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.

False Friends: asesor vs. assessor; asesorar vs. to assess; asesoramiento vs. assessment

Despite appearances, asesorar and “assess” are false cognates. The verb asesorar does not mean “to assess,” but rather “to advise.” Thus an asesor is an “advisor” or “consultant,” and the term is frequently used in expressions such as asesor fiscal (“tax advisor” or “tax consultant”), asesor jurídico (“legal counsel”) or asesor jurídico de empresas (“corporate counsel”).

In contrast, the verb “to assess” often has the meaning of calcular, evaluar or tasar. Thus, in the context of insurance law and personal injury claims “assessment of damages” may refer to tasación (or) peritaje de daños. In the context of tax law, “tax assessment” often denotes liquidación de impuestos in the sense of calculating taxes due. In that regard, the expression “self-assessment,” widely used in the UK, corresponds to what in Spain is known as autoliquidación del impuesto, i.e., a taxpayer’s calculation of the taxes he owes using a “self-assessment tax return form” (modelo de declaración) for the tax in question. “Assessor” in this context has the meaning of tasador, and a “tax assessor” assesses or calculates (tasa) values (of property, assets, income, etc.) for tax purposes, performing duties similar to those of a Spanish inspector actuario (a “tax auditor-actuary” or “tax inspector-actuary”).

Regarding the noun “assessment,” in the terminology of civil procedure in England and Wales the expression “assessment of costs” denotes what in Spanish courts is called tasación de costas, describing the process of determining the amount of costs to be awarded the prevailing party in litigation (known as “taxation of costs” in the US). And in other respects, asesoramiento generally refers to “advising (or) consulting services,” as in asesoramiento financiero (“financial consulting services”) or asesoramiento jurídico (“legal counsel” or “legal advice”).

False Friends in ES-EN-ES Translation: violación vs. violation

“Violation” is a common Legal English term denoting the contravention of a right, principle or prohibition, and in this context it can often be rendered literally as violación: “violation of human rights” (violación de los derechos humanos); “violation of international law” (violación del Derecho internacional) or “violation of the proportionality principle” (violación del principio de proporcionalidad).

But, violación cannot always be appropriately translated as “violation,” particularly in criminal law contexts. In that regard, delito de violación is “rape,” while violación de las condiciones de la libertad bajo fianza is commonly known as “bail-jumping,” “bail-skipping” or “jumping/skipping bail.” The generic term violación de secretos denotes “breach of confidentiality” or “disclosure of confidential (or) privileged information,” in contrast to violación de secretos industriales and violación de secretos empresariales that refer more specifically to “disclosure of trade secrets.” When referring to patents or trademarks, violación de patente/marca is best rendered as “patent/trademark infringement.” And violación de domicilio may be translated as “trespass to dwelling.” As a final example, violación de sepulturas is most often referred to in English as “profanation of tombs.”

Legal False Friends: practicar vs. “practice”

In legal contexts, practicar cannot always be translated literally as “to practice.” In procedural law, for example, practicar la prueba refers to “examining evidence,” while practicar la prueba testifical is specifically the “examining (or) questioning of witnesses” or “taking witness testimony.” Likewise, practicar la notificación de la demanda is one of the ways to express “service of process.”

In tax law, practicar retenciones denotes an employer’s “withholding taxes” from an employee’s paycheck, while practicar reducciones en la declaración del IRPF means “to take deductions on a personal income tax return.” With regard to public registers, practicar la inscripción registral refers to “recording,” “entering” (or) “making an entry” on a register. And the expression practicar un aborto denotes “performing an abortion.”

Similarly, “practice” cannot always be translated as practicar. A common example is to “practice law,” which in Spanish is ejercer la abogacía. In this context the expression “attorney-at-law” denotes an abogado en ejercicio, one who has a “law practice.” And a lawyer who is in business for himself (abogado con despacho propio) is often said to have a “solo practice” and is known as a “solo practitioner.”

Webinar–24 April 2021: “Fundamentals of False Friends”

At the invitation of Peruvian translator Cecilia Morazzani of CMP Traducciones, on April 24 I will be giving a webinar on “Fundamentals of False Friends.” In it I will suggest several ways of classifying Spanish-English legal false cognates to make them easier to learn and remember.

Among them, I’ll review some of the most and least common. These range from the ones I classify as “False Friends 1.0” (the ones that legal translators can’t afford to ignore) to “False Friends 3.0” (that sometimes elude even experienced translators).

Time: 10 am (Peru); 5pm (Spain)

Additional information is available here

Or, you can sign up to attend the webinar at universitytrad@gmail.com.

50 Pairs of Spanish-English Legal False Friends

When learning legal terminology in bilingual contexts one of the first pitfalls encountered are the so-called “false friends,” look-alike terms and expressions that appear to be cognates, but are actually unrelated in meaning. Readers of this blog know that I’m really into false friends because there are so many and they are so confusing. Long ago I set about identifying the “Top 40 False Friends in Spanish-English Legal Translation” to present to my students of Legal English. As the list grew I had to change the title to “101 False Friends.” In my collection I now have several hundred that I have been sharing in this blog.

To be fair, many of these pairs are only partial false friends that may actually be cognates when used in one branch of law, while perhaps qualifying as false friends in another legal practice area. And in some instances, the cognate may simply not be the most appropriate rendering in legal contexts.

Perhaps it should also be underscored that some of the material presented here is Spain-specific, and that the suggested translations may not always reflect the meanings of the terms in other Spanish-speaking countries. Certain expressions that may be considered false friends in legal contexts in Spain may not be in other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions where there may be more English influence. As an example, in Spain in the context of court procedure “evidence” is properly rendered as prueba, although it may be called evidencia elsewhere. Likewise corte denotes a “court” in many Spanish-American jurisdictions, although the use of the term in Spain is most often limited to international tribunals such as the Corte Penal Internacional (also known as the Tribunal Penal Internacional), while Spanish courts are variously called juzgados, tribunales, audiencias, órganos judiciales or órganos jurisdiccionales.

This week I realized that I’ve highlighted 50 pairs of False Friends in the blog and thought it might be of interest to put them together in a single list with links to the entries. So here they are…





activo; pasivo-active; pasive










colegio electoral-Electoral College





Derecho común-common law


disolución del matrimonio-dissolution of marriage


















puro y simple-pure and simple












False Friends: When patrimonio is not “patrimony”

Patrimonio is often translated literally as “patrimony,” but this may sound awkward in several contexts. In that regard, patrimonio often refers simply to one’s “property,” “assets” or “estate.” Thus, for example, the Spanish Criminal Code offense of delitos de falsedad contra el patrimonio y contra el orden socioecónomico may be rendered simply as “offenses against property and economic interests,” since they include crimes such as theft (hurto), burglary (robo con fuerza en las cosas), robbery (robo con violencia o intimidación en las personas), extortion (extorsión) and unauthorized use of a vehicle (robo y hurto de uso de vehículo a motor—often called “joyriding” in English). Likewise, in inheritance law patrimonio del causante denotes the “deceased’s (or) decedent’s estate,” rather than his “patrimony.”

In other respects, in Spain the expressions patrimonio histórico and patrimonio histórico-cultural refer to “cultural heritage assets” protected under the Ley de Patrimonio Histórico Español. And impuesto sobre el patrimonio is simply a “wealth tax,” while incrementos y disminuciones de patrimonio denotes “capital gains and losses.”

The term patrimonio social (in general, “business assets”) warrants a closer look, since its translation may vary according to the type of business entity to which the expression refers. In that regard, the patrimonio social of a sociedad anónima are “corporate assets.” But if, for example, the entity in question is a partnership (sociedad colectiva or sociedad comanditaria), patrimonio social would be better rendered as “partnership assets.”

And as a final example, patrimonio ganancial (also: bienes gananciales) denotes the spouses’ commonly-owned community property in a community property marriage (sociedad de gananciales), in contrast to to their individually-owned property or assets (their patrimonio privativo or bienes privativos).

False Friends: corporación vs. “corporation”

In Spain and in other Latin American countries,* the term corporación is not usually used to denote a “corporation” (i.e., an incorporated business entity in the US, generally known as a “public limited company” in the UK). US “corporations” are akin to Spanish sociedades anónimas, and corporación used in this sense should probably be considered an anglicismo.

But, ¡ojo! corporación is indeed used in Spain in at least two instances. Corporaciones de Derecho público are associative entities created by law to defend the economic and professional interests of their members. Examples are cámaras de comercio and colegios profesionales (colegios de abogados, colegios de médicos, colegios de arquitectos, etc.). In other respects, the expression corporaciones locales denotes autonomous entities of local government including ayuntamientos, diputaciones provinciales and cabildos insulares, among others.

*Several Latin American lawyer colleagues confirm that in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and El Salvador sociedad anónima would also be the closest rendering for a US business “corporation” while, although not a term used often, corporaciones may describe several other types of legal entity.

False Friends: accesión vs. “accession”

accesión; accession (and the verbs acceder and to accede)

These terms are cognates when, for example, they refer to the attainment of a dignity or rank: “the King’s accession to the throne” (la accesión al trono del Rey); “Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952” (Elizabeth II accedió al trono en 1952). Likewise, in property law contexts accesión is “accession” when it denotes the acquisition of title to property by accession (adquisición de la propiedad por accesión), defined as a “mode of acquiring property by which the owner becomes the owner of any addition by growth, improvement, increase or labor” (Merriam-Webster).

However, accesión and accession are false cognates when “accession” refers to the act of becoming a party to a convention or treaty. In that sense “accession” is more appropriately translated as adhesión, as in “Spain’s accession to the EC Treaty” (la adhesión de España al Tratado de la CE) or “Member States that have acceded to the European Union” (Estados miembros que se han adherido a la Unión Europea).

(For additional meanings of adhesión and adhesion, see here.)

False Friends: When comisión isn’t “commission”

false friends fridays

Comisión may certainly be translated as “commission” in many legal contexts. A primary example is Spain’s Comisión Nacional del Mercado de Valores, which following the model of the US Securities and Exchange Commission may be appropriately rendered as the (Spanish) “National Securities Market Commission.”

But rather than “commission,” comisión often refers to a “committee” and must be translated as such. This is particularly true in corporate law contexts where much of the work of the boards of directors (consejos de administración) of large Spanish corporations is often handled in a series of committees including, among others, a Comisión Ejecutiva (“executive committee”), Comisión de Auditoría (“audit committee”), Comisión de Nombramientos y Retribuciones (“appointments and remuneration [or] compensation committee”), Comisión de Buen Gobierno (“corporate governance committee”), or some combination of the above.

Likewise, in parliamentary practice the work of the Spanish Parliament (Cortes Generales) is conducted in various committees called comisiones parlamentarias, which are either comisiones permanentes (“standing committees”) or comisiones no permanentes (“ad hoc committees”). Each house of parliament has its own committees (comisiones del Congreso; comisiones del Senado) divided into “legislative committees” (comisiones legislativas) and non-legislative committees (comisiones no legislativas). There are also “joint committees” of the House of Deputies and Senate (comisiones mixtas del Congreso y del Senado).

In other respects, comisión de servicios is an expression in which comisión cannot be translated as either “commission” or “committee.” As used in Spain, comisión de servicios refers to the temporary transfer of a civil servant (funcionario) from his normal duties to serve in another sector of the civil service (función pública). Thus, estar en comisión de servicios means to be “on assignment” or “on loan” from another civil service department. This is also expressed (especially in BrE) as “being on secondment:” Está en comisión de servicios en el negociado de documentación (“He is on secondment to the document department”).

For an additional instance in which comisión and “commission” are not cognates, see this previous entry on contrato de comisión.