False Friends

False Friends

Cognates, or words sounding similar in different languages, can be helpful when learning a new language. For instance, abolish in Spanish is abolir. A language learner or limited bilingual speaker might be able to understand the abolishment of something in Spanish if they can extrapolate out from the cognate.

However, there is a class of cognates that impair, rather than help, translation. These are called false cognates or false friends. For example, the word destituido in Spanish means fired, not destitute. Although the terms are not opposites, which would cause complete confusion, they are defined differently. False cognates muddy interpretation and can even mean trouble.

One of the most comical or mortifying false cognates comes from Spanish, where the word for pregnant is emabarazada. That sounds a lot like embarrassed. You might want to tell someone you don't want to embarrass, by saying, "I don't want to get you pregnant." Few things seem like a worse translation.

False cognates do not limit itself to Spanish-English translation. In French, they are called, faux amis, which also translates to false friends. False cognates often develop from the re-defining of words via slang or simply the passing of time. Bouton, for instance, actually means button, and that is a fair cognate. You might be confused overhearing French teenagers complain about their boutons. They're worrying about their complexions because un bouton also means a pimple.

The list of humorous false friends can go on and on. However, realistically, these sorts of mistakes aren't funny in the context of important translations and interpretations. Already faced with the stress of being interpreted, a foreign language speaker doesn't need the confusion coming from imprecise understanding. It may be funny when, "I envy you," has a mistranslation of, "I want you," between French language learning partners, but it is unprofessional in every other context.

False friends are one more reason that interpretation should be left in the hands of skilled professionals, like those at Ablio, with the training needed to make them fully fluent in both native and target language. People who are bilingual aren't proficient enough and attempting to work through cognates without any intermediary is dangerous work, especially in judicial and healthcare contexts.

Be aware of changing meanings of words and cultural definitions. Be amused by false friends. But, never try to rely on cognates as a clear path to communication.