When False Cognates Partner With Literal Translations, They Deserve to Serve Prison Time

In 2001, the residents of Indiana found a curious and weird Spanish translation of a public message in all petrol pump stations around the state. The message in English reminded people that they shouldn’t fill their petrol tanks and then leave without paying as doing this was punished by the law and they could lose their driver’s license.

However, the Spanish translation was not as clear: it was a combination of false cognates, typos and literal translations that turned the translated text into a group of words, weird and difficult to understand—even for a native speaker of Spanish.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that whoever translated the ad should have also received some kind of punishment, or at least a couple of lessons in accurate Spanish translation.

What immediately stands out in the Spanish translation is a false cognate derived from the English verb “pump.” The word “pompe” does not exist in Spanish and it should have been replaced by “bombee” or “cargue gasolina.” This is not the only mistake we find in the ad, as there are typographical, syntax and grammatical errors, and, from the perspective of a professional translator, it is quite obvious that the original document was translated word-for-word by a Spanish-speaking person, or online software, without any consideration for tone, the register and the coherency of the final message.

A professional Spanish translator might have suggested this accurate version: “¡No cargue y corra! Aléjese manejando sin pagar por el combustible y su licencia de conducir puede ser suspendida. Bajo la ley de Indiana, si usted carga combustible y corre puede perder su licencia de conducir. El Acto Inscrito de Indiana 1066 fue convertido en ley en 2001. Este mensaje de prevención del crimen es ofrecido por los Expendedores de Petróleo de Indiana y la Asociación de Negocios Minoristas.”

Image credit: A Spanish translation public message that appeared on all petrol pump stations around the state of Indiana in 2001.

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