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Our fabulously false friends

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For those of us who have travelled, have learned a language or attempted to converse in a foreign tongue the concept of the sneaky and unreliable false friend will be a familiar one. Most of us will have at some point fallen into their trap with, usually, very humorous consequences! So what exactly is a ‘false friend’?  These are words or phrases which look or sound the same but, in fact, differ in meaning.

When speaking to friends and colleagues everyone had an amusing, if not slightly worrying, tale to tell. Some of which I will share with you here.

After a political get together between Hillary Clinton and Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the then French President said about Hillary: 'She is a professional. But she can be really charming.'  A German translation of this that appeared in the media was: 'Sie ist eine Professionelle. Aber sie kann auch sehr charmant sein.'  This means literally ‘She is a prostitute. But she can be really charming.' An awful mistake but very funny nonetheless.

A family member living in France decided to make some jam, and was talking about the recipe with a French neighbour. In explaining that the products were all completely natural and that no artificial preservatives were used, she plumped for the French translation ‘préservatif’. The neighbour looked very embarrassed and slightly confused and replied in English ‘But, why would you want to put condoms in your jam?’

A Pilipino colleague had numerous amusing titbits with regards to false friends between Spanish and Tagalog, the juiciest of these are as follows:

One tragi-comic example of false friends in the Philippine and Spanish context involves a renowned fashion designer; National Artist Jose Moreno. A well-known Philippine fashion icon in the 60s and 70s, launched a show in Madrid and was met by gales of laughter by his signature moniker ‘Pitoy Moreno’. The Spanish translation of ‘Pitoy’, which is a double diminutive in Tagalog ("Little Pepito"), is a colloquialism for "little penis"!

Further examples in the same language pair revolve around the seemingly innocent everday foodstuffs of bread and rice cakes. Should a Spanish friar visit the Philippines for the first time we would probably be shocked to find that you can buy monay bread (‘monay’ being a rather antiquated Spanish colloquialism for ‘large breasts’). They would, undoubtedly, be even more affronted should they be offered a sweet little rice cake with their coffee and told that it is a ‘puto’, which in Spanish refers to a male prostitute.

Sexual innuendos and jokes aside, for which there are many tales to tell, false friends can also lead to inevitable confusion. For example, a Spanish person asking for directions in the Philippines may get very lost if the instructions should involve the word ‘derecho’, in Spanish ‘a la derecha’ is to the right of something, whereas in Tagalog the sole translation of the similar sounding ‘diretso’ is straight ahead.

One final Spanish false friend that could lead to some embarrassment (pardon the pun) is with the apparently similar ‘embarrassed’ and ‘embarazado’. Whilst ‘embarrassed’ in English is to be ‘ashamed’ or ‘uncomfortably self-conscious’, the similar-sounding Spanish word, ‘embarazada’, means ‘pregnant’. So one may wonder why you are being asked whether you are feeling ashamed about your current situation!

So, the moral of the story is, don’t be lured into a false security by the look or sound of these cunning words. Use with cautionHealth Fitness Articles, and if in doubt don’t!

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Helen Fream works for a leading London translation agency called Rosetta Translation, which specialises in technical translation and interpreting services.

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