False Friends

Why a Translator Should Be Aware of and Avoid False Friends

Posted on February 13, 2015 · Posted in Linguistics, Translation Quality

Language is a complicated phenomenon. It exists all around the world but in various different forms. However, an interesting thing is that many languages are related to each other because they come from the same root. For example, there are many similarities between English and French. There are also many similarities between Hindi and Marathi, two languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent.

When Similar Sounding Words Mean the Same Thing

Many words in English and French come from the same root and sound similar. For example, the French word for understanding is “comprendre” which is very close to the English “comprehend.” Similarly, we have the French “question” and the English “question,” the only difference between the two being their respective pronunciations. “To respond” in English means the same as “répondre” in French. So far so good.

When Similar Sounding Words Mean Different things

However, what happens when you have two words that sound similar but mean totally different things? It’s possible that the words came from the same root but, over a period of time, they started meaning different things. For example, in French, “demander” merely means “to ask.” However, in English, demanding something has a different connotation. It refers to asking for something as though you have a right to it. It can also refer to asking for something angrily or rudely. All these connotations are missing in the French “demander.”

Avoiding False Friends

So when you’re translating from French into English or vice versa, you can’t use these terms as equivalents. Instead, they are what people refer to as “false friends” i.e., words that sound similar but mean totally different things. So when you’re looking for translation services, you need to make sure that your translator takes the nuances of language into account and avoids false friends.

Here are a few more interesting false friends from various languages:

  • The English “embarrassed” simply refers to a feeling of self-consciousness and confusion. In extreme circumstances, embarrassment might be likened to shame. However, the Spanish “embarazada” means something totally different because it refers to being pregnant.
  • The word “angst” refers to general fear and anxiety in German but in English, it only refers to a particular type of existential anxiety which is more heightened in nature.
  • The word “gymnasium” refers to a place to exercise in English but in French, it refers to a school. The term comes from Latin, in which it referred to both things.
  • The word “preservative” refers to something that’s added to food so that it stays fresh for longer. However, the word “préservatif” in French, the word “präservativ” in German and the word “preservativo” in Italian and Spanish all refer to a condom.
  • The word “semester” means “vacation/holiday” in Swedish but refers to a university or college term in English.

Contact us for translations which will take false friends into account.