They may not mean what you think! (Legal meanings of “molest” and “molestation”)

In everyday Spanish usage, molestar means “to bother,” “to disturb,” “to cause annoyance” or “to be a nuisance.” Thus me molesta cuando hablas con la boca llena simply means “it bothers me when you talk with your mouth full.” That’s why the “Do not disturb” signs in hotels in Spain say No molestar.

But “molest” and “molestation” have specific legal meanings that translators and legal professionals who use English can’t afford to ignore. Moreover, the terms denote something radically different in British and American legal usage, with a potential for prompting serious translation mistakes.

In legal contexts, British usage of “molest” and “molestation” is close to the Spanish meaning. For example, in cases of domestic abuse, under the Family Law Act 1996 in force in England and Wales, a judge may issue a specific type of injunction known as a “non-molestation order” to a spouse or partner (the “respondent”), prohibiting him or her from harassing or sometimes even having contact with the other spouse or partner. Some of the standard prohibitions found in a non-molestation order read as follows:

The respondent, [YY], must not use or threaten violence against the applicant, [XX], and must not instruct, encourage or in any way suggest that any other person should do so.

The respondent, [YY], must not intimidate, harass or pester the applicant, [XX], and must not instruct, encourage or in any way suggest that any other person should do so.

The respondent, [YY], must not telephone, text, email or otherwise contact or attempt to contact the applicant, [XX], [except for the purpose of making arrangements for contact between the respondent and the children of the family] / [except through [his]/[her] solicitors [insert name, address and telephone number]].

The respondent, [YY], must not damage, attempt to damage or threaten to damage any property owned by or in the possession or control of the applicant, [XX], and must not instruct, encourage or in any way suggest that any other person should do so.

The respondent, [YY], must not damage, attempt to damage or threaten to damage the property or contents of [the family home]/[insert property], and must not instruct, encourage or in any way suggest that any other person should do so.

The respondent, [YY], must not go to, enter or attempt to enter [the family home] / [insert property] / [any property where he knows or believes the applicant, [XX], to be living], and must not go [within [insert] metres of it] / [along the road(s) known as [insert]], except that the respondent may [go to the property [without entering it]] / [go along the road(s) known as [insert]] for the purpose of collecting the children of the family for, and returning them from, such contact with the children as may be agreed in writing between the applicant and the respondent or in default of agreement ordered by the court.

In the US this type of injunction is often referred to generically as a “restraining order” or “order of protection.” In some states similar orders are known as “domestic violence protection orders” or “DVPOs,” “stay away orders” or “no contact orders.” But never are they referred to as “non-molestation orders,” as they are known in England and Wales.

Indeed, in American legal language “molestation” most often has quite a different meaning, being a criminal law term denoting a type of sex crime against children, i.e., “child molestation,” whose definition may vary in the criminal codes of each state, but that generally refers to a “wide variety of activities perpetrated against children by adults that have sexual undertones. While sexual activity clearly falls within the scope of child molestation, the crime also applies to other forms of inappropriate touching, including non-penetrating contact, exposure of a minor to pornography, or convincing a minor to view sexual acts.”** In this context, “to molest” is to commit some sort of sexual abuse, and the person committing such an offense is known as a “child molester.”

Thus translating “molest” and “molestation” requires taking into account which of these two meanings is intended. The “non-molestation” order of the Family Law Act 1996 is similar to the orden de alejamiento issued by Spanish courts and might provide a valid translation. In contrast “child molestation” may perhaps be rendered as “abusos sexuales a menores” or with a similar expression.

* https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/…orders…/non-molestation-order.doc

** https://www.justia.com/criminal/offenses/sex-crimes/child-molestation/

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