False friends are words from different languages that have a very similar form (morphology), but which have very different meanings.
False friends are often used in translations made by amateurs or by people with little education or experience in the field. It’s common to find them in literal translations where whoever is translating gets carried away by the form of the word (morphology), and doesn’t research the meaning of the two words in each language (semantics). This leads to inexact communication.
If the readers don’t know the mistranslated word’s original language, they don’t have the tools to detect the error. As a result, the bad translations – present in both books published by publishing houses and newspapers – irremediably become general knowledge, and a lot of people mistakenly adopt a false friend for expressing a concept.
The problem is worse when the false friend manages to be introduced in a community of speakers in a specific class. For example, a group of researchers, a college, professors in a faculty, and professionals in an area… Then, in no time, the members of that community are using a false friend when talking to each other, and they all seem to understand the meaning of the false friend. They ask philologists why it is necessary to correct it if they all understand it.
My answer is always halfway between respect for the rule, and good communication: a false friend, usually, is the result of human mistake; this mistake can only become general knowledge if people involved in the media don’t correct it in time. If we’re part of the media (whether we’re editors, publishers, style correctors or writers of any kind, journalists included), our profession requires us to use words responsibly. It’s sad when a non-specialized reader uses a bad translation in a recognized publication to back and legitimize the use of a false friend.
On the other hand, if we find a community of speakers where a false friend has been introduced without warning, it’s always good to rectify its meaning, even if it’s done slowly. If we want our language to change, it has to be done properly: it should be because speakers are adapting to new communication needs, and not because of the inevitable and unconscious introduction of mistakes that weren’t corrected in time.
To expand upon the topic of false friends, I recommend reading the entry for “false friends” in José Martínez de Sousa’s Dictionary of Redaction and Style (2003), where he explains the origin of the term and proposes alternatives for its name.
False friends: “facilities” are not “facilidades”
In the tourism field, there’s a false friend that’s infiltrated into all kinds of texts: using ‘facilidades’ when meaning ‘facilities’.
This use has been so generalized that it’s even found in careless translations done by prestigious publishing houses (I know at least one case with a Mexican publishing house whose name I won’t mention), and in all kinds of informative documents like brochures, posters and websites.
For example, a poster at a national park in Costa Rica says the following: “Servicios y facilidades.” Under this section are listed, among others, the following points: “Nine different trails, suspension bridge, guided walks, lodging with amenities to accommodate 47 people.” In the same poster, you can find the English translation of this information. There, the title is “Services and facilities”.
This is a clear example of a false friend where ‘facilities’ can’t be translated as ‘facilidades’. We’ll now see why.
If we’re editing a book about tourism, it’s our responsibility to properly translate the terms and to correct our authors when, once the false friend has become popular, they keep writing ‘facilidades’ when talking about facilities and services. A generalized translation error is not an excuse to endorse the use of a false friend when there are correct and viable alternatives in our target language.