False friends of the translator

As the true old proverb has it “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. How does it relate to the translator’s work?
Although we do not always realize that, anyone who has learned any foreign language must have come across false friends. Words or expressions referred to as false friends make learning foreign languages difficult especially for those who have only just begun it. However, they have an even greater impact on the work of translators who have to be particularly attentive when they come across such expressions while translating.

What are actually “false friends” of the translator?

The term “false friends of the translator” is a calque of the French les faux amis du traducteur — an expression which refers to the phenomenon introduced into linguistic literature in 1928. The expression was coined by Maxim Koessler and Jules Derecquigny – French linguists and the authors of the book in which this expression was also used as its title.

The very term “false friends of the translator” refers to words existing in two different languages, which have a similar form (either graphic or phonetic) but different meanings. Complicated? “False friends” pose numerous problems both to those who have only just begun learning foreign languages and experienced translators. In social context improper use of some word may cause a burst of laughter or result in awkward silence for a while. As regards specialist translations, however, such a seemingly trivial error in translation may have serious consequences.

Below, we have presented a few examples of false friends:

Interestingly, false friends can be found also within one language, e.g. English. For an American person the word suspender means “braces”, whereas for a British person it means a “garter belt”. False friends may also affect non-verbal communication. The most common mistake made by Poles spending their holidays in, e.g. Bulgaria, is the wrong interpretation of non-verbal confirmation or negation. In the culture of people living in the Black Sea region, a single nod of one’s head up means “no” while turning it from the left to the right means “yes”.

“False friends” versus internationalisms

Reflecting on these issues, we should also mention internationalisms which are considered by some researchers to be one of the reasons for the emergence of the phenomenon in question.

Internationalisms are words which sound very similar or even identical in several or even a dozen or so languages as the word from which they originate. Unlike “false friends”, they have the same meaning. Learning a foreign language or translating a text, we should bear in mind that these two concepts stand in opposition to one another and we need to learn to distinguish them.

Internationalisms are particularly apparent within languages of the same group, e.g. the Romanesque or Germanic ones. A common etymology of a given word is also conductive to their emergence. European languages contain a great deal of words of Latin or Greek origin which can serve as excellent examples of internationalisms. Any example? The Polish cywilizacja, German Zivilisation, Spanish civilización and English civilization. As we can see, the word of Latin origin has taken very similar forms (both in graphic and phonetic terms) in several languages while retaining its original meaning.

While internationalisms make learning foreign languages easier, “false friends” can make it much more difficult. For translators this means that they have to be even more focused on the text, and for learners – that they should abandon the standard way of thinking about languages and try to think outside the box.

False friends of the translator

As the true old proverb has it “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. How does it relate to the translator’s work?

Although we do not always realize that, anyone who has learned any foreign language must have come across false friends. Words or expressions referred to as false friends make learning foreign languages difficult especially for those who have only just begun it. However, they have an even greater impact on the work of translators who have to be particularly attentive when they come across such expressions while translating.

What are actually “false friends” of the translator?

The term “false friends of the translator” is a calque of the French les faux amis du traducteur — an expression which refers to the phenomenon introduced into linguistic literature in 1928. The expression was coined by Maxim Koessler and Jules Derecquigny – French linguists and the authors of the book in which this expression was also used as its title.

The very term “false friends of the translator” refers to words existing in two different languages, which have a similar form (either graphic or phonetic) but different meanings.Complicated? “False friends” pose numerous problems both to those who have only just begun learning foreign languages and experienced translators. In social context improper use of some word may cause a burst of laughter or result in awkward silence for a while. As regards specialist translations, however, such a seemingly trivial error in translation may have serious consequences.

Below, we have presented a few examples of false friends:

Interestingly, false friends can be found also within one language, e.g. English. For an American person the word suspender means “braces”, whereas for a British person it means a “garter belt”. False friends may also affect non-verbal communication. The most common mistake made by Poles spending their holidays in, e.g. Bulgaria, is the wrong interpretation of non-verbal confirmation or negation. In the culture of people living in the Black Sea region, a single nod of one’s head up means “no” while turning it from the left to the right means “yes”.

“False friends” versus internationalisms

Reflecting on these issues, we should also mention internationalisms which are considered by some researchers to be one of the reasons for the emergence of the phenomenon in question.

Internationalisms are words which sound very similar or even identical in several or even a dozen or so languages as the word from which they originate. Unlike “false friends”, they have the same meaning. Learning a foreign language or translating a text, we should bear in mind that these two concepts stand in opposition to one another and we need to learn to distinguish them.

Internationalisms are particularly apparent within languages of the same group, e.g. the Romanesque or Germanic ones. A common etymology of a given word is also conductive to their emergence. European languages contain a great deal of words of Latin or Greek origin which can serve as excellent examples of internationalisms. Any example? The Polish cywilizacja, German Zivilisation, Spanish civilización and English civilization. As we can see, the word of Latin origin has taken very similar forms (both in graphic and phonetic terms) in several languages while retaining its original meaning.

While internationalisms make learning foreign languages easier, “false friends” can make it much more difficult. For translators this means that they have to be even more focused on the text, and for learners – that they should abandon the standard way of thinking about languages and try to think outside the box.

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