When learning legal terminology in a bilingual context, one of the first pitfalls encountered are so-called “false friends,” words or expressions that appear to be cognates, but are actually unrelated in meaning. Many years ago I set about identifying the “Top 40 False Friends in Spanish-English Legal Translation.” As the list grew I had to change the title to “101 False Friends.” In my collection I now have well over that number and will be sharing some of them in this blog. To be fair, many are only partial false friends that may actually be cognates when used in one branch of law, while perhaps qualifying as false friends in another legal practice area. And in some instances the cognate may simply not be the most appropriate rendering in legal contexts.
científico/a ; scientific
literatura científica ; scientific literature
In legal contexts the adjective ciéntifico/a cannot always be appropriately translated as “scientific.” In that regard, in criminal law ciéntifico/a often denotes certain areas of forensics. Thus, in Spain Unidades de Polícia Ciéntifica are “Forensic Police Units” or “Crime Scene Investigation Units” and, in general, la policía científica may be described variously as “forensic police,” “crime scene investigators” or perhaps even “crime scene evidence technicians.” In this context análisis científico refers to “forensic analysis,” and an expression such as técnicas científico-policiales dirigidas a la investigación del delito refers to “forensic techniques for use in criminal investigation” or simply “forensic criminal investigation techniques.”
In other respects, in English the expression “scientific literature” is likely to be understood to refer to documents dealing with some area of the sciences (biology, physics, medicine, etc.). In contrast, in Spanish and in legal contexts literatura científica is often synonymous with doctrina académica, denoting the writings of law professors and legal scholars, and may be appropriately translated as “legal scholarship,” “scholarly writing,” “academic opinion” or “the writing of legal scholars.” Thus, for example, la literatura más autorizada sobre la transmisibilidad de acciones refers to “the most authoritative scholarly writing (or) academic opinion concerning the transferability of shares.” Likewise, in this context the expression revistas científicas does not necessarily refer to “scientific publications,” but rather to “academic journals,” and revistas científicas de Derecho are specifically “law journals” or “law reviews.”