In his 1963 work “The Language of the Law,” the eminent legal linguist David Mellinkoff observed that legal discourse often uses “common words with uncommon meanings.” Indeed, in both Spanish and English common words and expressions often take on unexpected meanings when used in legal contexts, and there are many simple, seemingly inoffensive everyday words and expressions that can prompt translation mistakes if their special legal meanings are ignored. In this section I include some of the presumably simple legal English expressions that my students and translation clients have found most puzzling, along with a selection of legal Spanish terms that may stump translators when initially entering the legal translation field.
Legal Meanings of “Avoid” and “Determine”
In nonlegal usage “avoid” is a synonym for “escape” or “evade,” commonly rendered as evitar, esquivar or evadir, etc. But in legal writing “avoid” sometimes means “to make void or undo”* and in this context “avoid” (and “avoidance”) are actually synonyms (or perhaps archaic forms) for “void” and “voidance”. Thus, for example, one may “avoid a contract” (anular un contrato) and a contract may be deemed avoidable (anulable).
Similarly, in everyday usage “determine” is a synonym for “ascertain” (determinar, decidir, etc. in Spanish). But in admittedly archaic legal usage “determine” may also mean “terminate,” as in the redundant doublet “cease and determine” (literally, cesar y terminar). Thus, “this Agreement shall cease and determine…” simply means “el presente contrato se resolverá… .” In that regard, the adjective “determinable” means “terminable” or “liable to be terminated upon the occurrence of a contingency,”* and is used in that sense in several standard expressions such as “determinable easement” or “determinable estate.”
*Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law