• Sijin Xian

Beware of Sneaky Faux Amis

The term faux amis, or false friends, describes the phenomenon where two words in different languages might look similar on the surface, but mean different things. For example, in Japanese, 手紙 refers to a letter you write, while the Chinese 手纸 means, ahem, toiler paper. Imagine the embarrassment and confusion if someone fails to differentiate the two kinds of "hand paper"!


Needless to say, we translators must avoid making such mistakes at all costs. But I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief that most faux amis can be easily detected and prevented. While I can imagine a beginner mixes up "bizarro" (courageous in Spanish) and "bizarre"(strange in English), I doubt a professional translator would commit such a faux pas because we must be fully proficient in two languages to be in this profession in the same place.


That being said, in my experience as a proofreader, I have identified three sneaky faux amis in English-Chinese translation that might not be as easily spotted:


make someone's blood boil ≠ 热血沸腾

In English, to make someone's blood boil means to infuriate someone, so the proper Chinese translation should be along the lines of 火冒三丈. The Chinese phrase 热血沸腾, which is literally "hot blood boiling," actually means zealous enthusiasm and excitement.


point the finger at someone ≠ 指指点点

The English expression means to accuse or blame, or 指责/怪罪 in Chinese. It conjures up the image of someone pointing to another person and saying, "it's his fault, not mine!" when criticized. 指指点点, which also literally means "pointing fingers," comes from the idea of pointing fingers at someone to gossip, judge or badmouth, uttering things like "look at what he's wearing" and "have you heard what she did?"


in the same boat ≠ 在同一条船上

In English, to be in the same boat with someone expresses acknowledgment of shared misfortune, which is similar to 同病相怜 in Chinese. The Chinese saying of being in the same boat, however, is related to the idea of 同舟共济, which is a call for teamwork and solidarity because we have to row the boat together, or else the plight of one member on board will affect the rest of us. In the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, the English and Chinese expressions can both be applied but with different connotations.


While it's reassuring to know our language capabilities should help us steer clear of the more conspicuous false friends when translating, we must stay vigilant and beware of the nuances our bilingual brain may sometimes confuse and overlook.

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