A Gift of Poison Fish

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Translators’ false friends

I recently heard about a mystery story in which the American murder victim tried to tell the French witnesses that he’d been poisoned. When he died, the witnesses couldn’t understand why he’d been asking for fish (poisson in French).

Another story has it that, after World War II, the U.S. distributed food packages to the Germans. To make sure that the Germans appreciated the magnanimity of their former enemies, the Americans labeled the packages “Gift of the U.S.” The problem was that the U.S. officials had not taken the time to check the label with a German-speaker. In German, gift means poison. Not surprisingly, there were few takers for the packages.

Both these stories illustrate the linguistic concept of “false friends“—words that look similar or the same in two languages, but mean different things. The existence of these false friends is one reason for the often hilarious results that you find on menus, signs and other materials translated by the one employee who “speaks (a little) English.”

False Cognates and False Friends

Actually, poison-poisson and gift-gift are examples of “false cognates,” which some linguists distinguish from false friends. False cognates are words that look or sound the same or similar in different languages, but are not actually related—or their relationship is lost in the past. False cognates usually have totally different meanings. No halfway decent translator would make a mistake on a false cognate.

True false friends, however, can be a problem for any translator who is not very well versed in both the source and target languages. Translation problems caused by false friends can crop up anywhere. For instance, a plaque on the observation platform at the top of the Eiffel Tower refers to Thomas Edison as a “physician,” apparently a bad translation of physicien (physicist).

Since English has borrowed freely from so many languages, false friends can be a constant problem. This is especially true in translations between English and romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian, because those languages, as well as many English words, derive from the same Latin roots. Actuellement (fr.), actualmente (sp.) and attualmente (it.) all mean “currently.” They should not be translated into English as “actually,” but they frequently are.

Ordinarily translators works from one or more languages into their native language—the language they know best. But translators still need a very good grasp of the nuances of the source languages. Otherwise, false friends will get them every time.

The BBC website has a page of often humorous examples, sent in by their readers, of real life problems caused by false friends.

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