Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lost in Translation

Next week I'll be at a conference in Lisbon. Today I got an email from the organizers with this statement:
"Please do not miss the banquet, to be followed by a concert of sacred and profane Renaissance vocal music."
This was certainly good for a laugh, as I contemplated satanists in the show. Clearly the word he was looking for was "secular" rather than "profane."

Translating from Portugese (or perhaps Spanish) the author fell victim to what the French call faux amis, literally "false friends." In English they're called "false cognates," words in the foreign language that look and/or sound like a word you know, but have a completely different meaning.

Part of the "fun" of learning and speaking a foreign language is the opportunity to have to be an unintentional source of amusement to native speakers. I remember once attempting to tell Mrs. Abe's French cousins about one of the products of my former employer: absorbable synthetic polymer sutures. I intended to say "little plastic threads." However, through a slight mispronunciation, I actually said, "little plastic girls," which is an entirely different sort of product.

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