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False friends are letters in two alphabets or words in two languages that sound or look similar, but greatly differ in meaning.
Obviously, when speaking about translation and ‘false friends’ we’re not talking about friendships and having people in your life who won’t betray you. What we are doing, though, is reminding you of some basic rules regarding so-called ‘false friends’, or words that can cause all kinds of problems for inexperienced translators working on the ‘English to Spanish’ pair.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to this particular pairing; there are examples in almost every language pair. These sneaky little expressions come disguised, appearing to be an obvious translation from our mother tongue, when in fact their meaning is entirely different.
False friends are letters in two alphabets or words in two languages that sound or look similar, but greatly differ in meaning. For example, there’s the English word ‘embarrassed’, compared with the Spanish word embarazada (which actually means pregnant). Another example is the word sensible, which in English means ‘thoughtful’ but in Spanish and French means ‘sensitive’.
‘False friends’ is just another term for ‘false cognates’. They generally have the same etymological origin, but phonetically evolved differently. Remembering, of course, that there are many Indo-European languages, so it’s not difficult to understand why there are so many similarities of so many words in language pairs where (for example) one comes from Latin origin and the other has Germanic origin.
For our example let’s consider an equivalent of the word ‘night’: we have nat in Danish; nacht in German; nuit in French, and nit in French. And, with the language pair we’re discussing here, both the Spanish and English languages have proto-Indo-European roots, so there are a few phonetic steps that must be taken to get from ‘noche’ to ‘night’.
Words that are similar may also fail to pick up all the nuances of each word in both languages. As an example, the French word ‘demande’ simply means ‘request’, which is quite similar to, but actually very different from, ‘demand’ in English and the word ‘demandar’ in Spanish.
Not all words that are similar in their English and Spanish versions are actually cognates: there are many false cognates, and it’s true that they are false friends: they’re the ones that you should be careful with, just as you would with neighbourhood gossip.
There is much to learn about ‘false friends’ when it comes to translation, and perhaps to life in general! But staying with translation for the moment, if you’re looking for an accurate translator you should always look for someone who’s professional and experienced – someone who understands only too well about ‘false friends.