False Friends: el magistrado más moderno may not be modern at all!

Oh, no! False Friends

When describing the Spanish judiciary, there is a peculiar context in which the adjective moderno cannot be rendered as “modern,” and failure to recognize that fact could prove a source of serious translation mistakes. For example, the expression magistrado más moderno de la Sala Primera del Tribunal Supremo does not refer to the most modern or fashionable of the judges, but rather to the “judge with the least seniority in the Civil Division of the Supreme Court.”

“Seniority” is of course antigüedad, and magistrado más moderno denotes the judge with the least seniority (but not necessarily the youngest) on a given court or among a panel of judges, while magistrado más antiguo describes the judge with the most seniority (but not necessarily the oldest).

In Spain judges’ seniority is determined each year in the Escalafón de la Carrera Judicial (Career Judges Seniority Ranking), prepared by the Comisión Permanente del Consejo General del Poder Judicial (Standing Committee of the General Council of the Judiciary). And being the más moderno is significant in many instances. As an example (there are many others), regarding deliberations and voting to reach a decision and render judgment, the Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial provides that concluida la discusión de cada asunto, se procederá a la votación, que comenzará por el Juez o Magistrado más moderno y seguirá por orden de menor antigüedad, hasta el que presidiere (Art. 157).


Another Pair of Legal False Friends: distracción and “distraction”

false friends fridays

distracción; distraction

There are legal contexts in which these terms may indeed be cognates when they denote a “loss of focus, attention or interest,” as in distracción del conductor al volante, referring to a driver becoming distracted while driving (“distraction at the wheel”).

But in Spanish criminal law distracción is also used in academic writing to denote the fraudulent taking of money or property, often as a synonym for malversación or appropiación indebida (“embezzlement” or “misappropriation”). Thus, as examples, the offense of malversación (or) distracción de caudales públicos on the part of a civil servant (funcionario) may perhaps be rendered as “embezzlement of public monies (or) funds,” while a company director’s distraccion de dinero o activo patrimonial may describe the “misappropriation of corporate monies or assets.”

In other respects, in the offense of distracción del curso de las aguas, the term distracción refers to the “unlawful diversion of water from its natural course.” This has been described variously in English as “water theft” or “illegal tapping of water supplies,” and in US state criminal codes often falls under the offense of “defrauding (or) unlawfully interfering with a public utility.”

Legal English Look-alikes: “bail,” “bailiff” and “bailment”

Legal _Look-alikes_

At first glance “bail,” “bailiff” and “bailment” would appear to be related terms, but actually they’re not!

“Bail” is perhaps the most easily recognizable of the three, being the English term for the fianza given by a criminal defendant to elude pretrial detention and be “released on bail” (salir en libertad con fianza*) while awaiting trial. In English we say that a judge “grants bail” (acuerda la libertad con fianza) and “fixes (or) sets bail” (fija la fianza), while the accused “posts bail (or) a bail bond” (presta fianza), and is thus granted “pretrial release” (libertad provisional). When bail is posted by a third party, a less formal expression is “to bail (someone) out of jail” is often used. Failure to comply with the terms of pretrial release is known variously as “jumping (or) skipping bail” (violar/quebrantar las condiciones de la libertad con fianza), which may result in forfeiture of the amount posted.

Bail’s look-alike “bailiff” denotes a court officer, generally in charge of maintaining order during court proceedings, but who may have other duties (depending on the jurisdiction), such as assisting a sheriff, serving process and executing court orders. Bailiffs also act as court criers, announcing the judge’s entrance in the courtroom (the famous “Oyez, oyez, oyez!” explained here). “Bailiff” is often rendered in Spanish as alguacil, a term that isn’t used in Spain where a court officer known as auxilio judicial keeps order in the courtroom when a judge requests him to do so (guarda la Sala bajo las órdenes del Juez).

And, finally, “bailment” is likewise totally unrelated to the previous two, being the English term for the Spanish contrato de depósito. The fact that these are kindred concepts is evidenced in a simple comparison of their definitions: Black’s Law Dictionary defines “bailment” as “delivery of personal property by one person (the bailor) to another (the bailee) who holds the property for a certain purpose under an express or implied-in-fact contract.” Similarly, as defined in the Spanish Civil Code, under a contrato de depósito, el depositante entrega una cosa mueble al depositario para su custodia y posterior restitución al depositante (a bailor delivers an item of personal property to a bailee for its safekeeping and subsequent return to the bailor).


*The expression that is perhaps most often seen is libertad BAJO fianza, although the term actually used in the Spanish Ley de Enjuiciamiento Criminal is libertad provisional CON fianza (arts. 505 and 539).

False Friends (or not?): contaminación; contamination

false friends purple

When referring to certain types of damage to the environment (daños medioambientales), these terms are often cognates, as in contaminación medioambiental (“environmental contamination”) or contaminación radioactiva (“radioactive contamination”).

But in this same context contaminación is just as often rendered as “pollution” rather than “contamination.” “Environmental pollution” and “radioactive pollution” are quite common, as are similar expressions such as contaminación atmosférica (“air pollution”), contaminación de las aguas (“water pollution”), contaminación acústica (“noise pollution”) and contaminación lumínica (“light pollution”). Likewise, in this context contaminantes may be rendered as “contaminants” or “pollutants.”

In other respects, “contamination” is used in criminal forensics in expressions such as “contamination of evidence” or “contamination of DNA samples.” These may be rendered respectively as contaminación de pruebas and contaminación de muestras de ADN.

And, as a final example, lately in the Spanish press, journalists who disagree with judicial decisions often use the term jueces contaminados. In English the expression “contaminated judges” generally denotes judges who have a conflict of interest or who have already been involved or ruled on a related case. In contrast, in Spain jueces contaminados appears to be a term intended to accuse judges of a lack of impartiality when adjudicating politically sensitive matters.

Now in eBook! Thematic Lexicon of Spanish-English Legal Terminology


I’m pleased to announce that my Léxico temático de terminología jurídica español-inglés is now available in ebook.

More than a few colleagues have asked for a searchable versión, and since the Léxico is admittedly quite extensive (over 1,000 pages), the ebook edition will indeed make finding specific terms and concepts easier.

The work contains over 20,000 legal terms, expressions and concepts from 15 areas of Spanish law with their corresponding English translations, and its thematic approach presents terminology in the context in which it actually appears in Spanish legal texts. I created it as a tool for intensive translator-interpreter terminology training, as well as for lawyers and law professors who require an in-depth knowledge of Spanish and English in the major legal disciplines.

Here is a general overview of the Léxico’s content:

  • Law and the Judiciary (Derecho y sistema judicial)
  • Civil Procedure (Derecho procesal civil)
  • Criminal Law (Derecho penal)
  • Criminal Procedure (Derecho procesal penal)
  • Corrections Law (Derecho penitenciario)
  • Labor Law, Social Security Law and Labor Procedure (Derecho del trabajo, Derecho de la Seguridad Social y Derecho procesal Laboral)
  • Tax Law (Derecho tributario)
  • Law of Persons (Derecho de la persona)
  • Contracts (Derecho de los contratos)
  • Law of Torts (Derecho de daños)
  • Family Law (Derecho de familia)
  • Property Law and Property Registration (Derecho de cosas y Derecho hipotecario)
  • Law of Succession (Derecho de sucesiones)
  • Business Law (Derecho mercantil)

Download the full (32 page) table of contents: Léxico–Full table of contents.

Available from the Tirant lo Blanch legal publishers here.


Common Words with Uncommon (Legal) Meanings: señalar; señalamiento

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 serious translation mistakes if their special legal meanings are ignored. Here we take a look at possible legal meanings of señalar and señalamiento.

In common usage señalar means “to show, underscore or point out.” But in Spanish court procedure señalar often has the meaning of “to schedule,” “to docket” or “to calendar” (i.e., to set the date for trial, for rendering judgment, or for some other court event). Thus, the expression se acordó señalar el día diez de enero para votación y fallo indicates that the case in question was “scheduled (or) docketed (or) calendared for final deliberations and rendering judgment on January 10.”

The noun form is señalamiento and is often used in the sense of “trial.” Thus. petición de suspensión de vista por tener el letrado dos señalamientos is a lawyer’s request to have a hearing postponed due to his having two trials (señalamientos) scheduled on the dockets of different courts at the same time and day. In such cases the court is asked to señalar nueva fecha (reschedule the hearing on another day).

In other respects, in the informal jargon of Spanish real estate transactions señalar is sometimes used with the additional meaning of dar una señal (“to give a deposit” or “to put up earnest money”). Thus entregaron una cantidad de dinero para señalar el piso means “they put up earnest money as a deposit on the apartment.”

Spanish-English Legal Terminology in the New Year

Blog stats 2019

When I started this blog in 2016, I wondered whether there would be much interest in articles devoted exclusively to the translation of Spanish and English legal terms. Although I enjoy input concerning translation theory, methods, and tips in general, I felt there might be a niche for a more specifically specialized blog focused on the nitty-gritty of rendering some of the more difficult concepts of Spanish and Anglo-American law.

After three years I now think I may have been right, based on last year’s blog statistics showing 55,820 views from a total of 32,765 visitors.

It has been a pleasure to share this space with so many legal translation enthusiasts. More to come in 2020!