"False friends" in translation

One of the great surprising things about exploring different languages is the many similarities we can find amongst certain words. You might think there is a huge difference between a Romance language (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), and a Germanic language (e.g. English and German). Indeed, there are many Indo-European languages, being descendants of a single prehistoric language, which is why there are so many similarities of so many words in language although maybe one comes from the Latin origin and the other has a Germanic origin.

We share many common words (see image above) and roots of words, with other continental tongues. However, these similarities can easily lead to confusion. That’s why we have to be very careful when we see a word and automatically assume its meaning in English or vice versa.


What are ‘false friends’?
‘False friends’ are words in two different languages that look similar but have entirely different meanings. This can cause confusion when learning a new language and can also lead to amusing misunderstandings between speakers of two different languages.
Let’s explore some ‘false friends’!
I’d like to tell you a story about my personal experience with ‘false friends’.
I went to an English restaurant with one of my friends from Germany where she ordered some food. My friend spoke to the waiter and said: “I would like to become a steak, please” – would you not look as confused as the waiter you can see in the picture below? This is a classic example of a German false friend in English.


In this example the false friend is the English word “become”, which looks like the German word “bekommen” but actually means something slightly different. The German word “bekommen” isn’t translated as “to become” but as “to get”. Since German and English are both Germanic languages, both verbs derive from the Proto-Germanic word “bikweman” which means “to get something”. In Old English it changed its meaning, while in German it stayed the same. So even though these two words have the same linguistic historical origin, “become” and “bekommen” have no longer the same meaning.
Let’s have a look at another example: Imagine an English woman is in a relationship with a Spanish man. One day the English woman spills her coffee all over her Spanish boyfriend. When she tells her boyfriend “Estoy embarazada”, she might think she is telling him that she is embarrassed, but on seeing the look of shock on his face she realizes she has said something completely different! No, she has not told him that she feels ashamed of what she has done; she has actually told him that she is pregnant!
Always have a keen eye and look out for ‘false friends’ as a translator!
As previously stated, false friends can often cause issues when learning a language or when translating a language. In translation, it is important to have a keen eye and look out for false friends in order to avoid mistakes, even if they can be humorous.


-‘Sorry, sir, no smoking’
Although most of these ‘false friends’ are well known in the process of translation, the best way to avoid false friends is to make sure that your translator has a thorough understanding of both languages. A professional who’s well versed in both languages will have a better chance of predicting and avoiding any potential false friends in a translation. It requires experienced translators working into their native languages to ensure accuracy – TranslationsInLondon provides you with the best, educated translators and professional linguists to do the job.
What about you, have you ever used a false friend in the wrong way? In the end, being tricked by a false friend might turn into a funny anecdote you end up laughing about as me and my friend did after she wanted to become a steak. However, in a medical context, a bad translation could potentially destroy a life. Read the following story: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/27/358055673/in-the-hospital-a-bad-translation-can-destroy-a-life.

If you would like to, please tell us your own anecdote about “making false friends” and comment below!


TranslationsInLondon Ltd
8 Coles Green Court,
Coles Green Road
NW2 7HA London
Registered in England
Company number 7320896
VAT number GB 130052182

Phone number:
Landline: + 44 (0) 20 8452 6652

Email: Click Here To Send An Email

Skype: Click Here To Call Us On Skype