Translation musings: Beware of your false friends!

Feb 16, 2016 | Language, Musings

false friendsLanguage learners are usually thrilled when they meet a new word that sounds or reads the same as in their mother tongue. Hurray, one less word to worry about! It’s easy to remember that “dangereoux” means “dangerous” in French. Or, in Portuguese, “arquivos” is the same as “archives”. “Stazione” is Italian for “station”…

However, it’s best if these similarities are taken with a pinch of salt. Even though similar words in different languages may stem from one ancient root, throughout the ages meanings might evolve in various ways, departing from the original. In some cases it’s hard to tell after a while what the common root was. This is where problems could arise. Trusting these false friends could result in misunderstandings or even extremely awkward situations.

For example, if someone calls you “bizarro” in Spain, don’t get offended. They just think you are a gallant, brave person.

In Russia, you can buy a magazine in a “магазин” (magazin) – which means “shop” in Russian.

Don’t get surprised if you ask for a “ジュース” (jūsu) in Japan and get some soft drink instead of fruit juice.

Speaking of beverages! Asking for an “ale” in Finland might not get you a good pint, however, you could still end up with a good bargain as it means “sale” or “reduced price”. (In this case there is no etymological connection between the two words.)

When Hungarians tell you they find you “szimpatikus”, it does not mean that they think you are “sympathetic”. (Which is not a bad thing either.) They actually like you.

And the list of false friends could go on and on… So, remember: all that glitters is not gold. You might think you hit the jackpot with a similar word in another language but in the end you could still find yourself in linguistic trouble.