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False Friends in Business Translation

False Friends in Business Translation

False friends are bilingual homophones or bilingual homographs, i.e., words in two or more languages that look similar (homographs) or sound similar (homophones), but differ significantly in meaning. The origin of the term is as a shortened version of the expression “false friend of a translator”, the English translation of a French expression (French: faux amis du traducteur) introduced by Maxime Kœssler and Jules Derocquigny in their 1928 book, with a sequel, Autres Mots anglais perfides.

Here are some words (false friends) to look out for when translating business documentation from/to English/Spanish:

Actualmente, actually

Firstly, the classics actualmente and eventualmente. Actual means current or present, and actualmente means ‘currently or ‘at the moment’; if you want to say ‘actually’, you’ll need realmente or en realidad. Eventualmente means ‘possibly’; for ‘eventually’, you want finalmente or por fin.

Commercial, comercial

In most forms of Spanish, comercial (as an adjective) means ‘sales’, but in a more precise sense than English, and un comercial is a ‘sales person’. For ‘a commercial’ you would have to say un anuncio or una publicidad.

Similarly, una advertencia is a ‘warning, piece of advice or reminder’. For ‘advertisment’, use un anuncio or una publicidad.

Fiscally sound

Be careful of fiscal, which means ‘fiscal’ as an adjective, but as a noun (un fiscal) it refers to a ‘district attorney or public prosecutor’.

Negotiate a negocio

Un negocio refers to a ‘business, deal, or transaction’. A ‘negotiation’ is una negociación.

Discussion, deliberate

A classic error comes from not knowing that, whilst un discusión could refer to a simple ‘discussion’, it is more commonly used to describe something like a ‘debate, dispute, or argument’. A ‘discussion’ is rendered as una discusión or, more formally, as deliberaciones.

Compromise, compromiso

Compromiso is, counterintuitively, an ‘obligation, commitment, promise, or agreement’. ‘Compromise’ as a noun can be expressed as una transacción, una avenencia, unas concesiones recíprocas, el término medio, or la solución intermedia. The verb is comprometer or transigir.


Billón is a false friend in the US, where it means ‘trillion’, but perfectly OK in the GB English, which thinks of ‘billion’ in the same way as the Spanish do. A US ‘billion’ would be mil millones.

Payment, salary

Salario refers to ‘hourly wages’, while un sueldo denotes a ‘monthly or yearly salary’.

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