False Friends Or The Illusion That Translation Is Easy

The following post was originally shared by an English-Spanish translator colleague, but sadly not available anymore. Since I found the content very relevant to other language pairs as well, I am publishing it here as well.

Translating is easy if… we don’t take into account certain aspects that are essential to deliver a good quality translation. Those aspects are the ones competent translators learn how to take care of through academic training or through professional experience. Between English and Spanish, and of course between other language pairs too, translating is easy if we don’t pay attention to, for example, false friends or idioms, to how the gerund translates into the target language or how punctuation rules vary between the two language systems. It’s easy if we don’t care about language varieties: US Spanish, Latin American Spanish or European Spanish. So yes, the rendition of a text into another language can be pretty easy, yet of poor quality. And that being the case, there will be fewer, if not zero, chances that the translated text will fulfill the intended communicative effects.

Translating is easy if we see sensible in English and we write sensible in Spanish; if we see embarrassed translated as embarazada, or even worse, though not possible: embarazado?! In other words, translating is easy if we don’t pay close attention to the translation of false friends, also known as deceptive cognates, between English and Spanish. False friends constitute a common topic of study among languages sharing a common origin or that are in close contact, like English and Spanish in the U.S. And as translators or language professionals, it’s important to bear in mind that “the presence of false friends in proficient language users such as translators, language teachers, journalists, etc. is not to be underestimated because they are often difficult to identify” (Beltrán 30).

A Little Bit of Theory

First things first, definitions. The Macmillan Dictionary tells us that a false friend is “a word in a language that looks or sounds similar to a word in another language but means something different”. The Longman Dictionary, defines false friend as “a word in a foreign language that is similar to one in your own, so that you wrongly think they both mean the same thing”. According to Wikipedia, “false friends are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada, which does not in fact mean ’embarrassed’ but rather ‘pregnant’.”

Some Examples

  1. actual (current) > actual, instead of real, verdadero
  2. aggressive (go-getter) > agresivo, instead of dinámico
  3. attend (to be present at) > atender, instead of asistir
  4. billion > billón, instead of mil millones
  5. college > colegio, instead of universidad, facultad
  6. embarrassed (feeling or showing embarrassment) > embarazada/o?! instead of  [Tener] vergüenza, [dar] pena, [sentir] avergonzado
  7. injury > injuria, instead of herida
  8. introduce (to introduce a person) > introducir, instead of presentar
  9. sensible (sensitive) > sensible, instead of sentaso, prudente, acertado, razonable
  10. sentence(a set of words that is complete in itself) > sentencia, when it should mean oración


Now that we have a clear idea of what false friends refer to, its important to realise that not all false friends are exactly the same. In his paper Towards a Typological Classification of False Friends, Rubén Tacón Beltrán distinguishes between six different types:

  1. True cognate: phonetic. E.g.: Eng. laboratory = Spa. laboratorio.
  2. True cognate: graphic. E.g.: Eng. horizon = Spa. horizonte
  3. Partial false friends: phonetic. E.g.: Eng. (to) attend (to be present = asistir; to listen carefully = prestar atención) ≠ Spaatender (to pay attention) || Eng. (to) attend to = Spa. ocuparse de; atender (a shop assistant).
  4. Total false friends: phonetic. E.g.: Eng. (to) assist = Spa. ayudar; asistir (help); ≠ Spa.  asistir (to attend).
  5. Partial false friends: graphic. E.g.: Eng. agenda = Spa. orden del día; agenda (programa); ≠ Spa. libreta (diary).
  6. Total false friends: graphic. E.g.: Eng. lecture = Spa. charla, conferencia, clase universitaria; ≠ Spa. lectura.

It’s also important to bear in mind that false friends vary depending on language variety (U.S. English and British English; U.S. or Latin American Spanish and European Spanish) and language pairs (English-Spanish; English-Portuguese; Portuguese-Spanish).

Inaccurate Translation of False Friends: Serious Consequences

If you’re a translator, you must have heard about the case of Willie Ramirez and you know the story of intoxicadothe 71-million-dollar word. When Mr. Ramirez (18 years old at that time) arrived to Florida hospital back in the 1980s, there were plenty of people who could speak both English and Spanish, but none of them were professional translators or interpreters. His family told the doctors that their boy was intoxicado and, unfortunately, the word was misinterpreted as ‘intoxicated’. Willie’s family thought that he had food poisoning caused by eating an undercooked hamburger; however, later on it was found that Mr. Ramirez had an intracerebral hemorrage.

Intoxicado in Spanish “refers to a state of poisoning, usually from ingesting something that is toxic to the system.” Intoxicated in English means ‘drunk’ (en estado de embriaguez), and thus Willie was diagnosed with an intentional drug overdose. As a result, in great part due to this misinterpretation, the young boy “was diagnosed incorrectly, leading to the wrong course of treatment and, eventually, to quadriplegia.” He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million and that’s why the word intoxicado is referred to as the 71-million word.

The mistranslation of a false friend can have serious consequences. Translators and interpreters are trained to be aware of the nuance of language and how it can affect cross-lingual communication, the average bilingual is usually not.