Legal Meanings of “back”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings
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.


“Back” is used in several legal expressions with the meaning of atraso or atrasado. “Back orders” are pending orders that have not yet been filled (pedidos pendientes de servir). “Back taxes” refers to taxes that are due but that remain unpaid (impuestos devengados y no satisfechos). Similarly, “backpay” may denote accrued but unpaid wages (salarios devengados y no cobrados). In that regard, “backpay award” may denote a judge’s (or other official’s) ruling that an employee or ex-employee is entitled to accrued but unpaid wages. Thus, in Spanish labor procedure and in the context of a proceeding for wrongful dismissal (or) wrongful termination (despido improcedente) “backpay award” could be appropriately rendered as condena al pago del salario de tramitación.

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