Confusing Terms: Is artículo an “article” or “section”?

Many confusing terms in legal Spanish and legal English are simply legal synonyms that are not always clearly distinguishable, often making it necessary to learn how each one is used in a specific context or in set phrases (frases hechas). Some may be interchangeable; others are limited to use in specific contexts. Those highlighted in this blog are ones that I have seen confused in translation or that my students and lawyer clients have found most difficult to distinguish.

artículo—article; section

Among translators there is often much debate as to how to appropriately translate the divisions of legislative texts. Under the entry for “section” the Alcaraz/Hughes dictionary* observes that “Acts (of the UK Parliament) are divided into sections, sub-sections and paragraphs,” indicating that “al hablar de las divisiones del texto de una ley ‘section’ equivale a ‘artículo’ y ‘article’ a ‘sección’… (aunque) en el Derecho comunitario redactado en inglés ‘article’ equivale a ‘artículo.’” In other respects, the U.S. Code** is divided into Titles, Parts, Chapters and Sections (the latter being conveyed by the symbol “§” rather than by the word “section”). And major pieces of Spanish legislation (Código Civil; Código Penal, etc.) are divided into Libros, Títulos, Capítulos and Artículos.

In view of the above and despite this diversity in terminology, following Alcaraz/Hughes (and other similar sources) many translators insist that artículo should be translated as “section,” and “section” as artículo, except when the translation concerns EU law in which artículos are “articles.” But this seemingly simple rule has the potential for causing much confusion and, swimming against the tide, I admit that I generally ignore it, precisely for that reason. Thus I prefer to render the Libros, Títulos, Capítulos and Artículos of Spanish laws literally as “Books,” “Titles,” “Chapters” and “Articles.” That way those seeking to consult the legal texts cited in a translation may at least have half a chance of actually locating the article (or “section”) in question in the original Spanish law.

*Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes. Diccionario de términos jurídicos ingles-español, Spanish-English. Barcelona: Ariel, 2005.

**United States Code (also called US Code or USC) is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.

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