One of the few downfalls of being raised in a country the whole world wants to come to us is that we may unconsciously develop geographic or cultural blinders. As children of immigrant parents from a Spanish-speaking country, we took Spanish in school because our parents made us, so we wouldn’t lose our mother tongue. We weren’t really prepared for class because we weren’t that interested. We merely hoped that teacher wouldn’t call on us.
Now, close your eyes and take yourself back to that Spanish class. The teacher calls on you. What does La señora ignora la receta del arroz con pollo mean? Ah, the language gods had smiled upon you. You knew what señora and arroz con pollo mean. And there, in the middle of it all, ignora: close to the English “ignore.” A gimme. “The lady ignores the recipe for chicken and rice,” you proudly proclaim. And this being another era, the teacher throws the chalkboard eraser at you. You’ve just been harshly introduced to what linguists call a “false cognate,” which is a pair of words that look almost the same but have completely different meanings. In this case, ignorar in Spanish usually means to be unaware, while “ignore” in English means willful disregard.
The above was a harmless example, but things get trickier. Consider the statement, un gran porcentaje de latinoamericanos ignora que fumar puede causar cáncer. The likely intended meaning for this is that a large percentage of Latin Americans are unaware that smoking may cause cancer. Therefore, if this statement is translated as “a large percentage of Latin Americans ignore that smoking causes cancer,” then –based on common English usage in the United States—it would communicate that they are aware but choose to disregard the information.
Are flying chalkboard erasers and humorous (hopefully) blog posts were the only consequences of false cognates? Hardly. If a false cognate makes its way into the translation of a document to be introduced as evidence in litigation, or to be included in an immigration petition, the consequences can range from humorous to dire. Here’s another example in Spanish of something that might appear in a formal document:
Spanish Original: La carpeta del empleado contiene una nota sobre su rendimiento decepcionante durante el trimestre pasado.
False Cognate Intrusion: “The employee’s carpet includes a note on his deceiving rendering during the last quarter.”
Correct Spanish-English Translation: “The employee’s file includes an entry on his disappointing performance during the last quarter.”
To be fair to Spanish, every language has its own culprits. The French slather their delicious butter on their pain (as in “ouch” or “boo-boo”), while you mostly slather butter on bread. Brazilians have 40 or 50 parentes, and there you are with just two parents (though you do have 40 or 50 relatives). In our world of professional translation, these and other false cognates (or amigos falsos as they’re known in Spanish or faux amis as they’re known in French) are well known. They’re not well known, however, to your cousin who will charge you a fraction of what a professional translation agency will, or maybe even do the translation for free.
Between our experienced, vetted translators and our obsessive quality control staff, we make sure that false cognates don’t make their way into your important translation. We look out for them, we see them, we vanquish them … and then we blog about them. You can learn more about us at www.transformaonline.com. If you need our translation services, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at 305-722-3827.