False Friends in Translation


A friend in need is a friend indeed – so promises the old adage. 

False Friends: A Translator’s Worst Enemy!

An innocent abroad or even at home however, should beware of friends whose familiar appearance conveys a comforting reminder of home and lures the gullible into dangerous complacency!  Echoes of a mother’s warning to the prodigal son or daughter heading off on an adventure perhaps?  Indeed, but in this case the caveat refers to linguistic over-confidence which leads the unsuspecting translator to assume that a source word equates to a similar or even identical word in the mother tongue.

Falscher Freund, faux ami, false friend – whatever the language, the mistake is universal and can lead, at best, to embarrassment, but in the event of an international marketing campaign has the potential to cost serious money, time and loss of confidence in the product or service.  In this era of cross-pollination and, purists may declaim, cross-pollution between world languages, exposure to other cultures through the media and more widespread travel and interaction, has led to an increasing acceptance and adoption of words and phrases from foreign climes. 

English, internationally recognised and spoken as the lingua franca of all areas of computer software and hardware development in particular has an inevitable influence, and the English word often replaces an existing indigenous term or, in the case of a new concept becomes the only accepted terminology.  The speed of technology and communication today means that the impact is instantaneous and the sense of the original word or phrase is retained.  However, when the etymological progress moved at a slower pace and changes within a language took decades or even centuries, it was possible for words which originally derived from the same Latin or Greek source, for example, to gradually adopt quite different connotations.  Some meanings remained static, whereas others came to represent quite diverse ideas or objects. 

The translator’s “danger zone” is where words have been imported and have kept their original spelling and even pronunciation. An innocent word such as the German “Oldtimer” – obviously adopted from the English – might  be assumed to mean an elderly, rather traditionally-thinking, relative, whereas in fact it refers to a vintage car.  “Chef” is not the person in charge of culinary delights, but rather the “boss” (some chefs would of course maintain that this is the same thing!).  Similarly, caution should apply when perusing a German Curriculum Vitae – a candidate who has attended a “Gymnasium” was not awarded a sports scholarship, thereby rendering him unsuitable for a desk job, instead he merely attended a standard German secondary school.  In some extreme cases this may lead to short-term embarrassment: the Latin word “praeservativum” has become the English “preservative”, a very useful ingredient in food and drink production in this part of the world, however the suspiciously similar-sounding “préservatif(French) and “Präservativ” (German) both mean “condom” – always read the label!

The language partners of German and English in particular, the latter heavily influenced over centuries and, in part, derived from the former, offer numerous potential quicksand situations for the hapless or inexperienced translator.  “Gift” – the German noun – is an offering most people would not welcome to mark any festive occasion, as it does not mean “present” but rather “poison”, useful to note perhaps when translating a text concerning a suspected homicide.  “Pickel” is not a tasty addition to a salad or burger: to German speakers it’s a pimple.

Many more entertaining examples exist between these and other language pairings and, while they are amusing to read about in an article, they can prove costly: not just in terms of advertising campaigns for products that mysteriously won’t sell abroad, but to a translator’s reputation.  Thus, to take liberties with the writings of Virgil: “Beware of a German bearing Gift”!

Written By Caroline Handschuh, a Professional Linguist & German/English Translator working for DCU Language Services 

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