The use of ‘false friends’ in medicine: a dangerous foe

can have negative consequences, but when that error occurs in a diagnosis or medical report results may be harmful. The wrong interpretation of a language is more serious when know it because the emergence of ‘false friends’ can give places serious situations or, in the best of cases, hilarious.

A ‘false friend’ (translation, ‘false friend’, is not usually used) is a word that sounds similar to another in a language, but with a very different meaning. When you study English at school, it is very common that a section be dedicated to reel off these expressions which may lead to error. Some of the most mentioned are the use of ‘embarrassed‘ (embarrassed) by pregnant (pregnant), ‘avocado‘ (avocado) instead of lawyer (lawyer), ‘argument‘ (discussion) per argument of a series or movie (plot) or ‘to advice‘ (advise) for warning (to warm).

However, this list of expressions is not enough if we have any health problems abroad and need to understand medical professionals to us what exactly. The same applies to medical translations made in a country with a different language. And the risk is not only present when we changed to another country. A doctor who share our language can also be confused with ‘false friends’ and completely wrong diagnosis.


In the case of physicians, the best solution would be a continuous recycling and an exhaustive study of the technical language that should be used to avoid errors. But if you want to have safety in a medical translation the only guarantee of success is to have the services of professional translators who do an impeccable job.

Examples of ‘false friends’ in medicine

Collect the ‘false friends’ medicine of all languages with respect to the Spanish is an arduous task. But, for those who only need a small guide of expressions in order to not fall into their trap, the publication ‘Translation and language in medicine’, Fernando A. Navarro, offers some very interesting recommendations based on medical texts and in the spoken language.

  • The cold and flu may cause us a serious problem, both with English-speaking doctors as Franco phones. ‘Constipated’, in English, and ‘I constipation’, in French, do not announce a crisis of sneezing and discomfort, but they indicate that someone is constipated. In the same way, ‘influenza’ means cramps or colicky and not what in English called ‘flu’. A clear example that must be careful with making translations lightly.
  • If we have suffered a poisoning, we have to talk about ‘food poisoning’, because if someone claims to be ‘intoxicated’the doctor will give for granted that has drunk too much.
  • It should take into account also that not being healthy is not the same as ‘insane’, which means not very well be head.
  • If you hear mention of the word’casualty’, it must be clear that it should be translated as a victim and that it has nothing to do with the chances.
  • That a doctor talk’piles’ is not for anything related to what seems most obvious (‘batteries’), but which is diagnosing a troublesome piles.
  • In the case that I mentioned some’injury’ should know that it is a wound or injury and not an insult.
  • Being annoying is not, nor much less, be’molested’, which means having been, in many cases sexually assaulted.
  • Parts of the body can also result in error. In English,’bucca’ is cheek and not mouth (mouth). In a French-speaking country, we must be careful to specify the area of injury,’épaule’ shoulder and the word ‘two’ is used to refer to the back.

Once treated and rectified the problems of health, must be clear that to abandon the Medical Center must follow the ‘exit’ sign, but remind us a Spanish word that has nothing to do with the output.

And if we want to have guarantees that a disease may not be complicated by out of context, we recommend to go to an interpreter or a professional translator with the sufficient experience in medical language.