How Can ES-EN-ES Legal Translators Learn Law? (Some suggested “Tools of the Trade”)

law books 1

I was recently interviewed by legal translator Fernando Cuñado for the Traducción Jurídica channel that he and Ruth Gámez have on Youtube. We discussed many aspects of legal translation and learning Legal English, and particularly about how nonlawyer legal translators can become proficient in both Spanish and Anglo-American law. I explained my personal method for learning Spanish law, which involved studying Spanish law school textbooks, taking notes as if I were a student enrolled in courses in the 15 major legal disciplines, and then searching for possible English translations. The results were subsequently published in my Léxico temático de terminología jurídica español-inglés (Tirant lo Blanch, 2015). Here you can view the full 32-page table of contents.

But what about learning US law or the law of England and Wales? For legal translators, American or British law school textbooks may not always be the best choice, since they mainly focus on caselaw and don’t really provide a concise source for the legal concepts and terminology that translators require. In the interview with Fernando, I reviewed what for me are some of the “tools of the trade” that helped me learn the fundamental concepts and terminology of US and UK law. Here are some of the basics (I’ve provided links to the newer editions; mine are definitely not the latest!):

1) Bilingual legal dictionaries

I own a ton of Spanish-English/English-Spanish law dictionaries. I won’t list them all here, but now that we have Internet (yes, it was possible to be a legal translator before Google), I’ll list them by author/publisher* below for those who may be interested in examining some of them. Over time, I’ve found that I basically use only two. Tom West’s Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business (Intermark Language Publications, 2nd edition, 2012) is my go-to bilingual dictionary for two reasons: it provides renderings for many complete phrases (rather than the single-word noun entries that seem to dominate many bilingual sources), and West gives context, indicating the Spanish-speaking country where the term is most likely to appear. I also use the Alcaraz/Hughes Diccionario de términos jurídicos (Ariel, 11th edition, 2012). Having also bought one of the first editions in addition to two of the newer ones, it’s easy to see that the present work has been greatly expanded and improved.

 2) Monolingual legal dictionaries

(English Law):

 (US Law):

  • Black’s Law Dictionary, Bryan Garner, Editor-in-Chief (Thompson West, 11th edition, 2019); for me, an imprescindible; I look up something in Black’s every day. I’ve put it under “US Law” but it’s really an international legal dictionary that includes lots of terms marked “English law,” “Civil law,” “Roman law,” “Spanish law,” “French law,” etc., as well as an extensive appendix of legal maxims in Latin.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law . (Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2016). A standard US law dictionary in a useful trade paperback format.

 3) Legal Usage Dictionaries

These are entertaining as well as educational, since they give examples of how lawyers, judges and other legal professionals use, misuse, and abuse Legal English. These are the two “must-haves:”

3) Monographs on Legal English

  • Peter M. Tiersma. Legal Language (University of Chicago Press, 1999). Peter Tiersma was one of the world’s foremost experts on language and law. His Legal Language is a classic and his website ( (maintained after his death by Loyola Law School in Los Angeles) is also a treasure trove of information on Legal English
  • David Mellinkoff. The Language of the Law (originally published by Little Brown in 1963). This classic combines a detailed history of the development of Legal English with criticism of modern legal language as often being “wordy, unclear, pompous and dull.”

4) Overviews of English and American Law

There are dozens of good overviews of English and American law to choose from, but here are the newer editions of the ones the ones that I used to learn about Anglo-American law so many years ago:

(English Law):

(US Law):

5) Overviews of Specific Areas of Law

To understand the basic concepts and learn the vocabulary of specific areas of law, I worked with a series of “study aids” or “exam study guides” designed for law school students. Here are some of the most readily available:

(English Law):

  • The “Concentrate” Series Study & Revision Guides (Oxford University Press), includes “Contract Law Concentrate,” “Tort Law Concentrate,” “Criminal Law Concentrate,” “Land Law Concentrate,” “Family Law Concentrate,” etc.
  • Routledge-Cavendish Lawcards are “pocket-sized guides to the key examinable areas of law.” I’ve used the ones on contracts, commercial law, intellectual property and employment law. They may not be updated to reflect the latest changes in English law, but they’re still good sources for concepts and terminology.

(US Law):

  • West Academic Publishing’s Nutshell Series includes summaries of every area of law imaginable, and I found the ones on civil procedure, criminal law, criminal procedure, intellectual property, and comparative legal traditions to be quite useful. West likewise has a similar “Acing” series, and Sweet & Maxwell also appears to publish its own Nutshells for English law.
  • Permacharts are plastic-laminated charts on many areas of US (and Canadian) law that cram an incredible number of legal concepts and terms onto just a few pages. I found them easy to tuck into a bag to read them in my spare time while on the bus or in the Madrid Metro.

 6) Legal English books for non-native speakers of English: There are many excellent ones, and I own about a dozen. They’re a good place to start, but may not provide the depth of concepts and terminology that seasoned legal translators may ultimately require. Below is an author list** of the ones I found most useful, for those who want to take a look.

Well, that’s about it. There are, of course, hundreds more print resources available, and legal translators may perhaps now find enough in-depth works on Internet to meet their needs for self-training in law. But, as I tell my students, “I still believe in books,” and I’m sure that the ones listed above can provide translators with a solid foundation in Anglo-American law and legal terminology.


*Becerra, Javier; Bodoutchian-Saiz, Veronique; Bossini; Francisco R.; Butterworth’s; Cabanellas, Guillermo; Cassells’; Collin’s; Dahl’s; Espasa; Kaplan, Steven M.; Mazzucco, Patricia; McGraw-Hill; Ramírez, Antonio; Robb, Louis A.; Romanach, Jr., Julio; Tena Calvo, José Ángel; Tomasi’s; West’s; Wiley’s (only lists the first author of co-authored bilingual dictionaries)

**Brieger, Nick; Brostoff, Teresa Kissane; Brown, Gillian D.; Bruno-Linder, Amy; Chartrand, Marcella; Gubby, Helen; Haigh, Rupert; Krois-Lindner, Amy; Lee, Debra S.; Mason, Catherine; McKay, William R.; Riley, Alison; Riley, David (only lists the first author of co-authored Legal English books)


2 thoughts on “How Can ES-EN-ES Legal Translators Learn Law? (Some suggested “Tools of the Trade”)

  1. Thank you for sharing these incredibly useful resources, Rebecca! What do you think of attending legal seminars in both languages? Especially now with the pandemic I’ve found that webinars and conferences for lawyers and paralegals are quite accessible and wondered if you think they would help build up legal expertise or perhaps they would be too specific for a legal translator’s purposes.


    • Hi, Jamie. Thanks for your kind comment! Legal webinars and conferences are another great way for translators to gain exposure to legal concepts and terminology, and to see how lawyers think and approach their areas of practice. These are resources that weren’t available way back when I started out as a legal translator, and I’m sure that they can be as valuable as learning legal language the old fashioned way!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s