Impossible-to-Translate Criminal Law Terms: tipicidad; antijuricidad; culpabilidad; punibilidad

tipicidad; antijuricidad; culpabilidad; punibilidad

These criminal theory terms often appear to elude translation since they are not familiar concepts in Anglo-American law. Briefly, the Spanish system for determining criminal liability follows the tripartite German model and is accomplished in three successive steps. First the tipicidad of the act is established, i.e., a determination is made as to whether the alleged offender has fulfilled each element of the statutory definition of that specific offense (tipo penal). Among others, these include both the criminal act or actus reus element (tipo objetivo) and the mental or mens rea element (tipo subjetivo). The wrongfulness (antijuricidad) of the act is then assessed to determine whether the alleged offender’s act was wrongful (antijurídico, sometimes also translated as “unlawful”) and whether there are justification defenses (causas de justificación) that would render the act lawful. In a third step culpability or blameworthiness (culpabilidad) is examined to determine the alleged offender’s individual accountability for the offense and whether there are excuse defenses (causas de exculpación) which would exempt him from criminal liability. In Spain, a fourth element punibilidad (literally, “punishability”) is assessed to address individual cases in which certain offenders may be exempt from punishment.

It is often difficult to find suitable English translations for these four criminal law concepts, and I’ve found it helpful to turn to scholars who write about Spanish and German criminal law theory in English to see the terms they use. Here is a basic bibliography:

Bachmaier Winter, Lorena and Antonio del Moral García. Criminal Law in Spain. Alphen ann den Rijn: Kluwer Law International, 2010.

Bohlander, Michael. “Basic Concepts of German Criminal Procedure, An Introduction.” Durham Law Review Online, Vol. 1, 2011, pp. 1-26.

Bohlander, Michael. English translation of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch). Saarbrücken: juris GmbH, 2010.

Bohlander, Michael. Principles of German Criminal Law. Portland: Hart Publishing, 2009.

Dubber, Markus Dirk. “Theories of Crime and Punishment in German Criminal Law.” The American Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2005), pp. 679-707.

Dubber, Markus Dirk. “The Promise of German Criminal Law: A Science of Crime and Punishment” German Law Review, Vol. 6, No. 7 (2005), pp. 1049-1071.

Fletcher, George P. Basic Concepts of Criminal Law. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Fletcher, George P. y Steve Sheppard. American Law in a Global Context: the Basics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Gómez Jara, Carlos and Luis E. Chiesa. “Spanish Criminal Law” in Kevin Jon Heller and Markus D. Dubber, eds. The Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009, pp. 488-530.

Hermida, Julián. “Convergence of Civil Law and Common Law in the Criminal Theory Realm.” University of Miami International & Comparative Law Review, Vol. 13 (2005-2006) pp. 163-232.

Naucke, Wolfgang. “An Insider’s Perspective on the Significance of the German Criminal Law Theory’s System for Analyzing Criminal Acts.” Brigham Young University Law Review (1984), pp. 305-321.

Naucke, Wolfgang. “Interpretation and Analogy in Criminal Law.” Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 3 (1986), pp. 535-551.

Weigend, Thomas. “Germany” in Kevin Jon Heller and Markus D. Dubber, eds. Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011, pp. 252-287.

What is ajenidad ?

Yesterday in class a student asked me how to translate ajenidad, noting that it is not in my Léxico (another term I should add). Since she works in a labor law firm, I immediately recognized the context: here ajenidad is derived from the expression trabajo por cuenta ajena, describing the fact of working for an employer, under an employment contract. Thus, ajenidad (and trabajo por cuenta ajena) can be rendered simply as “employment” or “working under an employment contract,” as opposed to trabajo por cuenta propia, which is “self-employment.”

The above defines the concept of ajenidad laboral. But there is also an ajenidad penal in Spanish criminal law, which is one of the essential elements in the definition of hurto (theft). Article 234 of the Criminal Code defines hurto as “tomar las cosas muebles ajenas, con ánimo de lucro, y sin voluntad de su dueño.” In this context ajenidad del mueble is a required element of hurto, referring to the fact that the stolen goods must actually belong to someone else. The appropriation of abandoned or otherwise ownerless property is not an offense: [la ajenidad del mueble] supone que exista un propietario del bien mueble objeto del delito. No cometerá infracción penal quien toma una cosa que está abandonada, pues las cosas pueden adquirirse por ocupación cuando carecen de dueño.*

*Read more here

Español jurídico: Who is el Magistrado Ponente?

El magistrado ponente (or just ponente) is the judge on a multi-judge court (tribunal; órgano colegiado) who is assigned to oversee a given case and, ultimately, to write the court’s opinion, reflecting the final decision of his colleagues after their deliberations have concluded. In that regard, in judgments rendered by Spanish courts it is common to see a judge’s name followed by the reference that he was the magistrado ponente:

Ha sido Ponente la Magistrada Doña XXXX, quien expresa el parecer de la Sala.

Ha sido Magistrado Ponente el Ilmo. Sr. D. XXXX, quien expresa el parecer de la Sala

In international courts in which French is one of the official languages, magistrado ponente is often referred to as “judge rapporteur” (European Court of Justice; European Court of Human Rights), prompting some translators to use this expression for ponente or to render it literally as “reporting judge,” or even as “speaker judge (or) magistrate.”

But it should be noted that “judge rapporteur” and “reporting judge” are not used in Anglo-American court opinions, and the key to appropriately translating magistrado ponente actually appears in the Spanish examples above: quien expresa el parecer de la Sala. Indeed, Anglo-American judgments commonly indicate the name of the judge in question followed by the expressions:

  • “writing (or) who wrote the opinion of the court”
  • “delivering (or) who delivered the opinion of the court”
  • “giving (or) who gave the opinion of the court”

Thus, el parecer de la Sala is, obviously, “the opinion of the court.”

“Writing/wrote the opinion of the court” appears to be more common in US courts, while “deliver/delivering (and) giving/gave the opinion of the court” seems to occur more often in UK sources. Here are some examples of all three:

  • Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens said: “It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from…
  • Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found that the law school had a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body and that…
  • The Lord Justice General, writing the opinion of the court, said:. “In view of the difficulties which have arisen with the English prison authorities since …
  • Lord Reed, delivering the opinion of the court, said: “Where the summons has not called within the period specified by the rule, the automatic consequence….
  • The Opinion of the Court was delivered by the Lord Justice General. In that Opinion, he recorded that in the course of the hearing of the petition a number
  • L Phillips MR (delivering the opinion of the court) acknowledged that the difficulties the current “multiple publication” rule posed for Internet publishers…
  • Giving the opinion of the court, Lord Justice Clerk Gill said: “On the information before us, we conclude that the Society is neither secret nor sinister…
  • Giving the opinion of the court, the Lord President said it was clear that the effect of the statutory provisions, when read together, is that the court…

(concerning dissenting or concurring opinions see here)

Español jurídico: What are clases pasivas?

Clases pasivas (del Estado) is a broad term, referring to Spanish civil servants (funcionarios públicos) and their relatives or dependents (parientes o dependientes) who receive any type of pension or other benefit from the state, including retirees (jubilados), widows and widowers (viudas y viudos), orphans (huérfanos) or beneficiaries of disability pensions (beneficiarios de pensiones por incapacidad).

Despite this very specific meaning, classes pasivas has been translated multiple times literally as “passive classes,” even on official Spanish government, law firm and university websites. But this rendering is nonsensical and would obviously be meaningless to a US or UK lawyer or any other English-speaking audience unfamiliar with the Spanish civil service pension system. So, it’s worth the effort to avoid a literal translation and attempt to find something that actually reflects what clases pasivas means. Here are a couple of definitions:

Clases pasivas—Las personas que disfrutan de ventajas económicas por haber prestado servicios al Estado o por ser parientes o dependientes de los que fueron funcionarios, constituyen las “clases pasivas”. Dentro de éstas, los que fueron funcionarios se denominan “jubilados” o “retirados”, los familiares o dependientes de los que fueron servidores del Estado se denominan “pensionistas” o “pensionados”. (L. Ribó Durán. Diccionario de Derecho, Barcelona: Bosch, 2005)

Clases pasivas—Bajo esta denominación se califica el régimen de derechos de los funcionarios públicos (o sus causahabientes), una vez que cesan en la prestaciòn de sus servicios (jubilación, muerte). Su regulación se contiene en el Texto Refundido de la Ley de Clases Pasivas de 1987. (Juan Manuel Fernández Martínez, Diccionario Jurídico, Navarra: Thompson/Aranzadi (3rd ed.), 2004)

Based on these definitions, clases pasivas can perhaps be safely rendered as as “beneficiaries of civil service pensions” or “recipients of civil service benefits.”

Weird Legal Spanish: What is a causídico/a?

This fairly obscure term is sometimes used in Spain as a synonym for procurador/a, being defined in the DLE as procurador o representante de una parte en el proceso. As examples, se dio traslado al causídico… simply means that “the procurador was notified” about the matter in question. Apoderamiento del causídico denotes “power of attorney granted to the procurador, while designación de causídico mediante comparencia ante el Secretario Judicial is a reference to a client’s appointment (i.e., grant of power of attorney) to his procurador in person in the presence of a court clerk (known formally as designación apud acta), rather than by submitting a poder notarial (“notarial power of attorney”).

Español jurídico: What is a juez ordinario?

Legal Spanish for Translators

Texts concerning due process guarantees in Spain (known collectively as derecho a la tutela judicial efectiva de jueces y tribunales) often mention el derecho al juez ordinario. This has perhaps inevitably been translated literally as “ordinary judge,” but this rendering doesn’t really express the meaning of the term or its significance within the Spanish judicial system. In that regard, Article 24.2 of the Spanish Constitution guarantees the right to a juez ordinario predeterminado por la ley. The right to a judge predeterminado por la ley means that citizens will be tried by judges assigned to their cases following established case assignment rules, rather than by an ad hoc judge appointed to hear a specific case ex post.

This juez ordinario procedural guarantee goes hand in hand with the prohibción de tribunales de excepción contained in Article 117.6 of the Spanish Constitution, which precludes creating courts to adjudicate matters a posteriori outside of the ordinary court system.

The prohibition of ad hoc judges and courts can be considered an essential guarantee of any democratic system. But perhaps it is not surprising that this was included specifically in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, given that during the Franco regime from 1963 until two years after the dictator’s death in 1975, an ad hoc court (the Tribunal del Orden Público, or “TOP”) prosecuted what were considered political offenses against the Franco state.

It may also be useful for translators to note that in Spain civil, criminal, administrative and labor courts are classified as tribunales ordinarios, while the Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional), Court of Audit (Tribunal de Cuentas), military courts (tribunales militares), and customary courts (tribunales consuetudinarios) are not considered as part of the ordinary court system (tribunales de la jurisdicción ordinaria).

Español jurídico: Translating excepciones procesales


In Spanish civil procedure excepción denotes a “defense” (“defence,” in British English) that a defendant may raise or a “motion” that he may make in court in response to the allegations in a plaintiff’s complaint, and in this context the term cannot really be translated literally as “exception.” In that regard, there are “excepciones procesales/de forma” (procedural or formal defenses) that seek to defeat a lawsuit before it can proceed, and “excepciones materiales/de fondo” that address the merits of the case (affirmative defenses). In practice, the term excepciones generally denotes procedural defenses. In Spanish the defendant deduce, alega o formula excepción, all of which may be expressed in English as “raising a defense.”

There are quite a few defenses that can be raised in Spanish civil proceedings. Here are some of the most common with possible English renderings:

 –excepción de falta de competencia objetiva o territorial o sumisión a arbitraje (defense of lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, or submission to arbitration)

–excepción de falta de legitimación activa (defense that the plaintiff’ lacks standing)

–excepción de falta de legitimación pasiva (defense that the defendant lacks standing)

–excepción de falta de capacidad (lack of capacity defense)

–excepción de falta de litisconsorcio activo necesario (defense of failure to join/nonjoinder of an indispensable plaintiff)

–excepción de litisconsorcio pasivo necesario (defense of failure to join/nonjoinder of an indispensable defendant)

–excepción de litispendencia (lis pendens/another action pending defense)

–excepción de prescripción (statute of limitations defense)

–excepción de cosa juzgada (res judicata defense)

excepción de falta de agotamiento de la vía administrativa;  excepción de falta de reclamación previa en vía administrativa (defense of failure to exhaust available administrative remedies)

excepción de inadecuación de procedimiento (defense of improper proceeding)

Español jurídico: capacidad is “capacity,” right? (It may not be that simple!)

Confusing Terms2

“At first blush,” as they say, “capacity” would appear to be a logical translation for capacidad. But I recently saw “legal capacity” equated with both capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar (which are clearly not the same), so I thought it was worth exploring this matter in a little more depth.

Capacidad jurídica vs. capacidad de obrar

Capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar are civil law concepts from the Law of Persons (Derecho de la persona). Capacidad jurídica is defined as la aptitud para ser titular de derechos y obligaciones (por el solo hecho de ser persona y que comienza con el nacimiento y termina con la muerte del sujeto) no susceptible de restricciones o limitaciones. It is the capacity to have rights and obligations, to be the titular de derechos y obligaciones. Everyone born, and throughout their lifetime, has capacidad jurídica.

In contrast, capacidad de obrar is la aptitud para ejercer derechos y asumir obligaciones, susceptible de restricciones o limitaciones. This is the capacity to exercise the rights and assume the obligations that capacidad jurídica bestows on each person at birth. Mentally competent adults (mayores de edad no incapacitados) have this plena capacidad de obrar. Non-emancipated minors or adults adjudicated incompetent (menores no emancipados e incapaces) still have all of the rights inherent in capacidad jurídica but the exercise of those rights is susceptible to restrictions and limitations, requiring the consent or assistance of a representative, such as a parent or guardian (progenitor o tutor) to enable them to validly enter into legal transactions (realizar válidamente cualquier acto jurídico), i.e., to exercise their capacidad de obrar.

In view of the above, I think we can abandon hope of translating these concepts with simple two-word expressions. Capacidad jurídica may perhaps be rendered as “legal capacity,” but the context may require further explanation, such as noting that it is the “capacity to be the subject of rights and obligations acquired at birth.” And if capacidad jurídica is “legal capacity,” then capacidad de obrar is the “capacity to exercise legal capacity,” or perhaps (resorting to a definitional rendering) the “capacity to exercise rights and assume obligations.”

Capacidad para ser parte vs. capacidad procesal

These are often considered the procedural law counterparts of the Civil Code capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar. Capacidad para ser parte is defined as la capacidad para ser titular de derechos, obligaciones y cargas procesales como demandante o demandado en un proceso. In contrast, capacidad procesal refers to the capacity to actually appear at trial and fully participate in legal proceedings, defined as capacidad para comparecer en juicio y poder realizar actos procesales válidos. Examples of persons who lack this capacity to appear at trial include minors, the mentally incompetent, spendthrifts and the unborn (menores, incapaces, pródigos y los concebidos y no nacidos), who would have to appear at trial represented by a parent, guardian or a court-appointed guardian ad litem (progenitor, tutor o defensor judicial).

These concepts are equally difficult to render into English. Capacidad para ser parte might be described as the “capacity to be a party to a proceeding,” while capacidad procesal might be expressed as the “capacity to appear at trial,” neither of which admittedly reflects the complexity of the legal concept in Spanish. It should also perhaps be noted that capacidad procesal has sometimes been confused with “standing,” which in Spanish is legitimación, a term that may likewise warrant a future blog entry.

In summary, translators need to be aware of the differences between capacidad jurídica/capacidad de obrar and capacidad para ser parte/capacidad procesal, while hoping and praying that we never have to actually translate these concepts.


In this context, perhaps we should also look at some of the terminology relating to “incompetency proceedings,” or what in Spanish law is known as the proceso de declaración de incapacidad. In this context, incapacitación and declaración judicial de incapacidad denote a judge’s “adjudication of incompetence.” And a “person adjudicated incompetent” (persona judicialmente incapacitada) is known as an incapaz (“incompetent”). As explained above, such persons cannot directly exercise their capacidad de obrar or capacidad procesal and must do so through a representative.

Other standard expressions with capacidad

There are several other expressions in which capacidad can probably be safely rendered directly as “capacity”:

  • capacidad para contratar; capacidad contractual (contractual capacity; capacity to contract)
  • capacidad matrimonial (capacity to marry)
  • capacidad para suceder (capacity to inherit)
  • capacidad para testar (testamentary capacity)
  • capacidad convencional (capacity to negotiate and enter into a collective bargaining agreement)

Sources for the definitions provided above: (the Spanish) Código Civil; Carlos Lasarte, Principios de Derecho Civil I, Madrid, Marcial Pons; (the Spanish) Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil; and Víctor Moreno Catena, Derecho Procesal Civil-Parte General, Valencia, Tirant lo Blanch.

Additional concepts and terminology from Léxico temático de terminología jurídica español-inglés:

  • capacidad jurídica/capacidad de obrar (pp. 567-568)
  • capacidad para ser parte/capacidad procesal (pp. 123-124)
  • incapacidad; incapacitación (pp. 186-187; 568)

Español jurídico: What is a magistrado-juez?

Legal Spanish for Translators

In a previous post we looked at the term magistrado and saw why it cannot be translated as “magistrate.” But what about magistrado-juez? (A “judge-judge”?) For those unfamiliar with the Spanish judiciary, the term is certainly confusing. Having recently discussed this in class with my students, I thought it might be worth taking a look at it here in the blog.

The distinction between the two categories of Spanish judge (juez and magistrado) is quite clear: jueces sit on single-judge (usually) trial courts (juzgados; órganos unipersonales), while magistrados sit in panels on multi-judge (often) appellate courts (tribunales; órganos colegiados). Both can be rendered as “judge,” and the omnipresent expression jueces y magistrados is merely a reference to “judges” collectively or to the Spanish judiciary as a whole.

A magistrado-juez is a judge who has obtained the category of magistrado, but who sits on a single-judge court. A typical example are the magistrados-juez who sit on juzgados de instrucción, investigating and preparing the subsequent trials of major felonies (delitos graves).

Thus, if a definition is required, a magistrado-juez is a (senior) judge (magistrado) who sits on a single-judge court (juzgado; órgano unipersonal). But, once again, this distinction is not likely to be required in translation, and the term can usually be rendered simply as “judge.”

And, obviously magistrado-juez and “magistrate judge” are (big fat) false friends! As noted in the previous entry linked above, magistrado is a higher category of Spanish judge, while in England and Wales “magistrates” (also known as “justices of the peace”) are generally lay judges with no formal legal training. Likewise, in the United States federal system, there are “magistrate judges” who oversee civil and criminal pretrial matters and may conduct civil or criminal trials of misdemeanors (faltas; delitos leves), quite the opposite of the serious felonies investigated by Spanish magistrados-juez.

Español jurídico: Translating indefensión

Weird Words You Need to Know.png

This term is often rendered literally as “defenselessness,” a word that certainly exists in English, obviously describing the state of being utterly defenseless. But “defenselessness” is perhaps an all-too-literal rendering for indefensión, which in addition to sounding somewhat unnatural, doesn’t really convey the meaning of the term in legal contexts.

Article 24.1 of the Spanish Constitution provides that todas las personas tienen derecho a obtener la tutela efectiva de los jueces y tribunales en el ejercicio de sus derechos e intereses legítimos, sin que, en ningún caso, pueda producirse indefensión. And the Spanish Constitutional Court has interpreted the term broadly as encompassing all of the Article 24 constitutional rights including el derecho al Juez ordinario predeterminado por la ley, a la defensa y a la asistencia de letrado, a ser informados de la acusación formulada contra ellos, a un proceso público sin dilaciones indebidas y con todas las garantías, a utilizar los medios de prueba pertinentes para su defensa, a no declarar contra sí mismos, a no confesarse culpables y a la presunción de inocencia.

Thus, indefensión denotes any circumstance that deprives a party of the possibility of defending himself at any time and in any way during the judicial process. Thus, rather than “defenselessness,” indefensión may perhaps better be rendered as “denial of a means of defense,” “denial of justice,” or in view of the Article 24 guarantees involved, “denial of due process.”

Read more here