Interpretation Errors with False Friends

Interpretation errors with false friends

When rapidly switching back and forth between two languages during a fast-paced conversation, an inexperienced interpreter might accidentally use a “false friend.”  Interpretation errors with False friends are words from two different languages that sound similar but have meanings that are not the same.  The differences can be subtle, but in many cases the meanings of the words are completely unrelated, or even the exact opposite of each other.   Mistakenly using a false friend is an interpretation error that can cause a variety of issues.   Sometimes a word that conveys praise will have a false friend in another language that is insulting.  Interpreters need to be careful to avoid causing confusion or offense.

The mildest interpretation errors involving false friends are when the two words have entirely unrelated meanings.  Accidentally misusing these kinds of false friends may cause momentary confusion, but because their definitions are so different, it quickly becomes apparent when a mistake has been made.  For example, in Dutch, “monster” means “specimen” or “sample.”  If an interpreter for a Dutch environmental scientist told an English-speaking colleague that they “took several monsters from the lake last week,” it would be obvious that a misinterpretation had occurred.

Differences in meaning between false friends can often be quite subtle though, and mistakes with these words can lead to greater confusion.  In some cases, the definitions of a word and its false friend could both seem reasonable in the context of a conversation.  For example, consider the French word “decevoir” and the English word “deceive.”  In French, “decevoir” means “to disappoint,” not “to deceive.”  The outcome of a scientific experiment could plausibly be described as either disappointing or deceptive, but these adjectives are not synonymous.  If the results of a study were disappointing, it would be inaccurate to refer to them as deceptive.

Another example is the German word “eventuell,” which means “potentially” or “possibly.”  This is not the same as the English word “eventually,” which means “ultimately” or “in the end.”  There is a big difference between telling a patient, “it’s possible this course of treatment will heal your disease” and “in the end, this course of treatment will heal your disease.”   Also consider the word “decade,” which occurs in both the English and Dutch languages.  If an interpreter for a Dutch software company told an English-speaking customer that a bug fix would be available to them within the next “decade,” they would think that their issue was not being taken seriously.  This would be an unfortunate misunderstanding, because in Dutch, “decade” means “ten days.”

There are also false friends with opposite meanings.  Consider the English word “push” and the Portuguese word “puxe” (pronounced “poosh”).  These words sound roughly the same, but “puxe” actually means “pull.”  Another example is the Turkish word “beter,” which sounds like the English word “better,” but means “worse.”  Imagine a scenario in which an English-speaking doctor, with the assistance of an interpreter, asks a Turkish-speaking patient how they are responding to an increased dosage of medicine.  If the Turkish-speaking patient says things are getting “beter,” a misinterpretation could cause the doctor to think the patient’s condition is improving, and the dosage could be increased even more.  The Japanese word “tenshon” sounds like the English word “tension,” but it means “energy,” “excitement,” and “peppiness.”  It would be unfortunate if an interpreter for a Japanese employer told an enthusiastic, well-liked English-speaking contractor that their presence at the company was causing a lot of “tension” in the workplace.

Perhaps the worst possible interpretation error with false friend that an interpreter can make is to inadvertently offend someone by using a word that has an insulting meaning in their language.  In English, the word “fastidious” means “diligent,” “meticulous,” or “detail-oriented.”  In Italian, however, “fastidioso” means “nagging,” “continuously troublesome,” or “tiresome.”  Describing a colleague who carefully double-checks all their work as “fastidious” would be a compliment in English.  Using “fastidioso” to describe that same person in Italian would be quite insulting though, and it would sound like criticism rather than praise.  Another example is the Greek word “ιδιωτικός” (ie. idiotikós).  It means “private,” but is pronounced similarly to the English word “idiotic.”  This could result in a disastrous interpretation error, such as describing a business associate who is reserved and quiet as an “idiotic person.”

Interpretation errors with false friends can cause confusion, embarrassment, or even offense.  It is important to hire highly skilled interpreters who are fluent in both languages. Experienced language professionals encounter false friends all the time in their work, and they know how to avoid making the types of mistakes discussed in this article.  Feel free to contact us at Translation Excellence to discuss any questions you have about interpretation services. You can call us at 720-325-0459 or e-mail us at info@translationexcellence.com.  One of our experts would be delighted to speak with you about your interpretation needs.

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Nisar, the dynamic force behind Translation Excellence, stands tall as its founder and CEO. This isn’t just any company—it’s a global heavyweight in boutique language services. Hailing from the vibrant city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nisar brought his passion and expertise to the U.S. shores in 2001. In the realm of languages, he’s a titan. With 19 years under his belt, he’s worn hats from a linguist and instructor to a cultural bridge-builder and curriculum craftsman.

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