False Friends: “decree” vs. decreto (as used in Spain)

In Spain and in many legal contexts, decreto and “decree” may be considered false friends.

In English, judicial decisions issued by the former courts of equity were called “decrees,” as opposed to “judgments” that were rendered in courts of law. In modern usage “decree” often refers to the final decision in probate or family law proceedings: “divorce decree” (sentencia de divorcio); “decree of nullity (of marriage)” (sentencia de nulidad matrimonial).

In contrast, rather than referring to a judicial decision, as currently used in Spain decreto denotes three types of legislative instruments or orders emanating from the executive branch. The most numerous are reales decretos, defined as normas administrativas para la ejecución de las leyes. Issued by the government, reales decretos are regulations that implement legislation passed by the Cortes Generales (Spanish parliament).

A second type of decree is the real decreto legislativo which is delegated legislation initiated by the government upon an express grant of authority from the Cortes Generales. And a third, the real decreto ley is legislation that the government may enact on an urgent basis, but which must subsequently be ratified by the Congreso de los Diputados (lower house of the Spanish parliament) within 30 days. These three decretos are termed reales because they receive the King’s royal assent (sanción real).

Although these three are often translated literally as “royal decree,” “royal legislative decree” and “royal decree law,” doing so without further explanation might prompt a miscue since, given the meaning of “decree” in English, “royal decree” might be interpreted as denoting a decision rendered by some sort of royal court or in the name of the monarch, rather than to a legislative instrument or an executive order emanating from the government. In that regard, a real decreto may perhaps be described as an “implementing regulation.” And real decreto legislativo and real decreto ley may both simply be referred to in English as “laws.” If a distinction must be made in translation between the latter two, a real decreto legislativo may perhaps be described as “delegated legislation” and a real decreto ley as “emergency legislation.”

In other respects, a 2003 reform of the Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial empowered Spanish court clerks (formerly called secretarios judiciales and now known as letrados de la administration de justicia) to issue certain types of decisions called decretos. In this case decreto and “decree” may likewise be considered false friends and equating the two could also prompt miscues in translation, since (as noted above) in Anglo-American legal systems “decrees” are issued by judges rather than by clerks of court. In this context, decretos issued by court clerks might be described as “procedural orders” or “procedural decrees” to distinguish them from judicial decrees.

8 thoughts on “False Friends: “decree” vs. decreto (as used in Spain)

  1. Thank you, Rebecca. I always see Real Decreto translated as Royal Decree, even in Eur-Lex. So it’s interesting to know that, although widely used, this is actually a false friend.

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    • Monica, I work for institutions, and sometimes I mention such a false friend (I can’t think of an example right now, off the top of my head), but I usually get told to follow the established practice, which is usually to follow the literal translation. The only exception I can think of where a non-literal translation is used is that the UN translates “ley”/”loi” as “act”. But, other than that, the literal translation is normally used.

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      • Tim, this is an interesting topic. It’s sometimes difficult to admit that translations that we’ve used for a long time may not be as appropriate as we thought. I know that over the course of my long career as a legal translator I’ve “revisited” several “generally-accepted translations” and decided that there were closer renderings than the ones I was using. This is especially difficult when the “right” translation appears in official or print sources. (For example, is “deed” really close enough to serve as a translation for “escritura”?) These are decisions that we translators have to make, but I think questioning generally-accepted renderings (and sometimes adopting new ones) is not a bad thing.

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  2. Here’s an example: I’ve suggested translating “Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería” as “Ministry of Agriculture”, since “agriculture” (and “farming”) includes livestock farming, whereas “agricultura” refers only to arable farming. If we must include two concepts, it should really be something like “Ministry of Arable and Livestock Farming”. But the more literal translations are so entrenched (and are in institutions’ databases) that you basically have to stick with them.

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