False Friends

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 Portguese, 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”.

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.”

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”.

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.)


8 thoughts on “False Friends”

  1. Nancy Stone says:

    I just testified last week concerning one of my transcripts and used the term “false friends” on the stand! Then I got the chance to explain its meaning on the record. And I began to make the distinction between false friends and false cognates, but the prosecutor didn’t know what “cognate” meant, and the judge got tired of the line of questioning. Ruling has not yet come down, but the issue hinged on the incorrect use of “apuntar” for “to appoint”.

    1. Gregorio says:

      Nancy, wow! That’s an extremely bad translation of appoint. I’m always deeply saddened when I see/hear such things as apuntar, arraigo (arraignment), etc. being used! Glad you were able to set the record straight.


    2. Janis Palma says:

      Dear Nancy. Congratulations! Even if the judge and the attorney did not know what a cognate was, you did! And that places you squarely in the “seat” of the expert. Even if the judge were to err in his ruling, you have won a great battle by knowing exactly why those two were not equivalent terms and conveying that knowledge with the proper linguistic references. Te apuntaste un gol (since everyone has FIFA/World Cup fever these days, LOL!)

  2. Gregorio says:

    Thanks for this great blog post! I think you hit the nail on the head!

    It’s always important to try to strive to be the best and know the most terms possible. You not only have to know terms from your native country (if you’re not from the US) or a country you tend to turn to or have lived in, but you also have to know terms from many other countries as you surely will be in contact with people from there. So, let’s say you’re a native from Chile, you’ll know the words you’d most commonly use in Chile, but you might be translating or interpreting for a Mexican, so it’s important to be multidialectal and know words that are easily understood by people of that country too.

    On top of being multidialectal, I think it’s also important to have a decent base in knowing Spanglish. It’s not that you have to use it, but it’s a reality in the United States, something will probably not change for many years and depends heavily on immigration and legislature for bilingual education at the state and federal level (so obviously not something easily changed, ha ha). Why is it important to know a bit of Spanglish? Because, you will inevitably find yourself having to interpret someone who speaks throwing in Anglicisms, etc and other Spanglishwords. Think of the many Latino, Chicano, Hispanics, etc. that have grown up in the US and use these words quite freely and normally without knowing that their usage is very specific just to the US. You never know who you’ll meet out there, so it’s best to know as much as possible.

    That’s why I liked your inclusion of common words, I know I have certainly been on the end of trying to figure out what a person means when s/he says things like: colegio, convicción, etc. Plus, it’s good to know more because it helps our profession seem more important, reliable, relevant, and more educated by being able to employ the correct terms and understand them.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s also important because a lot of interpreters have received warnings to avoid words like: “deposición” (perfect example in your article). I just happened to be looking through the DRAE one day and was amazed, I also thought, as I imagined you did too, this word had to do with emptying your bowels, ha ha. To my surprise, it also can mean “una declaración jurada.” How many legal glossaries or interpreters have been told and are overcautious with this word, because they have heard the same warning over and over again. Perhaps, you might tell a colleague that it’s not a vulgar word, it’s actually a perfectly legal word and they can hardly believe you until you show them the entry in the DRAE.

    Regardless, I must confess I always use: “declaración jurada.” I do not know if there is a legal difference, meaning difference, etc. between the two. That’d would be a great thing to know–something maybe someone more wise than I can address here.

    Once again, I think you’ve hit it out of the ballpark with this article. It’s truly great. By knowing more about false friends and false cognate, being multidialectal (even in Spanglish as a reference), we are not only helping the people receiving the interpretation, ourselves, but also our profession.

    Thanks again for the great article!


  3. Janis Palma says:

    Dear Gregorio (Greg): I was very moved by your words. It is always deeply satisfying to know that something you have said or done has had a positive impact on someone else, or that someone has responded with the enthusiasm you have. You were very eloquent in your comments and that made me feel even better about jumping head-first into this blogging adventure. Mil gracias.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Thank you so much, Janis, for writing this for our Blog. This is a great piece because it is very informative and provides many resources. It’s easy to get caught up and start using the wrong terms that even our LEPs use, and having the reminder to keep on our toes is a must!

  4. Benja Abel says:

    I teach a bilingual class and have been thinking lately about how Chicanos and other Spanglish users (mainly immigrants that have at least a couple years here) turn these false cognates and false friends into “real” ones.

    In Argentina, I had understood that “enfrente” meant more “facing” or “opposite” than the English “in front” or “ahead”. Although I never stop hearing “me siento enfrente” or “el carro en frente” from Spanish speakers here in the United States when I would have said “me siento adelante” or “el coche delante del nuestro”.
    Google translate even shows a check mark next to the translation, confirming that many people “verified” that it is correct. I imagine most of that input comes from here in the United States, though.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      When in doubt, consult an authoritative reference source. In this case the DRAE is very clear about “enfrente” being a common word in the Spanish language: https://dle.rae.es/?id=FJ7TTXF.

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