Good Friends and Bad Seeds

Anyone who has studied a second language in school would surely remember their teacher’s frequent warnings against one of the most common pitfalls in language learning: false cognates. These are words that look and sound similar in both languages -they may even share the same etymology-, but have different meanings. For example, in English, the word “inflammable” always refers to fire retardant materiazals, whereas in the Spanish-speaking world, the word “inflamable” is written on the outside of every bottle of rubbing alcohol, every gasoline tanker, and every container of chlorine trifluoride, the most flammable substance on the planet. Confusing the two could produce an unfortunate incident as the meaning is exactly the opposite.


Experienced translators are well aware of false cognates, or “false friends”, as the French like to call them. They know to consult reference materials when they are translating technical and scientific documents, they know not to trust neologisms and their neat, morphologically sound appearance, etc.


But sometimes, false friends are not just those words which look similar in two languages. Sometimes, even loanwords can be treacherous.


Did you know, for example, that the French never say “encore” at the end of a show, when they wish the show would go on? Although it sounds perfectly reasonable, since the word describes something still, remaining or continued, a Frenchman would be baffled upon hearing it in that context. The use of “encore” to express this gratitude toward an artist is strictly English. The French, in this situation, actually use a word they borrow from Latin, “bis”, meaning “repeat”.


There is a curious coincidence in that another word, written and pronounced exactly like “bis” also exists in French. “Bis” means “kiss”. Which would also be a sensible way of expressing gratitude.


This is a situation where a translator’s first instincts may play tricks on him. A linguistical hall of mirrors.


The temptation to leave loanwords untouched is great. In most CAT Tools, this action is performed by pressing one button, or a keyboard shortcut.


But CAT tools also provide protection against these pitfalls. Just as easily as they copy text from source to target, they also display glossaries, terminology bases, warnings, comments and reference on screen. And they are not very subtle either; these warnings usually come in bright colors that the translator cannot miss.


It is important for businesses that work across diverse markets to build translation assets. Translation memories and terminology bases are powerful tools that keep the dangers of false cognates at bay. By using these, translators always have references and visible warnings at hand. The owners of these assets can edit them to reflect their preferences, forbid the use of certain terms, and even determine a particular style or register to be used.


It seems then that cognates and loanwords are a translator’s joy buddies, their fair-weather friends, who disappear at the first sign of trouble.  Their real friends, their tried and true friends are the ones that keep them on the straight and narrow path of accurate and meaningful translation: translation memories and terminology bases. And although they may at first appear as insufferable electronic know-it-alls with their constant corrections and reminders, they really are here to help.