Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms

When translating a patently civil law term from Spanish into English it may be tempting to simply render it literally, but the result will often be meaningless to readers unfamiliar with civil law systems. An alternative is to seek an option in a reputable monolingual English dictionary that defines civil law terms. But caution should be used when consulting those sources, since often the definition provided will reflect the meaning of the term as used originally in Roman Law or in English-speaking civil law jurisdictions (such as Louisiana), rather than its current meaning in Spanish-speaking jurisdictions. Moreover, the target audience for the translation may not be familiar with the civil law concept in question, in English or in any language.

In future posts under “Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms” I would like to explore a series of patently civil law concepts while also discussing other elements peculiar to Spanish law that perhaps have no readily discernible counterparts in Anglo-American legal systems. It certainly won’t be a presentation of Spanish law per se, but rather an overview of some of the vocabulary that may initially puzzle translators and legal professionals working in the field.

To determine the concepts to be included, in addition to suggestions from my students, colleagues and lawyer clients, I have culled a series of Spanish civil law, business law, and civil and criminal procedure law school textbooks to isolate the terminology that I believe may be most foreign to those unfamiliar with civilian systems. The English translations I suggest should always be viewed as approximate “kindred concepts” that may be useful, but will rarely prove to be true equivalents. As underscored by N. Stephan Kinsella in his “Civil to Common Law Dictionary,”** civilian terms may be “correlated with common law concepts” and often have some “counterpart” in common law terminology, but true equivalents do not often exist.

When there is no apparent concise counterpart, a short definition or a descriptive rendering will sometimes have to do. It is often frustrating to discover that there may really be no short, snappy functional equivalent for a given concept that will fit nicely into a translation. But this is very often the case, and sometimes there is no other recourse but to offer a concise definition in the body of the text or in a footnote.

**N. Stephan Kinsella. “A Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary” Louisiana Law Review, Vol. 54 (1994) pp. 1265-1305.

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