It is very common for me to be told “I don’t think that this claimant needs an interpreter. I believe he knows enough English to get by.” I also often hear, “Oh, we don’t need an interpreter because we have someone who knows quite a bit of Spanish.” Of course, as often is the case, it is someone who took a few years of Spanish and wants to practice.
Although I think it is wonderful and beneficial for health care professionals to learn other languages in order to communicate and connect better with patients, there is still a very compelling argument for the use of professional interpreters.
Cognates are words similar or sometimes even identical in both languages that mean the same thing. For example, balance-balancear, color-color, globe-globo, natural-natural, nerve-nervio. The list of cognates is quite impressive, since English has borrowed a lot from Latin-based Romance languages. Cognates are awesome because they can serve as a bridge in learning a new language.
False cognates, however, can be a real problem. These are words that sound very close or identical to a word you know; only this time it can mean something completely different. Sometimes the misunderstanding of the word can be very funny, however no mistake is funny if it can cost your life or harm you permanently.
For instance in Spanish, apología is not apology. An apology is to say I’m sorry, apología refers to a eulogy. I highly encourage folks to make their apologies before someone dies; afterward seems a little late.
A Spanish-speaking lady visiting the United States had a bad cold with a runny nose. She needed some medication to help her control those symptoms. In Spanish a person with a head cold would be constipado. The pharmacist thought that she was constipated, which in Spanish is restriñido. The medication she received compounded her problem by giving her diarrhea in addition to a head cold.
If you want to tell someone to attend a meeting, you better tell him asistir. Many would think that asistir is assist. Assist would be ayudar. If you thought attend was atender, you would in fact be telling someone to pay attention or heed or to care for.
If a lady tells you she is embarazada, she is not telling you that she is embarrassed. Embarazada is pregnant, which is nothing to be embarrassed about in most cases.
A real case that has often been discussed of a disastrous false cognate is the case of Willie Ramirez from Florida. The medical staff thought that they could get by with a little Spanish that they knew and the family of the injured person used a friend that knew a little English. The false cognate in question here was the word intoxicado. The medical staff took that word to mean intoxicated as in drunk. A Spanish person might use the word intoxicated because it sounds like intoxicado, and any person would hear the word intoxicado and be certain as to what it means. In Spanish intoxicado is really poisoned, as in food poisoning. If the doctor would have understood that, he would have dug deeper to find out what was wrong with the patient instead of just treating him for being tipsy. This confusion resulted in paraplegia for this young man.
This example shows that just one misunderstood word can have catastrophic results. Even if people can get by with some knowledge of another language, false cognates can be really tricky. The meanings can completely change. Qualified professionals, knowledgeable in terminology and false cognates are really the only ones suitable as interpreters.
Here is a list of some other interesting false cognates in Spanish and English:
Decepción is not deception, it is disappointment.
Carpeta typically has nothing to do with carpet and more to do with file folder. Carpet is alfombra in Spanish.
Chocar is not choke, it is to strike. Choke is sofocar or estrangular.
Contestar is not to contest something, which would be contender. Contestar is to answer.
Desgracia isn’t disgraceful; it’s just a simple mistake. Something shameful is probably una vergüenza.
Delito is not delight, it is crime. Delight is deleite.
Disgusto is not disgusted. Disgusted would be asco or repugnancia.
Éxito is not exit but success. Salida is the way out.
Injury is not injuria, but lesión or herida. Injuria is an insult or slander.
Molestar is not to molest in a sexual way, it’s just to annoy or bother someone. Sexual molestation is abusar sexualmente.
Pariente is not parent, it is relative. Parent is padre.
Rapista is not a rapist but a barber in some countries. Rapist is violador.
Sano is not sane but healthy.
Sopa is not soap but soup.
Stretch is not estrechar, but extender or estirar. Estrechar is to make narrower.
Suceso is not success, it’s an event. Success is éxito.
This is not a false cognate, but I wanted to mention it anyway. Caliente in Spanish is hot. If you want to say that you are hot due to temperature, you say tengo calor. If you say soy caliente, you will receive some unwanted sexual innuendos.