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.
Secreto and “secret” are cognates when referring, for example, to secretos industriales (“trade secrets”). But in many legal contexts the terms may be considered “false friends.” The expression derecho al secreto de las comunicaciones refers to the constitutional “right of privacy” with regard to information exchanged by phone, through the mail or electronically. And in the context of court procedure, secreto is perhaps best translated as “privileged.” In that sense secreto profesional is not “professional secrecy,” as the expression has sometimes been rendered, but rather denotes the confidentiality required in certain privileged relationships. Common examples include secreto profesional del abogado or secreto profesional entre abogado y defendido (“lawyer-client privilege;” “attorney-client privilege”); secreto profesional médico (“doctor-patient privilege;” “physician-patient privilege”) and secreto profesional periodístico (or) de los periodistas (“journalist’s privilege;” “reporter’s privilege” or “newsman’s privilege”). The reference to testigos con deber de guardar secreto denotes “witnesses with testimonial privilege.” Indeed, in certain cases a husband or wife may decline to testify against a spouse, claiming “marital privilege” or “marital communications privilege” and, in general, spouses share a “privilege of confidential marital communications.” And secreto de confesión denotes “priest-penitent privilege” or “clergyman-penitent privilege.” Thus, in general, obligación de guardar secreto is not an “obligation to keep secrets,” but the “obligation to maintain confidentiality,” and documentos secretos are simply “confidential (or) classified documents.”
In criminal procedure, secreto del sumario (or secreto sumarial) refers to the “confidentiality of criminal investigations” and to the fact such proceedings are generally made known only to persons involved in the inquiry. In a more restrictive sense, a judge may initially declare a criminal inquiry confidential (declarar el secreto del sumario), prohibiting suspects and witnesses from publicly revealing details of the investigation. When the investigation is subsequently opened to other parties, this is known as levantamiento del secreto del sumario. And in other respects, the criminal offense of violación de secretos denotes “unlawful access to privileged (or) confidential information.”