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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

"False Friends" in English-Chinese Translation

False friends, or faux amis, are words in different languages that look or sound similar but have different meanings. For example, in Japanese, 手紙 refers to a letter you write, while the Chinese 手纸 means, ahem, toilet paper. Imagine the embarrassment and confusion if someone fails to differentiate the two kinds of "hand paper"! Needless to say, translators must avoid such mistakes at all costs.

Since English and Chinese are in different language families, the kind of "false friends" I want to share with you today is not similar in spelling or pronunciation but in terms of meaning. Think how the French term "petit ami," literally "little friend," actually refers to "boyfriend."

Below are five such sneaky false equivalence between English and Chinese expressions that tripped up some translators in my proofreading experience.

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 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.

Eat one's words ≠ 食言

To eat one's words means to admit something you said in the past was wrong in English. In Chinese, 食言, literally "eating words," means breaking one's promises or not living up to one's words.

Child's play ≠ 儿戏

In English, child's play means something is easy to do, which is similar to 小儿科 in Chinese. However, the Chinese term 儿戏 refers to "child's play" in the sense that someone is being frivolous or something is not being treated seriously.

These examples should demonstrate how deceiving some expressions can be and the deep level of linguistic sensibilities required to do translation well. Translators must stay vigilant and beware of the nuances their bilingual or multilingual brains may sometimes confuse and overlook.

Looking for a conscientious linguist to deliver your messages with accuracy and clarity?

Hi, I'm Sijin. I'm an ATA-certified English-to-Chinese and ATA-certified Chinese-to-English translator dedicated to getting things right. Get in touch today, and I look forward to making you look good in words. Talk soon!


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