Here’s a false cognates pop quiz:

If you say “Estoy embarazada,” are you telling someone that you’re embarrassed, or that you’re pregnant?

How about your Portuguese friend tells you “Me peidei!” Is this person telling you it’s payday! Or that you may want to move to another part of the room since he or she has just passed gas?

If you chose “pregnant” and “passed gas,” then you’ve identified the perils of false cognates.

What Are False Cognates?

False cognates are pairs of words that sound or look the same (sometimes even identical) but have very different meanings. Linguists will sometimes call these words False Friends, which comes from the longer phrase “false friends of the translator” coined in 1928 by two French linguists. These words are also sometimes called deceptive words, treacherous twins or belles infidèles (unfaithful beautiful women). The term “false friends” is actually a broader category that includes false cognates, and refers to any pair of lookalike words from two languages that don’t have the same definition.

Can False Cognates Affect Your Translation?

The short answer to this question is that it shouldn’t if you’re using a professional Language Services Provider (such as Avantpage). A professional translator would usually not make a fundamental mistake such as confusing false cognates. When our translators adhere to important guidelines that guarantee high-quality translation, they always keep in mind the audience of the document. As a result, our translators and editors always consider your end-users and what false cognates may pertain to them.

When False Cognates Get Funny

That being said, false cognates are sometimes very humorous! Here are some of our favorite examples of tricky false cognates.

  • : A Chinese word that usually connotates a high-class restaurant. It’s pronounced, “Cāntīng” which sounds like the English word “canteen,” which can refer to a flask for carrying liquids or a small cafeteria or snack bar.
  • Gift: A German word that means poison.
  • Introducir: A Spanish word meaning to “insert.” The word “presentar” means to introduce.
  • 抹布: A Mandarin word that means “rag” or “dishcloth.” It’s pronounced similarly to the English word “mop,” – but “mop” would better be translated as 拖把 “tuōbǎ.”
  • Kissa: A Swedish word that means “pee.”
  • Der chef: A German word meaning boss or manager.

Those are just a few examples of some false cognates that can cause some confusion. But, if you’re using a professional Language Services Provider, you won’t have to worry about a thing.

Joanna oversees sales growth by ensuring that our clients receive excellent customer service and dedicated account management. She has always had a passion for languages, and believes that language access is a fundamental right. Over the last ten years, Joanna has worked in many different aspects of the translation industry, and brings this varied experience to Avantpage’s clients and partners. But she’s other things too! Joanna is an avid film-lover and board member of the Sacramento French Film Festival. She enjoys traveling, reading, and playing the piano – all in between remodel projects in her Victorian home.