Translate Words:
Cognates and False Cognates
in Russian-English Translation

We use dictionaries to translate words from foreign languages. However, there is a certain category of words that can be understood without dictionaries. They are called cognates: words that have a common origin, look/sound similar and have a similar meaning in different languages.

A 2000-history of Slavic and Germanic contacts has not passed away tracklessly for languages of respective nations, which is confirmed by the presence of cognates in these languages. When you translate words from Russian to English, cognates are the easiest to translate. They cover notions related to various sides of life. For example, a person even with a little knowledge of Russian most probably will not need a dictionary to translate words listed below:

Parts of the body: бровь – brow, нос - nose

Kinship relationship: мать - mother, брат – brother

Nature and natural phenomena:

день – day, океан – ocean

Machinery and equipment: турбина - turbine, машина – machine

Numerals: три - three, миллион - million

Foodstuff: кофе - coffee, соль – salt

Units of measurement: метр - meter, килограмм – kilogram

Art and culture: фильм - film, концерт – concert

Furthermore, one should easily be able to understand and translate words (cognates) of international character because they have a strong phonetic and graphic similarity:

    футбол - football, атом - atom, алгебра – algebra, etc.

In addition to cognates, Russian and English languages have false cognates. One should consult dictionaries to translate words that are false cognates. These words look/sound similar, but have a different meaning. They are rather tricky, misleading and can cause confusion in translation. False cognates are also called "false friends of a translator".

Let's translate words that are false cognates:

1. актуальный- "current", "relevant", not "actual"

2. билет - a "ticket", not a "billet"

3. гениальный - "of genius", not "genial"

4. гонорар - a "honorarium", not "honorary"

5. дата - a "date", not "data"

6. датский - "Danish", not "Dutch"

7. декада - a "ten-day period", not a "decade"

8. интеллигенция - "intellectuals", not "intelligence"

9. картон - a "cardboard", not a "cartoon"

10. клей - a "glue", not a "clay"

11. композитор - a "composer", not a "compositor"

12. лист - a "leaf” or “sheet", not a "list"

13. магазин - a "shop", not a "magazine"

14. майор - a "major", not a "mayor"

15. нуль - "zero", not "null"

16. персональный - "personal", not a "personnel"

17. принципиальный - "fundamental", not "principal"

18. проспект - an "avenue" or “booklet”, not a "prospect"

19. радиосеть - a "radio network", not a "radio-set"

20. резина - a "rubber", not a "resin"

21. реплика - a "remark", not a "replica"

22. фабрика - a "factory", not a "fabric"

23. фамилия - a "surname", not a "family"

There are also semi-false cognates. One can translate words of this type by similar words in the other language only sometimes. Semi-false cognates are especially treacherous (e.g. аккуратный – "tidy", but rarely "accurate"; процесс - "a process", but sometimes "a trial"; моральный - "moral", but often should be translated as "emotional" or "mental").

Not only machine translation software, but professional translators as well can make mistakes when they translate words that are false and semi-false cognates. Here is an example from a Euronews article:

    Source text:

    "The glass from the tubes is used to make new lights while old bulbs are turned into glass wool. The metals palladium and rhodium are used in electronic goods and catalytic converters. Silver, which is also harvested, has many uses. The most dangerous element in bulbs – mercury – is also reused." Article:  Lighting the way


    "Из стеклянных трубок можно изготавливать новые лампы дневного света, а также стекловату. Из ламп извлекается палладий, родий, серебро и такой опасный элемент, как меркурий, чтобы он случайно не попал в почву или атмосферу."

This English-Russian translation is not very accurate. However, it is cited here not to discuss it accurateness, but to show how a false cognate can be mistranslated. It this case, it is 'mercury' mistranslated as 'меркурий'. In Russian, 'меркурий' (written with the capital letter 'Меркурий') means 1) the Roman god of commerce and 2) the planet. No other meanings. 'mercury' mentioned in the article should be translated as 'ртуть' (silver-colored poisonous heavy metal, also called 'quicksilver').

To translate words of this type, one should pay due attention to the context in which they are used. Also, good dictionaries that provide nuances of meanings and examples of word usage in context can help to translate words that are false and semi-false cognates.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine