False Friends of a Translator

It is just like in real life …

False friends…you think you know and understand them but then they mean something completely different.

False friends (or false cognates) 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 embarazado, which does not in fact mean ’embarrassed’ but rather ‘pregnant’.

False friends always lead to mistakes; they can really ruin your translation and even make you feel embarrassed, just like in this true story about false friends in the German province:

By Eric Hansson: “This topic about the false friend reminds me of a fellow who once visited my English course at an evening school some years ago. He was an owner of a fitness studio in the small city where the course was held – and the name of the fitness studio was something I had never heard before: Big Ass.

This is by no means something below the belt, and has to be understood as a mix between English and German, with the first word in English and the second one in German, as German “Ass” is for English “ace”. The intention with this name was to make some kind of a positive association with something really good and persuade any prospective visitors to come visit his studio.

He had put up these big signs for his studio along the major roads to this city so every week when I went to school I saw this funny word construction which really made me freak out In my role as an English teacher, I did explain the whole story to this student and all of a sudden all signs had been taken down.”

Did you have any funny (or not so funny) situations with these ‘friends”? Let us know!

Learn more about False friends:

in Spanish: http://spanish.about.com/cs/vocabulary/a/obviouswrong.htm

in German: http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/false_friends.htm

in French: http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/French/Vocabulary/French-English-False_friends.html

in Russian: http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/July2004/21-FalseFriends-Russian.htm#5

The most translated books in history

Top 5:

Bible-in-light1. The Bible

Besides having been translated into 475 languages, The Bible is the most read and sold book in the history of the world.


2. Pinocchio

The story was written by Italian Carlo Collodi and it has been translated into 260 languages.

3. What Does The Bible Really Teach?

This Jehovah’s Witnesses book has been translated into 244 languages.

4. The Watchtower

This magazine is also published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has a circulation of about 42 million copies a month and it is translated into 207 languages.

5. The Pilgrim’s Progress

This text was written by John Bunyan in England in the 17th Century. It had a great cultural impact at the time and has since been translated into 200 languages.


Other books that didnt make it to the top 5, but are still popular for translations are: The Little Prince (>180 languages); Andersen’s Fairy Tales (153 languages); Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (147 languages); The Qur’an (112 languages); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (97 languages); Book of Mormon (82 languages); The Alchemist and Harry Potter (67 languages each); and Pippi Longstocking (64 languages).

Speaking two or more languages does not make a good translator

Translation and interpretation are the ultimate jobs for people who love language. However, the simple fact of speaking two or more languages does not necessarily make a good translator or interpreter – there’s a lot more to it. The best translation is one that you don’t realize is a translation, because it sounds just like it would if it had been written in that language to begin with.

Translation and interpretation require the ability to accurately express information in the target language. Word for word translation is neither accurate nor desirable, and a good translator/interpreter knows how to express the source text or speech so that it sounds natural in the target language.

Translators and interpreters also need to understand the cultures of both the source and target languages, in order to be able to adapt the language to the appropriate culture. Using unqualified translators will leave you with poor-quality translations with mistakes ranging from poor grammar and awkward phrasing to nonsensical or inaccurate information. 

In short, it is in your best interest to find someone who is qualified and certified. A certified translator or interpreter will cost more, but if your business needs a good product, it is well worth the expense. 

5 common North American gestures that can cause offense abroad.

hand4    hand2    hand3    hand5    hand1

Things can get lost in translation when a typical gesture from your country means something completely different  in other parts of the world. Below are five common North American gestures that can cause offense abroad.


“Talk to the hand”. In Greece this gesture is used  to denote displeasure towards the recipient. It is said to be a remnant of Byzantine times, when people could taunt shackled criminals by smearing their faces with excrement.


“Victory”. With the palm facing outward, this V means victory in England, or peace in North America. Too bad the back-handed V sign means “screw you” in most of the English-speaking world.


hand2“Thumb up”. It is especially problematic in certain parts of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia, where the thumbs up is a more aggressive gesture that is basically flipping the birdie to someone.



“Bull Horns”. In Italy this gesture means that a man’s wife is being unfaithful, and he is a fool because of it.


hand1“Got your nose”. In places like Indonesia, China, Russia, and some Mediterranean regions (particularly Turkey), the Fig sign can have an insulting meaning roughly equivalent to “screw you.”