No, we’re not telling you how to know if your friends are real or not. And we’re not talking about some translation spy who pretends to like you, Mr./Ms. Translator, while s/he steals all your tricks.


‘False friends’ is an actual term coined in 1928 to identify those words that sound or look alike in different languages but have significantly different meanings.


If you have just cracked a joke that made a lovely young Spanish lady blush, it would be best not to tell her, ‘Te ves embarazada,’ or you might get slapped. You just told her she looked pregnant when you meant to say, ‘You look embarrassed.’ Voila! A false friend!


You would think if two languages share roots, two words that look or sound the same would have the same meaning, but it ain’t necessarily so. Sometimes it is, but not always, and translators would do well to know when it ain’t.


When a French person tells you something is ‘grande’, they are not telling you how stupendous it is, they are simply saying it’s big.


Don’t be insulted when you drive up to a French friend’s house in your new car, and he asks what you did with your ‘ancienne voiture.’ He just means your former car, not your prehistoric jalopy.[1]


Likewise, if your Spanish friend exclaims, when you see a crowd outside a store, ‘Hay una ganga’, you don’t need to run away for fear of being mugged; she’s just saying there’s a bargain at the store, not a gang.[2]


This is a very short introduction to ‘false friends’. Translators, beware of them, they are out there, just waiting to pounce, and you would do well to know them. We’ll look at some of the different types of false friends in the next blog.


Written by: Brent Adams