Medical Interpreters Beware: Never Tell Parisians To "Pull Up A Chair"

Professional medical interpreters and translators beware! Those dreaded “false friends” are everywhere…

Interpreting and translating languages is a tricky business; you experience unanticipated, high pressure situations, and of course the dreaded “false friends” that leave your well intentioned sentence in an entirely different context.  No matter how you are using them: in professional settings or simply when learning, these false cognates can result in anything from humorous and slightly embarrassing situations, to full out calamity. Below are listed some disastrous ones you may encounter!

Maternity PatientIntoxicado (Spanish) = Nauseated NOT Intoxicated

Notably from the case of Willie Ramirez, this word can lead to dangerous assumptions if not interpreted and understood correctly by doctors and patients.

Embarazada (Spanish) = Pregnant NOT Embarrassed

A nightmare of a cognate for native English speakers, and a drastic misunderstanding for any doctor not well versed in English and Spanish.

Molestar (Spanish) = Bother NOT Molest

In a medical setting this misunderstanding could lead to uncomfortable testing, in a legal situation it could lead to an unnecessary jail sentence, in a colloquial situation it could lead to an awkward silence.


Medical Interpreter at doctor's officeInjúria (Portuguese) = Insult NOT Injury

As an interpreter for a myriad of situations or merely in general conversation, the distinction between saying you were insulted versus injured carries vastly different outcomes.

Blesser (French) = To Wound NOT To Bless

Non-native French speakers beware: when trying to wish goodwill on others you may end up threatening them instead.


Chair (French) = Flesh NOT ChairMedical Interpreter talking to patients in the waiting room

It’s an important medical term for interpreters to be aware of, and an important difference for non-native speakers to know when asking for something to sit on.

Bein (German) = Leg NOT “To Be”

Not the worst misunderstanding (certainly not as awkward as unknowingly presenting your German friend with a “gift”), but important for any interpreter to not confuse their German client’s explanation of pain in their leg with existential anguish.

Gift (German) ­= Poison NOT Gift

It’s  important to understand that if a German comes into the hospital saying they were given a gift it isn’t something to be happy about, and that if you get offered a “gift” in German to not accept it.


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