20 September 2013

False Friends

One of the greatest challenges for expatriates is learning to communicate in their host country.  Even a common language is no guarantee of easy communication.  I worked for an American company for a while and had to take great care with English colloquialisms, use an American spellcheck and watch out for dates  as American dates are written back to front compared with British ones.  Habits of your home country also stay with you no matter how accultured you become to your host society.  I can still amuse my English husband with the odd, inadvertence use of Dutch time conventions – 10 minutes before the half hour and so on.   

The real confusion arises, however, when you bring a foreign language into the mix.  Homophones (words that sound similar but mean different things) can be a nightmare, for example Pollo (chicken) and Polvo (powder) in Spanish, massage/message in English or  Gäste/Geste in German.  Even worse than homophones, however, are the false friends.  The Russian word for snow, снег, sounds very like snake but you will not get much снег in Sub Saharan Africa.   Интеллигентный sounds like intelligent but means cultured and if someone asks for your Фамилия they are asking for your surname not the health of your family.You might think the Spanish word embrazada means embarrassed but use that word and you will be implying that someone is pregnant  which will probably embarrass you in turn.  If you hear the words trap and tuin in Dutch someone is talking about a stair and a garden.  If a Swede mentions the word bra in conversation he is not (necessarily) referring to an undergarment but saying something is good.  There are literally thousands of false friends just waiting to trip the unwary.

Grammar can be very confusing.  Russian is a fertile language for grammatical nightmares – mostly concerned with adjectives and nouns – the adjective must conform with the gender and case of the noun.  Counting gets particularly difficult so you use a different expression to say one year, two-four years and 5+ years, then repeat for 21, 22-4 etc.  English, however, must be truly terrible for people to learn particularly the vast number of  homophones, the huge number of synonyms, homonyms a-plenty (eg rose/rose as in flower and get up) and our large number of different tenses used in subtly different ways. 

Modern technology can be a lifesaver but Google translate, babelfish and other similar programs are not immune to mistakes.  A former colleague of ours has a young baby and posts photographs of her to an album on Facebook.  Some months ago I commented on one of the photographs which means that  I see when  new people comment on the album.  Most of the comments are along the lines of ‘just like her daddy’ or ‘what a beautiful girl’.  I was very surprised therefore to see an email message telling me that someone had posted the comment ‘Whore, good health baby.’ On the album.  When I looked up the original text I saw that the poster had actually written ‘Cutie’ not ‘Whore’ but the auto translate had got it very very badly wrong.

Facebook Translation Fail

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Ersatz Expat

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