False friends, or why the French don’t use preservatives in their food, and why Germans don’t give each other gifts.

When translating one language to another, there are certain traps that professional translators will likely be aware of that others may not be. These linguistic traps are known as “false friends”.

A “false friend” is a word in a language that has a correspondingly similar word in a different language. However, those words do not have the same, or even vaguely similar, meanings. When translating one language to another they feel as if they are an easy substitution, but they are not. They are a trap, and one that can end up with you writing something very different than what you originally intended.

Similar words in different languages

There are huge numbers of words in different languages that both sound the same and have the same meaning. In English more so than ever, as the language has adopted words from many different languages over the centuries.

The German word “Freund” is obvious to an English speaker. As is the French word “hôtel”, but this obvious familiarity is what causes the problems.

When an inexperienced translator works with a language that they are not fluent in and comes across a word that seems to have an obvious synonym in the target language, it is easy to assume they must therefore have the same meaning.

This can lead to some fairly spectacular mistakes in translation.

Let’s look at a few of these false friends:

Mistakes in Translation

In the UK, when one person likes another, they may decide to give them a “gift”. As you almost certainly know a gift is an item or service given without expectation of payment. Often given as a sign of affection.

In German, however, if one person were to give another a “gift” then it would certainly not be a sign of affection! The word “Gift” in German means “poison”. The actual word you would be looking for is “Geschenk”.

In the UK, “preservatives” are often added to food in order to ensure it can be safely stored. Things like sugar, salt, alcohol, or vinegar can act as preservatives for food and have been used for as long as we have been recording such things.

In France, however, the word for an additive that helps prolong the life of food is “conservateur”.

The French word “préservatif” translates directly into English as “condom”. Definitely not something to add to your food!

In England, a “gem” is a precious stone, however in Sweden “gem” can be a humble paperclip. The correct word in Swedish is “pärla”.

In England, embarrassment is a short-lived thing. It is a feeling of self-consciousness or shame, usually caused by something that has happened to you in public.

However, the Spanish word “embarazada” means something very different. It translates into English as “pregnant”.

In Italy the word “morbido” means pleasantly smooth and soft, certainly not the obviously English equivalent.

The list of false friends is extensive and there is no way we could cover them all here. Words like “fart” and “slut” in Danish, “barf” in Farsi, and “pasta” in Portuguese have all caused problems in translation for many people.

But while it is amusing to look at false friends, there is a more serious side to it.

Costly fails in global branding

Some global brands have had serious problems when they have been caught out by inadvertently using poor translations. I’m not talking about the well-known Chevy Nova story, as that appears to be nothing more than an urban myth, but genuine examples.

When Ford released the Pinto worldwide, they had no idea the name had a very different meaning in Brazil. There, “pinto” is an insult that roughly translates as “small penis”.

Ford also failed to notice that their campaign describing the precision bodywork of their cars was telling Flemish speakers that all of their vehicles came with a high-quality corpse.

The Mitsubishi Pajero did very badly in Spanish-speaking countries. “Pajero” is a pejorative used to describe someone who masturbates frequently. The car was renamed the Montero.

And it’s not just cars that have suffered.

When Coors translated its slogan “Turn it loose” into Spanish they failed to notice it was a common term for having diarrhoea.

The fact is, all translators make mistakes from time to time. Which is why here at STAR UK we have systems in place to ensure that these types of errors won’t be made by us. Our translators, whether in-house or freelance, all have higher education qualifications in languages and translation, they work into their native language and most importantly, everything we do is checked by multiple people before it goes out the door.

If you have something important to translate, why not give us a shout?

That way we can hopefully save you the embarrassment of companies like the now bankrupt American airline Brannif International who spent a fortune inadvertently instructing their Spanish-speaking customers to fly naked.