In the world of translation, a “literal translation” is that which follows its original word for word. In most cases, us translators opt for letting loose a bit from the source text, not in terms of meaning, but, rather, in terms of writing and, at times, the use of vocabulary. This is because translating very literally causes a certain rigidity and lack of natural flow in the target text. Nevertheless, both extremes exist: cases in which a translator opts for being highly creative, and those in which they follow the original to a T.
The most widely known cases of creative translations are related to the arts. The translation of a song, poem, or even an advertisement will be quite different from its source due to the fact that it will not only try to capture the meaning of the words, but also their beauty and musicality. Furthermore, sometimes the rhythm or other literary effects such as alliteration (the repetition of a sound) or plays on words are aimed to be preserved. In these situations, the client may notice that perhaps the translation doesn’t “look like” the original, but ultimately meets its goal of maintaining functional or dynamic equivalency.
Outside of the artistic realm, sometimes a translator may decide to stray from the source text for other reasons. This generally happens when the person who wrote the source text made some mistakes. One very common error in English is the incorrect use of the abbreviations i.e. (which means “that is”) with e.g. (used to introduce examples). Faced with this, translators into another language may correct the usage of the term. At other times, writing may be confusing or redundant and a translator may decide to reformulate it so as to eliminate these shortcomings.
However, be careful! It is possible that literality is necessary and cannot be eliminated. This is particularly the case with legal texts in which content must be duly reproduced (including errors and ambiguities). This procedure is also followed when a source text is so confusing or has so many clauses that it cannot be simplified. Rather than running the risk of making an mistake, it is preferable to follow the original structure without altering it.
As we can see, translation is not an exact science and translators (at times alongside the client) must decide what style of translation is most appropriate.