By false friends I don’t mean those individuals who fail to show up for you birthday party. I’m talking about false cognates, words that sound alike or look alike and may be from the same origin, but that mean different things in different languages. Similarities between languages are extremely helpful when it comes to learning a new language. However, the presumption that similar words have the same meaning in a foreign language as they do in your own can lead to humorous misunderstandings as many have discovered, including the man who mistakenly presumed the toilet named merched in Wales was for men because it starts with the letters ‘me’. Similarly, the Welsh word moron is not an insult at all, it means ‘carrot’. Another common mistake is to translate ‘embarrassed’ into Spanish as embarazada, which means ‘pregnant’. If a Spanish person tells you they are constipado they may not be over-sharing as much as you think, as it simply means a blocked nose.

An English speaker who has never studied French already knows 15,000 words in the language of Molière. Nevertheless, French and English share numerous false friends. If a French person sends you a demande, don’t be offended – it’s a request rather than a demand. Don’t leave without paying in a librarie in France as it’s a bookshop rather than a library and, as you may know, a magasin is a shop, not a publication and a voyage is not necessarily by sea. Actuellement in French is ‘currently’ rather than ‘actually’ and éventuellement means possibly, rather than ‘finally’.

A French acquaintance of mine asked an English speaker for a rendez-vous and was embarrassed to find out that the word has romantic connotations in English that it lacks in French. If her counterpart was sympathique (nice rather than sympathetic) he would have forgiven the faux pas (same meaning in both languages). He in turn would have needed to learn that a réunion in French is any type of meeting, not necessarily a re-union as implied in English. Sometimes the French words have the same meaning in the English spoken some time ago, an example would be sensible to mean ‘sensitive’. Other words have the same meaning, but are pejorative in one of the languages, for example it’s fine to use ancien to describe the elderly in French and concubin(e) is simply a cohabiting partner. Exploitation is always negative in English, while in French is can simply mean ‘use’ and is another word for a farm. French speakers may be surprised to hear English speakers describe the iron lady as ‘formidable’ as it means wonderful in French, but suggests a battle-axe in English. Assister in French is a semi-false friend as it can mean ‘to help’, but also simply ‘to attend’ and blesser is to injure rather than to bless – an injure in French is an insult in English. If you ask for a caméra in French you’ll get a video camera rather than a photographic camera (appareil photos) and ‘film’ in French is of the kind you see in the cinema rather than the one insert into your camera, which is a pellicule. A car in French is a coach rather than a car, and as all wine lovers know the cave is the cellar rather than a cave, which is called grotte in French. If someone tells you a job is intéressant they may not mean that it’ll be anywhere near fascinating, merely that it would be in your interests to take it. In French a déception is a disappointment rather than a lie and disposer means to have rather than to throw away. Be careful not to issue an invitation to a large group to go out for dinner, because the French meaning of the word also includes payment. Nuances can be important – French militants might be worried if English speaking journalists described them as militants in English, as the French word merely means ‘activist’.

As fascinating as false friends can be, their existence is one of the reasons why translation is a highly skilled profession. You can find a few examples of things that can go wrong when people rely on anything less than professional translators here. To ensure that your text is correctly translated, you need a skilful translator who is a native speaker in the target language and has in-depth knowledge of the source language and culture. Contact us for more information.


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