Confusing Terms: Criminal Defamation

Confusing Terms2
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 of Legal English and lawyer clients have found most difficult to distinguish.

injurias; calumnia; slander; libel

These terms denoting different types of defamation (difamación) are easily confused. Article 208 of the Spanish Criminal Code defines injuria as acción o expresión que lesiona la dignidad de otra persona, menoscabando su fama o atentando contra su propia estimación (action or expression that injures the dignity of another, damaging his reputation or undermining his self-esteem). Injurias constitute a criminal offense when they are made with the knowledge that they are false or with reckless disregard for the truth (cuando se efectúan con conocimiento de su falsedad o con temerario desprecio hacia la verdad). In common law jurisdictions “slander” and “libel” are the two principal types of defamation, slander being spoken defamation (“a defamatory assertion expressed in a transitory form, especially speech”*), while libel is written defamation, or defamation preserved in some permanent form (“a defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium, especially in writing”*). Thus libel is defamation expressed in writing, but also in other fixed mediums (print, pictures, signs, effigies, etc.). The two concepts may perhaps be distinguished in Spanish as injurias vertidas de palabra (slander) and injurias vertidas por escrito (libel).

Calumnia is a specific type of defamation defined in Article 205 of the Criminal Code as imputación de un delito hecha con conocimiento de su falsedad o con temerario desprecio hacia la verdad (accusing someone of a criminal offense knowing that the accusation is false or with reckless disregard for the truth). “Calumny” (a false charge or imputation*) is not often used in modern criminal codes and, thus, since the distinction between injurias and calumnia is not readily made in common law jurisdictions, calumnia may perhaps be best translated descriptively as the “false accusation of a crime” or the “wrongful accusation of a criminal offense.”

And perhaps the most important aspect of the above is to note that in Spain (and in many Spanish-speaking jurisdictions) injurias and calumnias are both criminal offenses, while in common law countries slander and libel are generally torts. Thus, when speaking of the two Spanish concepts collectively it may perhaps be more accurate to describe injurias and calumnias in English as forms of “criminal defamation.”

*Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed.

2 thoughts on “Confusing Terms: Criminal Defamation

  1. Thank you Rebecca, very helpful indeed! I have finally translated “injurias y calumnias” as “crimes of criminal libel and false accusation of a criminal act”.
    Miguel Ángel


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