If it’s Spanish, why does it look like German?

If it's Spanish, why does it look like German_

This has been bothering me for quite a while: I receive texts to translate from my Spanish lawyer clients and so many of the nouns are capitalized, that I think I’m reading a text in German! It doesn’t matter whether they are court pleadings or corporate documents, and this idiosyncrasy of legal Spanish is also widely present in many manuales de Derecho.

Legal Spanish style manuals warn against this practice. The Libros de estilo of both the Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Madrid* and the Centro de Estudios Garrigues** contain the following paragraph:

A pesar de que la costumbre o el deseo de enfatizar determinados conceptos tueden tentarnos a usar las mayúsculas, se escriben con inicial minúscula las siguientes palabras: acta, acuerdo administrador, balance, capítulo, comunidad autónoma, consejero delegado, contrato, convenio colectivo, departamento, despacho, diputado, director, empresa, entidad, estatutos sociales, gerente, grupo (de sociedades), informe, jefe de personal, jefe de sección, jefe de servicio, juez, junta general, magistrado, memoria, notario, propuesta, protocolo (notarial), sección, senador, sociedad, socio, tomo.

So the question is, should all such terms be capitalized in an English translation when (in spite of this warning) they appear in caps in the Spanish original? Should we consider capitalized terms as part of a document’s format (which we generally should try to duplicate when possible) and, for example, render generic uses of Juez as “Judge,” Tribunal or Sala as “Court,” Consejo de Administración as “Board of Directors” and Junta de Accionistas as “Shareholders Meeting”?

I don’t think so. Although such terms, even when used generically, are often capitalized in Spanish (whether this is appropriate or not), capitalizing them in an English translation may not be advisable for two reasons. First, since this is not customary in English, it may prove distracting to the reader. But more importantly, precisely since this is not customary, readers may think that the fact that a term is capitalized gives it a special meaning (such as capitalized terms have in English-language contracts). They may ultimately look for a special meaning in the capitalized terms that they obviously don’t have.

*Alberto Gómez Font and Francisco Muñoz Guerrero. Libro de Estilo del Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Madrid. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2007.

** Alberto Gómez Font and María Peña Arsuaga. Libro de Estilo Garrigues. Cizur Menor (Navarra): Editorial Aranzadi, 2006.

It may not mean what you think! Legal meaning of vis-à-vis

The French expression “vis-à-vis” is used in English as a preposition with the meaning con respecto a; con relación a; en relación con, etc., as in “the workers’ position vis-à-vis their employer” (la posición de los trabajadores con respecto a su empleador) or “the value of the pound vis-à-vis the dollar” (el valor de la libra con relación al dólar).

But in Spain in the context of corrections law (Derecho penitenciario) vis-à-vis has a very peculiar meaning, denoting private visits (comunicaciones íntimas) with a spouse or partner afforded prison inmates under certain conditions. Family “vis-à-vis” (comunicaciones familiares and comunicaciones de convivencia) are also possible and encouraged. Read more here.

“Conjugal visit” is the expression most commonly used to describe private visits with prison inmates in the English-speaking jurisdictions in which they are permitted. In the US they are allowed in four states (California, Connecticut, New York and Washington). Read more here.

What is usufructo ?

Usufructo, the right to use and enjoy the proceeds of another’s property for a given term, is one of the most common rights in property (derechos reales) present in civil code systems. The beneficiary (usufructuario) of a “usufruct” (as usufructo is known in Louisiana and in other English-speaking civil law jurisdictions) may use and enjoy the “fruits” (proceeds, profit, etc.) from the property, but without damaging or diminishing it. Article 467 of the Spanish Civil Code defines usufructo as the “right to use and reap the proceeds from another’s property with the obligation to preserve its form and substance, unless the instrument granting that right or the law provides otherwise” (derecho a disfrutar los bienes ajenos con la obligación de conservar su forma y sustancia, a no ser que el título de su constitución o la ley autoricen otra cosa). The property owner granting a usufruct is known as a nudo propietario (“naked owner,” similar to the common law “remainderman”). Here are a few of the basic terms and concepts concerning usufructo with their possible English translations:*

  • usufructo—usufruct; beneficial interest; beneficial ownership
  • usufructuario—usufructuary; beneficiary of a usufruct; beneficial owner
  • nudo propietario—naked owner; remainderman
  • usufructo sobre cosas inmuebles o muebles—usufruct of real or personal property
  • usufructo de derechos—usufruct of rights
  • usufructo simple—usufruct granted to a single person
  • usufructo múltiple—usufruct granted to two or more persons
  • usufructo simultáneo—simultaneous usufruct (usufruct enjoyed simultaneously by multiple beneficiaries)
  • usufructo sucesivo—successive usufruct (usufruct enjoyed by each beneficiary in succession)
  • usufructo propio; usufructo normal; usufructo de cosa no consumible—usufruct of non-consumable property (with the obligation to preserve its form and substance)
  • usufructo impropio; usufructo anormal; cuasiusufructo—usufruct of consumable property
  • usufructo voluntario—usufruct created voluntarily
  • usufructo legal—usufruct imposed by operation of law
  • usufructo puro—unconditional usufruct
  • usufructo condicional—conditional usufruct
  • usufructo a plazo—usufruct for a term
  • usufructo vitalicio—lifetime usufruct; usufruct for the life of the beneficiary; life estate; lifetime interest
  • usufructo viudal; usufructo del cónyuge viudo—surviving spouse’s usufruct; usufruct of a surviving spouse
  • usufructo testamentario—usufruct created by will
  • usufructo por prescripción—usufruct created by adverse possession

Source: Rebecca Jowers. Léxico temático de terminología jurídica español-inglés. Madrid: Tirant lo Blanch, 2015, pp. 767-769.

What are costas procesales ?

A translation client recently asked me what is meant by costas. Costas procesales are “court costs,” expenses arising in litigation, and in Spain include, among others, the following:

  • honorarios del abogado/letrado (attorney’s fees, also called “lawyer’s fees” or “legal fees”)
  • derechos del procurador (party agent’s fees)*
  • derechos de peritos (expert witness fees)
  • indemnizaciones a testigos (witness fees)
  • tasas judiciales (filing fees), and
  • derechos arancelarios de registradores y notarios (registrars’ and notaries’ fees—for certifications, certified copies, etc.)

It should be noted that in Spanish the losing party is “ordered to pay costs” (condenada en costas). But in English this concept is generally expressed from the perspective of the prevailing or successful party who is “awarded costs” (literally, premiada con las costas), which will be borne by the losing party. In this context, condena en costas may be rendered as “costs order,” “order for costs,” “order to pay costs,” or from the Anglo-American perspective, “award of costs.”

*For more ways to translate procurador see: https://rebeccajowers.com/2017/01/18/what-is-a-procurador/

Español Jurídico: What is competencia funcional ?

Competencia funcional has sometimes been rendered as “appellate jurisdiction,” and this may be correct in many contexts. However it should be noted that this definition is incomplete and may prompt a miscue or result in a mistranslation, since competencia funcional is actually a much broader concept, denoting the court of competent jurisdiction in each step in a legal proceeding, and not only at the appellate stage. Thus competencia funcional may refer not only to a court’s jurisdiction to hear appeals arising from a specific case (i.e., its “appellate jurisdiction”), but also to its jurisdiction to hear interlocutory motions (incidentes procesales) and enforcement proceedings (ejecución de sentencias). As explained in Thompson-Aranzadi’s Diccionario Jurídico,* “las normas de competencia funcional determinan qué juez o tribunal conocerá de los incidentes que se susciten en el proceso, de los recursos que se interpongan contra las sentencias y de la eventual ejecución de esas sentencias.”

*Juan Manuel Fernández Martínez, Coord. Diccionario Jurídico. Cizur Menor (Navarra): Thompson-Aranzadi, 2004.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the Press!

Dear Translator Colleagues: Don’t believe everything you read in the press! Get your Legal Spanish from reliable sources. Journalists, even those who specialize in periodismo judicial sometimes get it wrong. One of the most blatant errors that I’ve noticed lately in my readings is the use of the peculiar expression auto de acusación. Here’s what I mean:

  • La juez amplia la acusación en el caso de los aceites…*
  • contra el nuevo auto de acusación de la Juez podrá interponerse recurso de reforma en los próximos tres días.*
  • El Fiscal pide para él tres años y medio en la sombra y, en su auto de acusación, el Ministerio Público califica al ex directivo de “omnímodo”…**
  • Según el auto de acusación de la Fiscalía de Melilla…***

So what’s wrong here? Well, first of all, there is no such thing as an auto de acusación! An auto is a reasoned judicial decision (resolución judicial que necesariamente tiene que estar motivada). So obviously only judges can issue judicial decisions known as autos; prosecutors (fiscales; la Fiscalía; el Ministerio Fiscal) do not issue autos. In contrast, judges do not accuse: that’s the job of prosecutors in their escritos de acusación. As my maestro Professor Moreno Catena clearly explains “La acusación proviene de la parte acusadora; la imputación del órgano judicial que investiga; la defensa la ejerce el acusado-imputado; y la pena la impone el órgano que juzga.”****

Thus, judges (jueces o magistrados) imputan (ahora, investigan), procesan, juzgan, condenan (or absuelven) and imponen penas in their autos or sentencias. Prosecutors (fiscales) acusan in their escritos de acusación (never autos de acusación), also known in ordinary felony proceedings (proceso penal ordinario) as calificaciones provisionales.




****Víctor Moreno Catena and Valentín Cortés Domínguez, Derecho Procesal Penal. Madrid: Tirant lo Blanch, 2003, pp. 137-138.

What is a procurador ?


In most legal proceedings in Spain it is mandatory that a party be defended by an abogado (or) letrado (“lawyer;” “attorney”) and represented by a procurador who serves as a liaison between the lawyer, client and court, filing pleadings and other documents, receiving court orders and generally checking up on the status of the cases assigned to him. There is no equivalent in Anglo-American courts, and procurador has been mistranslated variously as “lawyer,” “attorney,” “barrister,” “solicitor,” “legal representative,” and even “paralegal” (!), among others.

But let’s look at some of these suggested translations. Procurador can’t be accurately rendered as either “lawyer,” “attorney” or “barrister” because, although procuradores hold law degrees, they do not defend clients in court as do lawyers/attorneys and barristers (as mentioned above, that’s the job of abogados/letrados). “Solicitor” is also a mistranslation when chosen to render procurador. If you need a contract drawn up, want to make a will or require legal counsel, in England and Wales you call a solicitor. Procuradores provide no such services. In fact, procuradores are generally hired by the lawyers themselves and rarely have direct contact with clients. “Legal representative” is also a poor choice, since the expression denotes any person who has been empowered to act on behalf of another, and is not necessarily a lawyer. Persons holding power of attorney (poder de representación) or appointed as executors (albacea) of a will are legal representatives. And as fully qualified lawyers procuradores certainly cannot be characterized as paralegals (con todos mis respetos por los paralegals).

Thus the difficulty is to find an appropriate translation for procurador, and I admit that over the years I have changed my mind a couple of times as to how to best render the term. I initially decided on “court representative,” but this translation may be misleading. Indeed, in the context of providing legal defense for a client in court, representación and “representation” are not cognates. In English (among many other meanings) “representation” refers to one’s being represented by a lawyer in court (“representation by counsel”). In Spain, however, representación generally refers to one’s being represented in court by a procurador, while representation by counsel (asistencia letrada) is known variously as defensa, defensa técnica, dirección técnica or sometimes asistencia técnica. A party is said to be representada en juicio por el Procurador de los Tribunales XXX y defendida (or) asistida por el Letrado YYY. Thus Spanish clients are “represented” in court by procuradores and “defended” by their abogados/letrados, and the expression representación y defensa is most often simply a synonym for procurador y abogado/letrado. In short, referring to procuradores as “court representatives” might prompt a miscue, since in Anglo-American courts lawyers both represent and defend their clients.

I later thought that perhaps “court agent” would be an appropriate rendering for procurador. But “court agent” might be interpreted to mean “agent of the court” suggesting that procuradores are actually personnel employed by the courts, which is certainly not the case. For now I have settled on “party agent,” (procuradores being agents who represent parties at court), but I am certainly aware that this expression doesn’t fully convey the meaning of the term (and I would welcome other suggestions!). Several colleagues have recommended adding a “Translator’s Note” indicating that procuradores are a feature of the Spanish judicial system and serve as intermediaries between lawyers and the court.

N.B. The Spanish procurador de los tribunales should not be confused with the term procurador as used in Mexico. In Mexico procurador is “prosecutor” (fiscal in Spain), and, thus, for US audiences and in this context the term is often rendered as “district attorney” or “D.A.”.

(Photo credit: from the website of Procuradora Rosa María Mateo Crossa, Málaga)