Friend or Faux? The False Friends of Translators

Are you translating content for a multilingual campaign? Learning a new language? Going on a holiday overseas? Or trying to converse with a partner in their native tongue? Whatever motivates you to speak a foreign language, don’t be fooled by ‘false friends’.

What are the false friends?

In linguistics, false friends, or false cognates, are words that look or sound similar in two languages, but in reality have completely different meanings. As a result, a person learning, speaking or translating from a foreign language may come across a word that is similar to one in their native language and mistakenly assume it has the same meaning.

The term comes from the longer phrase “faux amis du traducteur” (false friends of the translator), first introduced by French linguists Koessler and Derocquigny in 1928.

Where do false friends come from?

There are various reasons for which false friend word pairings exist.

Shared origin
False friends occur when the words in two languages stem from the same root language, and over time, the meaning of the word evolves in a different way in each language.

Some words may have the same or similar spelling or pronunciation but different connotation and etymology in the two languages.


It is not uncommon for languages to borrow elements and words from one another. For example, there are words in other languages that are formed with English borrowings and may look familiar to you, but in fact have another meaning.

Equivalents or false friends?

False friends words can lead people into funny, embarrassing or, in the worst case, even insulting situations.

You may see the Spanish word delicioso and instantly think it means delicious in English. You would be right and that’s what linguistics call near perfect cognates – words that look alike or almost alike in both languages and have the same meaning.

Then, you may assume that the Spanish word embarazada is equivalent to embarrassed in English, but you’d be wrong. Embarazada actually means pregnant in Spanish.
Similarly, the word Gymnasium in German does not refer to a gym, where you do sports and lift weights. Gymnasium is a type of school in Germany, similar to the English grammar school.
These word pairs are classic examples of false friends

Here is a list of some other common false friends in other languages:

Spanish Resembles in English Actual meaning
constipado constipated a cold
exito exit success
Italian Resembles in English Actual meaning
fabbrica fabric factory
male male evil
French Resembles in English Actual meaning
journee journey day
avertissement advertisement warning
sensible sensible sensitive

What can you do about it?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that can help you instantly recognise and correctly translate false friends, even if you know the language. However, professional translators with strong localisation and cultural knowledge, are aware of these linguistic traps, and have the necessary skills to get the message with the right meaning across.

The LOTE Agency are a team of multidisciplinary specialists, multicultural communication and translation experts, dedicated to partnering with clients to create meaningful results. Get in touch today to find out how we can help you achieve your communication goals. 

Share This