When it comes to different languages, not everything is what it seems.
Linguistics is an incredible field of study. It focuses on language, which varies greatly from country to country, and among its most interesting subjects, we can mention false friends.
Words written the same way or with slight differences can have completely different meanings. This also happens among countries that speak the same language, as in Brazil and Portugal, for example.
Let’s check some of the most peculiar words and their meanings in different languages.
False friends and similar, more interesting words
Don’t forget to take key precautions when translating false friends, since one single word can change the whole meaning of a text. Therefore, you can understand why they are known as “false friends” in English, since they can really catch us by surprise.
In Brazil, the word “sacola” usually means a plastic bag, such as those used in supermarkets, free markets, bakeries, butchers and other stores.
However, the same word in Portugal has a totally different meaning. It is used to designate a type of bag that is worn over at least one shoulder, like a bag with a handle, and usually made of cloth.
Although this is not a false friend, it is interesting to note that words from the same language have different meanings in different countries.
Rice, beans, steak, fries and salad: this is one of the most traditional combinations in Brazilian cuisine, and it is easily understood throughout Brazil.
However, when visiting a restaurant in Argentina, Chile or Spain, where the staff only speak their own language, the same words would be understood, but with the difference that the dish could be served too salty.
This is because “salada” in Spanish means “salgada” in Portuguese, i.e. instead of lettuce, tomato and onions, your side dish would probably be a glass of water or juice to help you cope with that much salt.
Not everyone knows the basic rules of translation, which makes the meaning of this word in English look like “mal-educado” in Portuguese. But, in fact, it describes a person who has not attended school, which is different from the meaning this word has in Portuguese, that is “impolite”.
By following the same line of thought, it seems that this word means “parentes” in Portuguese (relatives), like your uncle, cousin, etc. But the word really means “pais” (father and mother) in Portuguese. “Parentes”, in Portuguese, is a false friend and is translated into English as “relatives”.
If a Brazilian goes to Spain and says a lavender flower is “roxa”, people will probably think he is crazy or at least color blind. Don’t worry, this is another popular false friend.
“Rojo” in Spanish, in fact means “vermelho” in Portuguese (red). So, roses are really “rojas”, while the lavender flower is “púrpura”.
This word is so rooted in the Portuguese language that it seems to have a quite clear meaning, but in Portuguese, if you say to an English speaker you saw a nice “propaganda” (advertisement) on TV, it will have a totally different meaning.
“Propaganda” in English means manipulative and deceptive contents, that is, it has a negative connotation. To have the same meaning as Portuguese, the words “advertisement”, “advertising” or simply “ad” can be used.
“Película” (phone skin) is one of the most popular cell phone accessories in Brazil and they are available in plastic, glass, gel and other materials. However, you will get something quite different if you ask a Spanish speaker for it.
In Spanish, “película” means “filme” in Portuguese, meaning you could get a DVD, a VHS tape or even a download code, according to the store where the request was made.
Calling someone “engraçado” is a compliment, both in Brazil and Portugal, but the meaning is different according to the place where the word is used.
In the European country, “engraçado” means interesting. In order to say that something is “engraçado”, as Brazilians mean it, the most appropriate word would be “divertido”.
The translation of “música” from Portuguese into English is “music”, but this is not a big secret. However, its use in English is somewhat different from that in Portuguese, being a false friend.
When the term “music” is used in English, the meaning is not “canções” or “faixas” as in Portuguese, but “música” generally speaking, as in “música popular brasileira”, for example. In order to say “canção”, as in Portuguese, the word “song” must be used in English.
Let’s suppose you live in Portugal and find a genie in the lamp. He says you can make three wishes. So, you ask for a beautiful “estofado”, just like the ones you see in fancy houses that are very comfortable and elegant.
Then, very quickly, the genie fulfills your wish, but brings you a bowl of soup, which is quite different from what you meant. In fact, you can’t say the genie is wrong, since “estofado” in Portugal means “ensopado” (stew) in Brazil.
The gerund in general
It is very common to use the gerund in Brazil, especially in informal situations, such as when talking to friends, for example. However, the situation is different in Portugal, where this grammar rule is very little used.
Although they are not false friends, its use can cause confusion among Portuguese people. Instead of saying “nós estamos passeando”, as it is said in Brazil, for example, Portuguese people usually say “nós estamos a passear”.
This is not a general rule and may vary from region to region, but the gerund is usually replaced with this alternative.
False friends: linguistic realities
It is curious to see how similar words can have totally different meanings in different languages and this shows that curiosity and fun are part of linguistics.
It is no surprise that translation tools are important to professionals in the field, since a mistake could have serious consequences. So, don’t hesitate to use technology in your favor.
A serious and committed translation agency has the necessary expertise to address issues of this kind. Also, false friends can induce people to make mistakes. Therefore, you just can’t be too careful.