exact replacement and full interchangeability, is difficult to attain. The Italian translator should strive for linguistic equivalence, in which a word will possess several of the essential components of the source word, and will not cause a change in the meaning of the text.


Hyperonymy occurs when a general word or phrase is used instead of a specific word or phrase, for example, using the word “flower” for “rose.” Hyponymy is the converse of hyperonymy. It occurs in Italian translation when a broad term is replaced by a more specific term. Hyperonymy-hyponymy is one of the most common methods for rendering literal meaning in Italian translation. That is due to a lack of a lexical synonym or a lexical equivalent in the target language, linguistic, contextual and cultural discrepancies between the source word and its target language equivalent, and motivations of style, such as the desire to sound better.

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