Most mistakes in translated texts are the result of overly literal translation, in my experience. When we translate word by word instead of creating an idiomatic translation, the result includes strange and sometimes incoherent phrases or sentences. For instance, “He waited a minute or two” can be translated literally: Él esperó un minuto o dos, but it sounds more natural to say, Esperó un par de minutos “He waited a pair of minutes” or Se detuvo un momento “He paused for a moment,” because these are Spanish idioms.
Note that in English every sentence has to have a subject, in this case “he.” In Spanish the subject is omitted when it is clear from context and conjugation, as in the latter two examples above. A common error made by native Spanish speakers translating into English is to omit the subject in such sentences. This is especially tricky in sentences that don’t ever have a subject in Spanish, like Está lloviendo, which they might translate as “Is raining” instead of “It’s raining.”
In the examples above, the meaning is retained despite the literal translations. However, in the worst cases, a literal translation produces completely incorrect meaning, especially when false friends are involved. For example, a Latin American family took their son to the emergency room because he was dizzy and almost unconscious. They didn’t speak English, and when they tried to explain to the (English-speaking) nurse that the boy appeared to have been poisoned, she heard the word intoxicado and thought they were saying that he was drunk. The result was tragic, because the doctors saw little urgency in attending to someone who was drunk, and by the time they discovered the real problem, it was too late. “Intoxicated” can refer to poisoning in English, but its primary meaning is “inebriated.”
False friends are constant reminders of the dangers of literal translation. “A gracious hostess” is polite; on the other hand, una anfitriona graciosa makes us laugh. “The teacher molested the children” is a horrible situation, but El maestro molestó a los niños could mean something totally trivial. “It just hit the target” doesn’t mean Dió justo en el blanco “It hit exactly on target” but rather Apenas le dio al blanco “It barely hit the target.” But remember that “That was just what I needed” can actually be translated Era justo lo que necesitaba because that particular sense of the word “just” does coincide with its Spanish cognate.
The website http://www.linguee.com is a great source of examples of translated words and phrases in context, extracted from published text. It’s the site I most use when I’m translating documents. Of course, you have to look at the context to see if the examples are relevant, and you have to take care because not all of the translations are correct.
Following are false friends starting with G-O:
Gracious: “polite, kind, hospitable”
Idioma: “language, spoken or written tongue”
Idiom: “figure of speech”
Inconsecuente: “inconsistent, contradictory”
Inconsequential: “trivial, of no importance”
Introduce: “make known by name”
Justo: “just, fair; exactly, precisely”
Just: “fair, equitable; only, barely; precisely”
Lenguaje: “terminology, jargon”
Language: “the tongue used by a community”
Maquinista: “train engineer, bus driver; machinist; machine operator”
Machinist: “lathe operator”
Molestar: “bother, pester”
Molest: “abuse sexually”
Notice: “announcement; warning”
Ostensiblemente: “obviously, visibly”