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Everybody needs to beware of false friends – but especially the translator, and even more so if they specialise in business translation services. The translator’s false friends are not just people who aren’t what they seem – unfortunately, we all know somebody like that – but also words that aren’t what they seem. They look familiar and easy to translate but in fact their meaning can change drastically from one language to another.

Calling somebody a bimbo isn’t exactly a compliment in any language (correct me if I’m wrong – there might well be a dialect spoken in some remote corner of the world in which it means lovely and beautiful …) But in German, it’s even worse than in English because “Bimbo” doesn’t mean a pretty blonde airhead but is an offensive term racists use for a person of African origin.

So if you’re translating a text on the “bimbo effect” (the knee-jerk reflex by which attractive women are automatically assumed to be unintelligent) into German, for example, you either have to use another term or explain the difference in meaning. (Apparently, the English usage is derived from the Italian bambino and originated in American slang in the early 20th century as a pejorative term for brutish, unintelligent men.)

A related issue is the translation of colloquialisms or proverbs, which can sound so natural and familiar in the source language that even as a native speaker, sometimes you find yourself wondering whether the same saying does exist in your target language or not. You may come across these a lot when providing business translation services, as many marketing campaigns rely on them. The internet doesn’t help because it allows bad translations to proliferate. For example, press agencies often seem to use people without any specialised training to translate politicians’ quotes and speeches very quickly. Googling a phrase in order to determine if you can actually say this in proper German or not is usually pointless.

On the other hand, is this really such a bad thing? Languages have always developed and evolved, cultures have always cross-fertilised each other. A lot of colourful expressions and metaphors that we consider quite commonplace nowadays have entered everyday German through translations of Shakespeare or the Bible. If earlier translators hadn’t occasionally trusted their false friends, many of our languages would be a lot poorer. What do you think?

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