False Friends

This article by Janis Palma was first published two years ago, almost to the date. It is a good reminder of the importance of proper terminology and the traps we face in our work – both translators and interpreters!


©Janis Palma- 2014

Beware of false friends! I don’t mean the people, I mean the words. 

One of the first impulses a young interpreter must overcome is the use of words that may, at first glance, seem to be equivalent terms and concepts in two languages… but are not. Taking that direct path from similarly-sounding words in our source and target languages is not always wrong, but part of being a good interpreter is knowing exactly when to take this path and when not to. In the rapid pace of judiciary interpreting, our brains may lean heavily towards cognates in source and target languages. Cognates are words with a common origin or etymology. True cognates, like “library” and “librería” in Spanish or “livraria” in Portuguese, with a common Latin root — liber — may come to have new and different meanings with usage and the passage of time. In this example “library” is a place where books are kept for people to read or borrow, whereas “librería” or “livraria” is a place where books are sold. So although they may be true cognates, these words have become false friends, or faux amis.

False cognates, on the other hand, are those words that appear to have a common origin but actually do not, such as “embarrassed” and “embarazada”. Although the origin of the two words is not absolutely clear, what is clear is that they do not share a common meaning. In English the word means “ashamed”, whereas in Spanish it means “pregnant”.

Sound like it, is spelled like, but does not mean it!

Any time we have two words that look or sound the same but mean different things, we run the risk of rendering an erroneous interpretation, as with this other pair of false friends: “deception” and “decepción.” While they both share the Latin root deceptio, the meaning in English is related to trickery and misrepresentations, whereas the meaning in Spanish is related to disappointment. In German “gift” actually means “poison”, bearing no relation to the English word for something you give away, and “brand” is a “fire” rather than the identity of a product. These equivocal words can get even the most experienced interpreter in trouble, particularly when fatigue sets in, which is why we can never let our guard down. If a witness were to say “there was a distinct odor in the room” and we were to render that in Spanish as un olor distinto, we could cause a major problems during a hearing or trial because that would mean there was a “different odor”.

The idiomatic, or most natural usage of a language, can also have a bearing on the choices we make. For example, if a judge says, “we have to make a distinction between this defendant and the others” our brains will most likely go straight to “tenemos que hacer una distinción entre este acusado y los demás.” However, it may be more idiomatic to say “tenemos que diferenciar entre este acusado y los demás.”

Know your language. Then study some more.

Our intuitive knowledge of language can be very helpful, but it cannot be the only source of knowledge on which we rely to make decisions that affect a person’s life, liberty, or property. This is particularly so when our “intuitive” knowledge of language is circumscribed to one country, or region of the world. In some countries the word “court” may be translated as “juzgado”, whereas in others it may be “tribunal” or “corte”. Learning about true and false cognates also means learning not to jump to conclusions without proper research. Terms-of-art, such as “deposición” for deposition, have been rejected as false friends or false cognates, when in truth and in fact they are neither. Sharing a common origin in Latin, depositĭo, these two words — deposition and deposición — both have come to mean “the giving of testimony under oath” (DRAE – Declaración hecha verbalmente ante un juez o tribunal.)

Of course, context is everything, and we can never assume the meaning of a word without a proper context. Conviction may mean “convicción” in Spanish or “convinzione” in Italian (= belief) if we are using it in a religious context, but not in a legal context, where it means “condena” in Spanish or “condanna” in Italian (e.g., she has one prior felony conviction in state court).

If a Spanish-speaker were to say “mi hija está en el colegio”: are we to understand that he means a “private school”? A professional association (e.g., Colegio de Traductores)? Or has the person been contaminated by English usage and actually means “college” (which would be a false friend)? Speaking of “actually”, here is one word often mistranslated as “actualmente”. The English word means “truly” (= en realidad), whereas the Spanish word means “at this time” or “now”.

Know what you don’t know.

Researching words should be an everyday habit for interpreters, not just because it is fun, but because it is in our best interest to continue to learn at every opportunity.  Interpreters who master the nuances of true and false cognates are more likely to project a high degree of self-confidence and display overall superior competency.  These are the interpreters who stand above the rest because they take the time and make the effort to sharpen the tools of their profession: languages.

There is an abundance of resources online that anyone can consult instantly. They not only include English and Spanish, but a few other languages as well, such as Portuguese (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~pmerson/falseCognates.html), Russian (http://masterrussian.com/blfalse.shtml), German (http://coerll.utexas.edu/gg/gr/mis_03.html), and Italian (http://www.pimsleurapproach.com/blog/italian/warning-italian-english-false-cognates-or-false-friends), just to name a few.

When researching false friends, always use etymology dictionaries, whether online or printed. Online resources include the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/), Diccionario Etimológico de Chile (http://etimologias.dechile.net/), and Diccionario médico-biológico, histórico y etimológico de la Universidad de Salamanca (http://dicciomed.eusal.es/). Printed references range from the small and fun, such as Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Clichés We Use (Castle Books), to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. In Spanish, Fernando Corripio’s Diccionario de ideas afines is a classic. But no matter which way you decide to research your words, you should be enjoying the adventure! (If you are not, some serious soul-searching about your chosen profession might be in order.)


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com

1Comment
  • Monika Hachiya
    Posted at 14:11h, 18 June Reply

    Thank you for the refresher on false cognates and false friends. I’ve already checked out your Brazilian-language and Salamanca resources. All helpful.

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