False Friends and Thoughts on DeepL


“False Friends” – a dreadful (albeit apt) name for words in different languages that sound and look similar yet mean something very different. Examples include: 

  • Rente (old-age pension) and rent (what we pay monthly or the past tense of “rend”)
  • Fabrik (factory) and fabric (textile)
  • aktuell (right now, current) and actual (real)
  • Aktion (in some contexts in Switzerland: sale, in others: a campaign, a promotion) and action (doing something)

Then there are words whose structures are so similar to English words that they like to sneak into translations:

vorsehen (provide for, plan, intend) and foresee (anticipate, predict, often with something negative; or foretell, prophesy)

This one is particularly tough, because the German is so succinct, a transitive verb requiring no clumsy prepositions, and so very, very common. And although it is common, we often have to come up with a different translation for each use.

An example: vorgesehene Lockerungsstrategien des Bundesrats (can’t get away from this virus…) are the Swiss Federal Council’s planned strategies to ease restrictions – literally: “provided for” loosening strategies.

DeepL translates this as “envisaged relaxation strategies”, with the following alternatives given: 

  • envisaged easing strategies
  • intended relaxation strategies
  • foreseen relaxation strategies

So, perhaps it’s better not to rely on deepL too much… Although I sort of like the idea of the Swiss government envisioning ways for the Swiss population to relax. It’s also very interesting that none of the DeepL results used “planned,” although that is indeed what is meant here.

Another example of “vorgesehen” with a slightly different meaning: Den guten Sekt haben wir für das Fest vorgesehen is We’re saving the good champagne/bubbly for the party.

Shall we see what deepL does here?

“The good champagne we have provided for the feast.” (the result for US English) or

“We have earmarked the good sparkling wine for the feast.” (the result for UK English)

Curious… The result for US English is just plain strange, and it defies analysis. The UK English result is at least mostly correct content-wise, if it isn’t idiomatic. (Unless there are people who earmark their bubbly, of course; I don’t mean to judge.) Note, too, that the tense is on the verge of being incorrect. Although the German uses the perfect tense (Präteritum), the action (not the Aktion) isn’t in the past but, rather, is an ongoing process, hence the continuous tense in my solution. 

And there’s another false friend:

  • Fest (party) and feast (large, celebratory meal) 

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