Watch Out for ‘False Friends’

Let’s be clear about one thing: I am not talking about friendship or how to choose friends who will not betray you. Instead, I am simply reminding you of some basic points about so-called “false friends”, or words that tend to be more of a headache for inexperienced translators from English to Spanish (and there are examples in nearly every language pair) and vice versa.

These words are also known as false cognates. In general, they have the same etymological origin, but phonetically evolved differently. Taking into account that there are many Indo-European languages, it is not hard to imagine why there are so many similarities of many words in language pairs in which one comes from the Latin and the other has Germanic origin, for example. Let’s consider, to give one clear illustration, some equivalent of the word night: nit in Catalan and nuit in French, and Nacht in German  and nat in Danish.

As for the language pair I am addressing here, both Spanish and English have proto-Indo-European roots, and you can see that from noche to “night” you just need to take a few phonetic steps. It is true that, where these languages ​​are spoken, night is experienced in different ways, but this is clearly a cultural issue and, at least for now, we’ll skip it. We do have to remember that not everything that glitters is gold and not all words that are similar in their English and Spanish versions are cognates. There are numerous false cognates and yes, they are false friends that you have to be careful with as you would with a neighborhood gossip.

Who of us has never the English word “actual” translated as actual in Spanish? We know that the Spanish translation would be real or concreto. The Spanish word actual is translated into English as “current”. Likewise, “argument” never refers to the argumento or tema of a play, novel or film (which in English would “plot”) but instead to pelea, discusión, confrontación verbal. Or lecture, which is not the same as lectura (which would be “reading”) but is translated as conferencia. Also “sensible” in English, which is equivalent to the term sensato in Spanish, and not sensible, which is instead “sensitive”. We could go on citing several dozens more examples.

We hope that you will understand how tricky it can be to pay attention to false friends, so I will end with some friendly advice: “no caigan nunca en un argument si no tienen suficientes argumentos, pues sería terrorífico, lo cual está muy lejos de ser terrific.” (Don’t get into an “argument” if you don’t have enough grounds, since it would be terrifying, which is far from “terrific”.)

(Versión en español: