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Watch out for false friends!

Guest contribution by Isobel Hamilton

Nobody likes a false friend. They’re sneaky, they’re treacherous and they can pull the rug right out from under you. False friends are troublesome enough in human form, but here at Peschel Communications we have to be on the lookout for a different incarnation of these dastardly fiends, for there exists a linguistic booby-trap known as a ‘false friend.’

In language, a false friend is a word that closely resembles a word in another language but has a different meaning. Being very closely related, German and English share many similar words or ‘cognates,’ and although this is largely helpful for communication between the two languages, it makes it much more difficult to spot when the meaning is not as similar as it seems.

A good example of a very common and very tricksy false friend is the verb müssen. When in use it looks very similar to the English word must, and indeed that can often be a fair translation. But what müssen really means is to have to, which makes all the difference when put in the negative. To give an example, I once went to see my Granny who had been on the phone to her German friend. She seemed somewhat irritated which was surprising, normally they get on very well.

“What’s the matter Granny?” I asked,
“It’s Angelika, she says I mustn’t pick her up from the airport!”
“You mustn’t?”
“Yes I mustn’t! Honestly, it’s not like her to be this bossy.”
It took us a while to work out what Angelika had really been saying:

du musst mich nicht vom Flughafen abholen
That is to say:
“you don’t have to pick me up from the airport.”

In this way the false friend had taken a perfectly polite sentiment and twisted it into a barked order, sowing bitterness between old friends. It’s bad enough when false friends infiltrate friendly conversation, but in professional translation they can be an absolute killer. In a business where precision is paramount, these sly mistranslations cannot be allowed to slither into the language. Big business ventures have fallen prey to false friends in the past. In the 1970s a British firm tried to market a perfume called ‘Body Mist’ to the Germans, and assuming the languages were similar enough they kept the name as is. A translator could have told them that this name doesn’t exactly convey the fragrant romanticism that they were going for in the English, as in German ‘Mist’ means ‘dung’ or even ‘crap.’

Unfortunately false friends aren’t just restricted to words that literally resemble other words; there are subtler ways for them to sabotage a translation. When learning German, you start to familiarise yourself with its composite nature. Dissecting long words becomes routine, and this is where another kind of false friend comes into play. Most of the time you can use chunks of the language you already know to work things out. For example, if you know that Kette = chain and Raucher = smoker, you can deduce that Kettenraucher is a chain smoker. This ability to create new words through compilation is highlighted by Mark Twain in his essay The Awful German Language, although his reaction to them was rather extreme:

“These long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed.”

No doubt he would have been even more enraged to learn that these “combinations of words” (or “compound nouns” as they’re more commonly known) can be directly misleading. This is because the habit of deciphering them can lead to complacency. Taking for granted that the composite parts of a word add up to the literal equivalent in English, you start mapping them neatly onto one another. Regrettably no two languages map neatly one to one. Enter the false friend, and suddenly you’re confusing an entrepreneur for an undertaker (Unternehmer = entrepreneur) or a university for a high school (Hochschule = university). Working with corporate and legal translations, we sometimes run up against confusion surrounding the word ‘Richtlinie.’ This can trip up even high level language speakers, as it is often mistranslated as ‘guideline’, which implies a certain amount of flexibility. Think of Pirates of the Caribbean when Captain Barbossa describes the Pirate Code, “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.‘Richtlinien’ however are binding and must be obeyed, making this another case of languages not matching up exactly. This caused confusion in a meeting, where the German side of things were flabbergasted to find that their American peers had not followed their ‘guidelines’ to the letter.

False friends can even be context-dependent, meaning you have to look at the rest of the sentence to work out whether or not you’re dealing with one of the devils. Take the German word See, depending on its gender it can have two meanings: sea in the feminine, or lake in the masculine. Here you have to spot the false friend lurking in the grammar surrounding the word, rather than in the word itself. For English speakers this is particularly difficult, we are not used to combing through a sentence to work out a word’s meaning.

English is a mongrel language, and as such we share many words with our European neighbours. This means we have to be extra careful not to assume that similar-looking words are similar in meaning. Every language learner has an embarrassing story involving a false friend; a student I know was working in a bar in France and proudly told all the customers that the beer was “sans préservatifs.” Unfortunately for him “préservatif” in French doesn’t mean “preservative” but “prophylactic,” meaning he got some rather odd looks from the customers. Another young man was even more mortified when, upon meeting his girlfriend’s French mother for the first time, he tried to ask her whether she had put “présrvatifs” in the jam.

The silver lining to these humiliations is that we learn through them, and slowly but surely we build up an immunity. With experience comes skill, and the satisfaction you get from dodging these linguistic pit-falls makes up for the embarrassment of having fallen in them in the first place. At the very least linguistic false friends can be banished with a dictionary, if only their human counterparts could be so easily dispelled…