False Friends: When doctrina isn’t “doctrine”


Español Jurídico

Doctrina and “doctrine” may certainly be considered cognates when they denote general tenets or principles such as, for example, la doctrina del fruto del árbol envenenado (the fruit-of-the-poisonous tree doctrine) or the doctrina del levantamiento del velo societario (the veil doctrine [or] the piercing of the corporate veil doctrine).

But when referring to the authoritative writing of jurists, legal scholars and law professors, “doctrine” is not an appropriate translation for doctrina. As used in Spanish legal contexts, doctrina most often denotes the writings of law professors and legal commentators, and may be appropriately translated as “legal scholarship,” “academic opinion,” “legal (or) academic writing,” or “the opinion of legal scholars,” etc. Thus, in this context an expression such as autorizada doctrina is “authoritative academic opinion,” and a principle that is aceptado en doctrina is “accepted by legal scholars.”

In other respects, in the context of court decisions doctrina is often an ellipsis for the expression doctrina jurisprudencial and denotes “caselaw.” Thus, as used in the opinions of the Spanish Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) or Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo), expressions such as nuestra reiterada doctrina or nuestra doctrina pacífica refer to the courts’ “established (or) settled caselaw,” while recurso de casación para la unificación de doctrina denotes a “Supreme Court appeal to unify conflicting caselaw.” And, in more general contexts, the expression legislación, jurisprudencia y doctrina refers to “laws, caselaw and legal scholarship (or) academic opinion.”


False Friends in Procedural Terminology: abstención vs. abstention

Oh, no! False Friends

abstención; abstention

abstenerse; abstain

These pairings are often cognates as, for example, in the context of electoral law when used in expressions such as abstenerse de votar (“to abstain from voting”) or tasa de abstención (“abstention rate”).

But in other areas of law these expressions may be false friends. In procedural contexts, a judge’s duty to refrain from hearing a case due to a conflict of interest or for other legally-established grounds is known as el deber de abstención. In this case abstención cannot be translated literally as “abstention,” but rather denotes a judge’s “recusal of himself.” When there are grounds for recusing oneself (causas de abstención), judges as well as court personnel, prosecutors and expert witnesses (funcionarios de la administración de justicia, fiscales y peritos) are obliged to recuse themselves (abstenerse). Thus, el juez se abstuvo de conocer el asunto indicates that the “judge recused himself from the case,” (rather than the literal rendering “the judge abstained/refrained from hearing the case” as it is sometimes rendered.

In other respects, both the parties to a civil or criminal proceeding and the public prosecutor (las partes y el Ministerio Fiscal) may file a “motion to recuse” or “motion for recusal” (promover incidente de recusación) if a judge does not recuse himself when deemed warranted. Thus, as indicated above, abstenerse refers to a judge’s recusal of himself, while the cognate recusar is the term used when a third party recuses a judge or other official.

It may be of interest to note that in US practice a judge may be recused (recusado) or may recuse himself (abstenerse), while “abstention” is often used to refer to a federal court’s relinquishment of jurisdiction to avoid conflict with a state court or agency.

See here for more on abstención, recusación, inhibición, declinatoria and inhibitoria


False friends (27): elegible; eligible

Oh, no! False Friends

Theses look-alikes are truly false friends. In Spanish elegible means que se puede elegir, o tiene capacidad legal para ser elegido (DLE). In English this translates as “electable,” “capable of being elected” or, to use its false cognate, “eligible for election.”

In contrast, in English “eligible” is broader in meaning, referring to “having the right to do or obtain something; satisfying the appropriate conditions” (OED), being a synonym of “being entitled to” or “suitable for.” Thus in Spanish “eligible” may be expressed as con derecho (a); que cumple los requisitos; que reúne las condiciones; autorizado/a, etc., but not as elegible.

False Friends (26): adjudicar; adjudicate

Oh, no! False Friends

adjudicar ; adjudicate / adjudicación ; adjudication

These pairs are clearly false cognates. In Spanish adjudicar generally has the meaning of “to award,” “to allocate” or “to allot.” Thus, for example, adjudicar un contrato is “to award a contract,” (not “adjudicate a contract”), while in the context of auctions (subastas) adjudicado al mejor postor may often be rendered simply as “sold to the highest bidder.”

In contrast, in English “to adjudicate” means “to rule upon or settle judicially; to adjudge,” while “adjudication” is “the legal process of resolving a dispute; the process of judicially deciding a case.”* Thus, “to adjudicate” is juzgar, fallar or resolver judicialmente, referring to the final ruling of a court or quasi-judicial body, a sense that adjudicar does not have in Spanish. In that regard, when referring to a judicial decision “adjudication” cannot be translated as adjudicación. “He was adjudicated guilty” means le declararon culpable (or) fue declarado culpable (being synonymous with “convicted” or “found guilty”). “Adjudication on the merits” refers to a court’s resolución sobre el fondo and “to adjudicate disputes” is resolver conflictos (en sede judicial). Likewise, in the context of court proceedings or hearings before quasi-judicial boards or tribunals, “adjudication of claims” might be translated as resolución de pretensiones, resolución de reclamaciones or, perhaps, resolución de demandas, depending on the context. As additional examples, “adjudication of incompetence” refers to a declaración judicial de incapacidad, and a person “adjudicated incompetent” has been judicialmente incapacitada. In summary, “adjudicate (or) adjudication” could not be appropriately rendered as adjudicar (or) adjudicación in any of these expressions.

The same may be said of the verb “to adjudge,” which likewise means “to award, grant or impose judicially.” Thus the expression “Ordered and adjudged” often appearing at the end of a court ruling does not mean Ordenado y adjudicado, as the expression has sometimes been rendered literally, but rather precedes a court’s disposal of a matter in dispute, denoting its “adjudication” (fallo). So, “It is therefore ordered and adjudged…” might actually be rendered as “Se ordena y falla…”.

*Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed.

False Friends (25): redactar ; redact

Oh, no! False Friends

redacción-redaction; redactar-redact

 In legal contexts in Spanish redacción is most often used in the sense of “drafting” or “drawing up” a document, such as a contract (redacción del contrato; redactar un contrato). But their English language look-alikes “redaction” and “to redact” often have very different meanings. Indeed, although “redaction” has the general meaning of “careful editing”, in many jurisdictions the term refers to editing out, removing or concealing certain sensitive information from documents filed in court and from judicial opinions, such as personal identification (social security or bank account numbers) or the names of victims, minors, etc. before they are made public. Thus in legal contexts it’s probably advisable to reserve “redaction” for this specific meaning, while translating redacción (de documentos, contratos, etc.) as “drafting” or “drawing up.” (In Spanish courts, redacting personal information from judicial decisions is called anonimización.)*

Below is an example of a redacted court document. Most of the essential information has literally been blacked out, making it fairly incomprehensible. An Internet search reveals many articles claiming that extensive redaction is sometimes considered an abusive measure used by the courts or by governmental agencies to conceal information from the public. Also of interest are the many motions to unseal excessively redacted information from judicial records,**as well as rules of court governing the sealing and redacting of court documents.*** Links to an example of  both are provided here:





False Friends (24): evicción; eviction

Oh, no! False Friends

Evicción and “eviction” are truely false cognates. En English “eviction” denotes “the act or process of legally dispossessing a person of land or rental property” (Black’s Law Dictionary). The corresponding term in Spanish is desahucio, as in desahucio del inquilino por impago del alquiler (“eviction of the tenant for failure to pay the rent”) or desahucio del arrendatario por expiración del contrato de arrendamiento (“eviction of the tenant upon expiration of the lease”).

In contrast, in Spanish evicción refers to the loss of title to or possession of property due to a third party’s superior title. Thus, in the context of real estate sales, the often-mistranslated expression saneamiento por evicción denotes a type of “warranty of title,” “warranty of good title” or “warranty against loss of title,” i.e., the seller’s guarantee to the buyer he will enjoy undisturbed legal possession of the purchased property (posesión legal y pacífica de lo vendido). If, after the sale, a court rules that another person holds superior title (mejor derecho) to the property, the seller must compensate the buyer as established by law.* Likewise, in the context of lease agreements saneamiento por evicción constitutes a “warranty of quiet enjoyment,” that is, the lessor’s guarantee that the lessee will enjoy undisturbed possession (que no será perturbado en su posesión) of the premises for the duration of the lease.

*In that regard, buyers’ rights in Spain are explained in detail in this article on Saneamiento por evicción en la compraventa..


False Friends (23): sentencia; sentence

Oh, no! False Friends

This pair of legal false cognates definitely belongs in the False Friends 101 category, terms that translators and legal professionals just can’t afford to confuse. Sentencia denotes a court’s final disposition of a matter: decisión formulada por el juez o tribunal que resuelve definitivamente todas las cuestiones planteadas en el proceso.* In English, this is a court’s “judgment,” its “final determination of the rights and obligations of the parties in a case.”**

In previous blog posts I examined in detail the terminology of Spanish sentencias,*** but what about the legal meanings of “sentence”? The term generally denotes the punishment (condena or pena) imposed on a criminal defendant found guilty, and it is used as both a noun and a verb: He served a 10-year sentence (Cumplió una condena/pena de 10 años); He was sentenced to 10 years in prison (Fue condenado a 10 años de prisión).

To look at some of the related terminology, under Spanish criminal law sentences are divided into penas privativas de libertad (custodial sentences), i.e., some form of incarceration, and penas no privativas de libertad (noncustodial sentences). Several types of alternative sentence (pena sustitutiva de la pena privativa de libertad) exist. Penas privativas de derechos entail the forfeiture of certain rights including, for example, several types of inhabilitación (disqualification from holding certain offices, exercising certain professions, etc.) or privación del derecho a conducir vehículos a motor (loss of the right to drive; suspension of driver’s license).

Mandatory community service (trabajos en beneficio de la comunidad) and fines (multas) are also often imposed. The most common fines are day fines (penas de días-multa) that take into account the offender’s financial situation based on his assets, income and family obligations, and other circumstances (situación económica del reo deducida de su patrimonio, obligaciones y cargas familiares y demás circunstancias). Less common are proportional fines (penas de multa proporcional) expressed as an amount proportional to the damage caused or injury inflicted, the value of the object of the offense or the proceeds obtained from the crime (cuantía del daño causado, el valor del objeto del delito o el beneficio reportado por el delito) (arts. 50-51 CP).

Judges likewise sometimes place offenders on a type of probation, referred to in the Spanish Criminal Code as suspensión de la execución de la pena privativa de libertad (literally, “suspension of the execution of custodial sentences”) (art. 80 CP). Also sometimes called “condena condicional” or “remisión condicional,” this type of probation or suspended sentence may be granted to first time offenders (delincuentes primarios) sentenced to less than two year’s incarceration (condena no superior a dos años de privación de libertad).

*F. Gómez de Liaño. Diccionario jurídico. Salamanca, 1979.

**Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed., 2004.

***  Additional terminology on sentencias with possible English translations can be found here , here , and here .