An actual video
One question, asked by a manager to a designer, started off my collection of quirky mistranslations:
“How does the user know this is an actual video?”
It’s a legitimate question: how do we show users that something really is a video? The designer went off, did some research, created prototypes, and tested them with people. Time and money were spent making sure users could identify something as a video.
When presented with the suggested solution a few days later, the manager repeated the question:
“This is nice, but how does the user know this is an actual video?”
The request seems confusing, unless you know the manager’s real intention. They wanted to highlight a video’s freshness, or how new it was. Unfortunately, a wrong translation changed the question’s meaning.
The German word “aktuell” translates to “current”, which is what the manager should have used. Instead, they went for what seems like a translation but isn’t: “actual”, meaning “tatsächlich”.
While they seem almost identical, “aktuell” and “actual” are not translations of each other. We call words that look like each other but have different meanings “false friends”.
Replacing “actual” with “current” drastically changes the question’s meaning. Both versions are grammatically correct, which makes the mistake difficult to spot.
When you are looking for today’s news, you want current news. When you are avoiding fake news, you want actual news.
If you want to know how old someone is, you are looking for their current age. Think they are lying to you? Ask them for their actual age.
I promise this lesson will start paying off immediately. When you encounter a situation in which it applies, tell me about it with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
All lessons in this course
An actual video
Two words can look like translations of each other even if they aren’t. The word “actual” is our first venture into this category of false friends.
Even if you translate each individual word in a sentence correctly, the resulting translation can still be off.
Not every word in a sentence needs to appear in its translation. Languages don’t map to each other one-to-one.
You can spot Germans by the fact that they use “or” to ask questions. Unfortunately, the word doesn’t work that way in English.
This mistranslation gave this course its name. “Together” refers to doing something with others. Here’s how to greet a group of people instead.
What do you call a phone you can hold in your hand? Well, it’s not this. If you call it a handy, you’re in for some awkward looks.
“Bekommen” and “to become” are another pair of false friends. If you want something, make sure you’re not accidentally turning yourself into that thing.
Is it “less mistakes” or “fewer mistakes”? They both seem to say that something is not as much as it was before, but only one is grammatically correct.
False friends are everywhere. Eventually is very similar to the German “eventuell”, but it means something completely different.
Why isn’t it “Whom let the dogs out”? The extra letter does not turn a regular “who” into a fancy version of itself.
When coming from a language that doesn’t normally use them, where to put apostrophes can seem confusing.
Was an event organized by “Nina and I” or “Nina and me”? To find which one applies, take the other person out of the sentence for a second.
You’re doing well, Superman is doing good. This lesson looks at the rules behind which of these two is correct in a given situation.
When you’re excited about something, tell others what that thing is. On its own, you’re only saying half an expression otherwise.
When you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, you can use they/them even when speaking about an individual person and not a group.
We have been taught to always say please and thank you. Whether they are right for a situation depends on the context.
Some actions happen to multiple people at once, like running into someone. In these situations, we need to use reciprocal pronouns.
Other languages don’t always use the auxillary “do” as much as the English language does, so it’s often lost in translation.