What are false friends in a translation?

Published on 09/02/2024

Translation is a delicate art that requires a deep understanding of two languages, as well as sensitivity to cultural nuances. However, even the most experienced translators can fall into the trap of "false friends", terms that closely resemble each other in one language to another, but have very different meanings. In this article, we will explore these false friends and how to avoid them to ensure accurate and faithful translations.

Índice de contenidos

Index of contents

Index du contenu


  1. What is a false friend in translation?
  2. Classic examples of false friends
  3. How to avoid false friends?

1. What is a false friend in translation?

False friends are words that look similar in two different languages, but have different meanings. They can lead to misunderstandings and translation errors if the translator is not careful. Sometimes, these false friends can seem obvious, but other times, they are more subtle, making them even more dangerous.

2. Classic examples of false friends

  • Actuellement (French) vs. Actually (English): In French, "actuellement" means "at the moment", while in English "actually" means "in reality". Using one instead of the other could lead to total confusion.
  • Librairie (French) vs. Library (English): In French, "librairie" means book shop, compared to the English "library", which refers to a place where books are borrowed.
  • Sympathie (French) vs. Sympathy (English): In French, "sympathie" means having positive feelings towards someone, while in English, "sympathy" translates to "compassion" or "pity". Thus, using the word "sympathy" in English to express a simple appreciation towards someone can lead to confusion.
  • Éventuellement (French) vs. Eventually (English): In French, "éventuellement" means "possibly" or "maybe", while in English, "eventually" is translated as "finally" or "ultimately". Confusing these two terms could lead to incorrect interpretations in a given context.
  • Sensible (French) vs. Sensible (English): In French, "sensible" means "sensitive" or "emotional", while in English, "sensible" is translated as "prudent" or "reasonable". An inappropriate translation could completely change the tone of a sentence.

3. How to avoid false friends?

  • Analyse the register of the language: False friends can sometimes hide in the register. It is crucial to understand the tone, style, and formality of the original text in order to choose appropriate equivalents in the target language.
  • Examine idiomatic expressions: Idiomatic expressions can pose translation challenges because their meaning cannot always be deduced literally. Getting familiar with idiomatic expressions in both languages is essential to avoid translation errors.
  • Emphasize cultural coherence: Understanding cultural differences is just as important as linguistic proficiency. A word that can be perfectly suitable in one cultural context may be inappropriate in another. Translators must therefore take into account cultural nuances to ensure accurate communication.
  • Conduct in-depth research: Before starting a translation, it is essential to conduct thorough research on the context of the text. Understanding the exact meaning of words in their cultural and linguistic context helps to avoid errors.
  • Consult reliable bilingual dictionaries: Using reputable bilingual dictionaries is an effective way to identify and avoid false friends. These resources provide precise definitions and examples of usage.
  • Ask for advice from native speakers: Collaborating with native speakers of the target language can offer valuable insights. Their intuitive understanding of the language can help identify nuances that may escape even the most detailed dictionaries.

In conclusion, translation is an art that goes beyond the mere substitution of words from one language to another. Avoiding false friends requires a deep understanding of the languages involved, as well as sensitivity to cultural differences. By being rigorous and using reliable resources, translators can overcome these linguistic obstacles to deliver accurate and faithful translations. For a a quality, error-free translation, we advise you to use the services of translation agencies.

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Emeline PADIEU's picture
Emeline PADIEU

Emeline holds a Master's degree in Applied Foreign Languages, specialising in International Management and International Trade Techniques. She completed her end-of-studies internship at AbroadLink Translations and now works there as a sales and marketing assistant

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