Published on Jan 7, 2020

by Marcos Dinnerstein

Summary: When translating English, you should ask, did the writer mean to say that? Eggcorns, homophones, and mondegreens are dangerous soundalikes.

The Problem
A phrase or word sounds close to the meaning that fits the context but something gives you pause. Trust your instinct, stop and research the word or phrase. It might be wrong and you’ll lose your chance to save the author from themself. Do you think it’s not your job to be an editor when you were hired as an English translator? Here’s another way to think about it. It is your job to faithfully render the intended meaning and you should determine that intention.

What are some language traps to be aware of when working on English translations? 
“He had a deep-seated problem”. More likely than not the writer meant ‘deep-seated’ and not ‘deep-seeded’. Both could work but ‘deep-seated’ is the original phrase. What to do? If the author is alive and available the safest thing to do is ask them. And be neutral in your question. You gain nothing by playing gotcha. The author may have been perfectly aware but chose their wording regardless. If you cannot consult with the author you have to decide what best serves the text.

This above category of mistake, where an existing phrase is replaced by a sound-alike and plausible phrase, is called an ‘eggcorn’  and was coined by the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum in 2003. 

Here are two other pairings that qualify as eggcorns: 

  • old timers’ disease versus Alzheimer’s disease 

  • baited breath versus bated breath. Bated, is a shortening of the word abated. That means holding one’s breath. 

  • for all intensive purposes versus for all intents and purposes

Related Hazards
Eggcorns are similar to but different from homophones. Homophones are defined as words that have the same sound but are spelled differently. Examples are seed: cede, sore: soar, sew: sow and so on. (couldn’t resist) Most professional English translators won't mistake 'where' for 'wear' or 'there' for 'their' but your clients will be 'greatful' if you remember to spell it 'grateful'. A grammar checker won't always catch every mistake.

Mondegreens are yet another related category of misunderstood phrases. 

  • From the Christmas song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

‘...all of the other reindeer’ becomes the mondegreen, ‘...Olive, the other reindeer’

  • Another Christmas song, Silent Night

‘Round yon virgin…’ becomes the mondegreen ‘Round John Virgin’

Where to Find Help
The sites below will get you acquainted with the various ways we can mishear or misunderstand words and phrases. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading the examples you’ll find.

The Eggcorn Database 

Homophones - The internet's only complete homophone list     

Homonyms and Homophones: Avoid These Common Copywriting Mistakes

This light takes on eggcorns is guaranteed to make you smile.

Writers and translators make mistakes and we should guard against the variety of errors that we outline for English translations here. 

Now that you've sharpened your English translation skills we would love for you to consider joining us as a translator. Join a community of translators who help each other while simultaneously working on a translation.

Related Reading
Professional Translators Have the 'Write' Stuff
What is Translation Memory (TM)