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False friends in translation

As linguists, and life-long language learners (we enjoy a little alliteration too), the staff at Dora Wirth (Languages) Ltd. are always on the lookout for the dreaded “faux-amis”.


“False friends”, or more correctly “false cognates”, are pairs of words from two different languages which look similar but can have entirely different meanings.


It is frequently helpful to conversational speakers of more than one European language that we share so many common words, and roots of words, with other continental tongues. However, these perceived similarities can also easily lead to confusion.

For example, a Spanish speaker may promise to do something, “eventualmente”, and an English speaker, recognising a familiar sounding word, might eventually expect this promise to be kept, but the Spanish speaker only meant ‘occasionally’ or ‘depending on what happens’.

Similarly, if a French speaker accused you of being “sensible”, you might think they were complimenting your sound judgement. However, the French word ‘sensible’ is another false friend, and actually means “sensitive”. Don’t be angry: you’re just not as thick-skinned as you thought.

Extrapolating this phenomenon within the field of medicine, a Spanish doctor may record symptoms of “constipación” in a discharge summary, but it would take an English doctor who is fluent in Spanish to recognize that the patient is showing symptoms of the ‘common cold’, and not ‘constipation’.

In everyday situations, these misunderstandings might elicit little more than a strange look. On the other hand, an inaccuracy of this type could render an important medical translation meaningless.

Translations therefore require experienced translators working into their native languages to ensure accuracy – especially where patient safety is concerned.

Here are some examples of medical false friends you may have come across:

Spanish term False friend Possible English translation
especialidad speciality (proprietary) medicinal product
tiempo de espera waiting time withdrawal period
embarazada embarrassed pregnant
morbido morbid soft, delicate


French term False friend Possible English translation
specialité speciality (proprietary) medicinal product
auricle auricle atrium
expérience experience experiment
Remember: According to the EDQM glossary, a ‘soft capsule’ is “Capsule molle” in French; however, a ‘hard capsule’ is translated as ‘Gélule’.


German term False friend Possible English translation
Ambulanz ambulance outpatient department
Dose dose can, tin
Expertise expertise report (by experts)
Gift gift poison
übersehen oversee overlook




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