Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: estado civil

Many bilingual dictionaries translate estado civil as “marital status,” and often that is exactly what it means. But translators should bear in mind that in Spain (and in Spanish-speaking civil law jurisdictions) the expression estado civil is a much broader concept than “marital status” and, depending on the context, may refer to matrimonio, filiación, edad, incapacidad judicial declarada, nacionalidad or vecindad civil. When correctly translated as “marital status,” estado civil refers to whether a person is single (soltero/a), married (casado/a), widowed (viudo/a), separated (separado/a) or divorced (divorciado/a), or whether the marriage has been annulled (nulidad matrimonial). In the context of filiación (“filiation” or the “parent-child relationship”) estado civil refers to one’s status as padre/madre or hijo/hija. With respect to edad (“age”), one may be menor de edad (a “minor” or “infant,” now called simply “child” in England and Wales) or mayor de edad (of “legal/full age”), that is, persona que ha alcanzado la mayoría de edad (“person who has reached the age of majority”). Capacidad (“legal capacity”) includes the status of capaz (“competent”) or incapaz (“incompetent”) in the case of persons adjudicated incompetent by a court of law (incapacitados judicialmente). Under the civil status of nacionalidad, one may be español (a “Spanish national” or “Spanish citizen”), extranjero (a “foreign national” or “alien”) or apátrida (a “stateless person”). And vecindad civil refers to one’s region of habitual residence, which determines submission to general civil legislation (the Código Civil) or to specific local law (Derecho foral o especial). (For additional comments on vecindad civil see the post on May 27, 2916).

Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: saneamiento


Saneamiento is a peculiar term whose meaning in legal usage is not always obvious. In the Spanish law of obligations (Derecho de obligaciones) the expression obligación de saneamiento usually refers to a warranty obligation. The Spanish Civil Code provides for three types of warranty: 1) Saneamiento por evicción (Art. 1475 CC)—seller warrants that buyer will enjoy undisturbed and unopposed legal possession of purchased property. Here saneamiento por evicción may be translated as “warranty of title,” “warranty of good title,” or “warranty against loss of title.” When saneamiento por evicción applies to leased property, “warranty of quiet enjoyment” would be an appropriate rendering. 2) Saneamiento por cargas o grávamenes ocultos (Art. 1483)—seller warrants that the property sold or otherwise transferred is free of charges, liens or other encumbrances. Here a possible translation would be “warranty of clear title” or “warranty against hidden charges/liens/encumbrances.” And, 3) Saneamiento por vicios ocultos (Art. 1484 CC)—seller warrants that property/goods sold are free from hidden/latent defects, usually undertaking to repair or replace items found to be defective. This may often be translated as “warranty against hidden/latent defects.”

Saneamiento is also used in other legal contexts. For example (and these are certainly not the only legal meanings of the term), saneamiento contable may refer to the “write-down” of the value of an asset or the “write-off” of losses or a debt. Saneamiento financiero may denote some type of “financial restructuring (or) streamlining,” while saneamiento monetario often refers to “monetary reform.” And, as a final example, saneamiento ambiental may describe some form of “environmental remediation” or “environmental clean-up.”

Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: frutos ; disfrute

The property law section of the Spanish Civil Code contains multiple references to frutos, and it is obvious that the literal rendering “fruits” is probably not the most natural sounding in English (although this is indeed the term used in the Civil Code of Louisiana). General references to frutos may often be translated simply as “proceeds.” As an example, derecho del acreedor a los frutos de la cosa might be rendered as “creditor’s right to proceeds from the property.” Or, with respect to the obligation to make restitution after a contract is rescinded, restitución recíproca de las cosas que fueron objeto del contrato con sus frutos y el precio con sus intereses could be translated as “mutual restitution of the goods/property that were the subject-matter of the contract with any proceeds therefrom, and the price paid plus interest.”

A distinction is traditionally made between frutos naturales, frutos industriales and frutos civiles. Frutos naturales are naturally-occuring proceeds from property, such as timber and animal offspring. Frutos industriales are labor-produced proceeds from property, such as cultivated crops. And frutos civiles denotes income from property, such as rent, interest or dividends. These three concepts aren’t easily rendered with one-word terms, although frutos naturales may be described (as above) as “natural proceeds from property,”  frutos industriales may be translated as “cultivated crops” and frutos civiles perhaps as “revenue from property.”

Regarding the term disfrute, expressions such as derecho real de goce and derecho real de disfrute are generally treated as synonymous and translated as “right to the enjoyment of property.” But it should be noted that, strictly speaking, disfrute refers specifically to enjoyment of the proceeds (frutos) of property, el derecho de hacer suyo los frutos que la cosa produzca.

Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: the Diligence Standard

buen padre de familia ; ordenado empresario

In Spain (and in other Spanish-speaking countries) the measure for ordinary diligence is how a buen padre de familia would act, and is described as diligencia de un buen padre de familia (or diligencia media). With respect to the performance of obligations, Article 1104.2 of the Código Civil provides that cuando la obligación no exprese la diligencia con la que ha de prestarse en su cumplimiento, se exigirá la que correspondería a un buen padre de familia, while Article 1094 underscores that el obligado a dar una cosa lo está también a conservarla con la diligencia propia de un buen padre de familia. The common law counterpart of buen padre de familia is the “reasonable person” or “reasonably-prudent person,” acting with the diligence or care ordinarily exercised by a reasonable and prudent person under the circumstances. Here the standard of care is “based on what a reasonable person might be expected to do considering the circumstances and foreseeable consequences.”*

Just as the measure for diligence in ordinary affairs is how a buen padre de familia would act, the standard of care in business contexts (estándar mercantil de diligencia) is la diligencia de un ordenado empresario. In that regard, in defining the duty of care required of corporate directors, Article 225 of the Ley de Sociedades de Capital provides that deberán desempeñar el cargo y cumplir los deberes impuestos por las leyes y los estatutos con la diligencia de un ordenado empresario, teniendo en cuenta la naturaleza del cargo y las funciones atribuidas a cada uno de ellos. In common law jurisdictions the counterpart of this ordenado empresario is often referred to as the “reasonable business person,” and the standard of care required in commercial transactions is the “diligence of a reasonable business person.” As an example, in Canada directors of charitable organizations must exercise “a degree of skill and prudence comparable to a reasonable business person caring for his or her own property.”** To determine whether directors have acted negligently, courts often apply the “reasonable business person test” to compare their actions with what a reasonable business person would be expected to do in similar circumstances.

*Elizabeth A. Martin and Johnathan Law, eds. Oxford Dictionary of Law, 6th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: derechos reales

Derechos reales (often called “real rights” en English-speaking civil law jurisdictions) are “rights (or interests) in property” (“property rights;” “rights in rem”) and the expression has sometimes been mistranslated as “real property rights.” However, derechos reales may actually denotee a series of rights or interests in both bienes inmuebles (“real property,” “real estate” or “realty,” sometimes referred to as “immovables”) and bienes muebles (“personal property,” “personalty,” or “chattels”, sometimes referred to as “movables”). Although civil law textbooks may group them differently, traditional classifications of derechos reales include the following:

1) derecho real provisional—temporary rights in property, i.e., posesión (“possession”)

2) derecho real pleno—full rights in property, i.e., dominio (or) propiedad (“ownership”); and

3) derechos reales limitados—limited rights in property, which are subdivided into three large categories:

3.1) derechos reales de goce—rights to the enjoyment of property including usufructo, uso, habitación, servidumbres, censos, enfiteusis, and superficie;

3.2) derechos reales de garantía—security interests in property, including prenda, hipoteca, anticresis, prenda sin desplazamiento de la posesión and hipoteca mobiliaria; and

3.3) derechos de adquisición preferente—preferential rights in the acquisition of property, including tanteo, retracto and opción de compra.

In future posts I will explore the terminology of several of these limited property rights in more detail, but for now here are some useful definitions for some of those that may be less well-known:**

derecho real de goce—enjoyment rights; rights of use and enjoyment; right to use and enjoy another’s property: facultad de uso de las cosas pertenecientes a otro; also called derecho real de disfrute, which implies the use and enjoyment of the proceeds (frutos) from the property

usufructo—right to use and reap the proceeds of another’s property, with the obligation to preserve its form and substance: derecho de usar y percibir los frutos de cosas ajenas, con la obligación de conservar su forma y sustancia; called “usufruct” in English-speaking civilian systems and often translated as “beneficial ownership,” usufructuario or “beneficial owner” denoting the beneficiary of a usufruct,  while the owner of the property given in usufruct is the nudo propietario (“naked owner”).

derecho real de uso—usage rights: derecho de usar una cosa ajena con el derecho a disfrute limitado a las necesidades del usuario y su familia (right to use another’s property with the right to proceeds from the property limited to covering the needs of the user and his family)

derecho real de habitación—dwelling rights; habitation rights; rights of habitation: derecho de ocupar en casa ajena las piezas necesarias para si mismo y las personas de su familia (right to occupy in another’s home the rooms necessary for oneself and one’s family; the beneficiary of dwelling rights is known as an habitacionista (“dwelling/habitation rightsholder”)

servidumbre—easement, also often called “servitude” in English-speaking civil law jurisdictions: gravamen impuesto sobre un inmueble en beneficio de otro perteneciente a distinto dueño (encumbrance imposed on one parcel of land benefiting the owner of another one)

censos—various types of ground rent or annuity rights arrangements: sujeción de un inmueble al pago de un canon o rédito anual en retribución de un capital en dinero o del dominio pleno o menos pleno que se transmite en los mismos bienes (burden on real property consisting of the payment of an annuity in exchange for a cash amount or for the transfer of ownership or lesser rights in that same property)

enfiteusis—emphyteusis, a type of ground rent arrangement, also called censo enfitéutico: cesión del dominio útil de una finca, con reserva del dominio directo y el derecho de recibir a cambio una pensión anual (grant of beneficial ownership in a parcel of land, reserving title to that property and the right to receive an annuity in exchange)

derecho real de superficie—surface rights; building (or) planting rights: facultad de construir o plantar en suelo ajeno por un determinado período de tiempo, adquiriendo la propiedad de lo construido o plantado (right to build or cultivate on another’s land for a given term, acquiring ownership of the building or crops)

derechos reales de garantía—security interests in property



anticresis—antichresis: facultad del acreedor de ostentar el goce posesorio de un inmueble y de aplicar los frutos percibidos al pago de los intereses, o en su caso, al capital debido (creditor’s right to possession and enjoyment of an item of real property and to apply the proceeds therefrom to the payment of interest, or when warranted, to the capital owed him)

prenda sin desplazamiento de la posesión (often shortened to prenda sin desplazamiento)—nonpossessory pledge; (nonpossesory) security interest in personal property

hipoteca mobiliaria—chattel mortgage

derechos de adquisición preferente—preferential rights in the acquisition of property

tanteo—right of first refusal; first-refusal right; preferential purchase right: facultad de adquirir una cosa que va a ser enajenada a un tercero, por el mismo precio y en las mismas condiciones pactadas entre el vendedor y el tercero (right to purchase property that is going to be sold to a third party, at the same price and under the same conditions agreed between the seller and that third party)

retracto—right to set aside a sale; right to set aside/revoke/vacate a sale or other conveyance after its completion and acquire the item sold: facultad de adquirir una cosa cuando su propietario ya la ha enajenado a un tercero (right to acquire a property when it has already been sold to a third party)

opción de compra—purchase option

**The source of these definitions and a great place to learn more: Carlos Lasarte, Principios de Derecho Civil,” Vols. IV and V (Propiedad y derechos reales de goce; Derechos reales y Derecho hipotecario) Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2002 (there are later editions!)

Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms

When translating a patently civil law term from Spanish into English it may be tempting to simply render it literally, but the result will often be meaningless to readers unfamiliar with civil law systems. An alternative is to seek an option in a reputable monolingual English dictionary that defines civil law terms. But caution should be used when consulting those sources, since often the definition provided will reflect the meaning of the term as used originally in Roman Law or in English-speaking civil law jurisdictions (such as Louisiana), rather than its current meaning in Spanish-speaking jurisdictions. Moreover, the target audience for the translation may not be familiar with the civil law concept in question, in English or in any language.

In future posts under “Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms” I would like to explore a series of patently civil law concepts while also discussing other elements peculiar to Spanish law that perhaps have no readily discernible counterparts in Anglo-American legal systems. It certainly won’t be a presentation of Spanish law per se, but rather an overview of some of the vocabulary that may initially puzzle translators and legal professionals working in the field.

To determine the concepts to be included, in addition to suggestions from my students, colleagues and lawyer clients, I have culled a series of Spanish civil law, business law, and civil and criminal procedure law school textbooks to isolate the terminology that I believe may be most foreign to those unfamiliar with civilian systems. The English translations I suggest should always be viewed as approximate “kindred concepts” that may be useful, but will rarely prove to be true equivalents. As underscored by N. Stephan Kinsella in his “Civil to Common Law Dictionary,”** civilian terms may be “correlated with common law concepts” and often have some “counterpart” in common law terminology, but true equivalents do not often exist.

When there is no apparent concise counterpart, a short definition or a descriptive rendering will sometimes have to do. It is often frustrating to discover that there may really be no short, snappy functional equivalent for a given concept that will fit nicely into a translation. But this is very often the case, and sometimes there is no other recourse but to offer a concise definition in the body of the text or in a footnote.


**N. Stephan Kinsella. “A Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary” Louisiana Law Review, Vol. 54 (1994) pp. 1265-1305.