Ukrainian as foreign: Translator's False Friends

So, you’ve started mastering Ukrainian and are more than eager to learn (btw, well done already!). One day, while listening to a podcast, poring over a text book or studying Taras Shevchenko’s masterpiece, you come across a word that sounds or looks exactly like a word from your own language. You are ecstatic! Why? That’s one less word to construct elaborate association patterns around just to memorize it. Put it straight into your active vocabulary… and get curious glances whenever you skillfully weave it into your conversation.

Yes, there is a rub: the word might not have the exact same meaning as its foreign twin. For example, Ukrainian “ студент” can well be translated as “student”, but saying “Мій брат – студент. Йому 14 років.” (My brother is student. He is 14 years old.) will surely raise eyebrows. You see, “студент” refers exclusively to university or college students.

Why does this happen? How are the sneaky “false friends of a translator” created? There are two ways. Either both words (homonyms) have one ancestor, but in each language they went slightly separate ways, or it is a mere coincidence and two completely unrelated words sound very similar (“steel” and “стіл”(table)).

Here a some of the English-Ukrainian homonyms that you need to know:

Артист – not “artist” (художник), but someone who performs arts (actor, singer, musician, etc.)
Новела – not “novel” (роман), but a short story
Характер – not “character” (персонаж), but “temper”
Вагон – not “wagon” (фургон), but “carriage”
Історія – not only “story”, but also “history”

Moving on to Russian-Ukrainian word pairs of confusion:

Чоловік – not “human” (людина), but “man”
Дружина – not a retinue in service of a prince in Kievan Rus, but “wife”
Питати – not “to torture” (катувати), only “to ask”
Місто – not “place” (місце), but “city”

Finally, Polish-Ukrainian homonyms:

Диван – not “carpet” (килим), but “sofa”
Чашка – not “skull” (черепа), but “cup”
Крісло – not “chair” (стілець), but “armchair”
Овоч – not “fruit” (фрукт), but “vegetable”

That was fun, if we may say so ourselves :) If you agree, you may be interested in checking our Facebook page every Thursday, because that is when we post our weekly ALMA Homonyms.

And of course, you are very welcome to take a class of Ukrainian or Russian as foreign here at ALMA School, to make sure there is no confusion left! ;)