Slipups and Pop-Tarts: 3 rules for avoiding embarrassing translation mistakes (Part II)

2nd rule of thumb: Always consider context

Recently I read an English historical novel which had been translated into German. It made for wonderful reading, except for one instance that really made me stop, wonder, and chuckle a little. The novel’s protagonist was a young, unmarried woman and since it was a historical novel, people behaved in a very modest fashion. Except for one instance where the young woman wears only her slip. The German sentence went something like this: “Und ich stand da im Slip.”

This is a classic “false friend”, a word which sounds the same in German and English. The meaning, however, is very different. In English, a slip can describe a piece of underwear, a sliding motion, an error or even someone’s body type. The Merriam Webster dictionary lists the many meanings of this word.

No slipups: "Slip" and "slip" are not the same

In German, however, the word “Slip” is a noun and it exclusively means briefs or underpants. Since a slip in English describes underwear as well, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, it’s tricky. The English “slip”, according to Merriam Webster, is “an undergarment made in dress length and usually having shoulder straps”. This is a very different garment than the one I pictured from the German translation – the translation changed the meaning completely and definitely created disbelief when I read it, since it was so atypical for the time and out of context.

A translator should always be mindful of words with similar denotations but different connotations, and take into account historical context. If a certain expression strikes me as odd, I take the time to research and have avoided many mistakes this way.