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Spanish-English False Cognates

Translating from Spanish to English can be tricky. Take care with these tricky terms.

Also available in: español

Today’s editing tip focuses on the translation process, which is never easy. Beyond mastering varying grammar rules, new pronunciations, and potentially entirely new alphabets or writing systems, there are other tricky aspects to learning a new language. One particularly pesky trap when translating from one language to another is a set of words known as false friends or false cognates. These terms look similar but have different meanings. Be sure to watch out for these as you translate text or speak in a foreign language; it can be easy to think that a similar-sounding word you’ve heard before is the equivalent of a word you know in your first language. And of course, there are enough similar-sounding words in English already!

Here is a list of some common false pairs in Spanish and English, focusing on words encountered in scholarly writing:

  • Actualmente = currently (not actually)
  • Aprobar un examen = to pass an exam (not to approve an exam)
  • Argumento = rationale (not argument)
  • Contestar = to answer (not to contest)
  • En absoluto = not at all (not absolutely)
  • Éxito = success (not exit)
  • Familiar = relative or familial (not familiar, meaning well known)
  • Fútil = trivial (not futile)
  • Idioma = language (not idiom)
  • Lectura = reading (not lecture)
  • Librería = bookstore (not library)
  • Molestar = to bother (not to molest)
  • Nombre = name (not number)
  • Realizar = to complete (not to realize)
  • Recordar = to remember (not to record)
  • Un científico = a scientist (not a scientific)

Please email us with any questions or comments. This list was created in conjunction with AJE’s Academic Translation Advisors.

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