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.


Derecho (civil) común, the Common Law of Spain


English or Anglo-American common law is often referred to in Spanish as Derecho anglosajón and, indeed, it is misleading to translate “common law” literally as Derecho común. In that regard it is important to note that in Spanish legal texts the expression Derecho común probably isn’t a reference to English or Anglo-American “common law,” but rather most likely denotes the “common law” of Spain, i.e., civil law, or the law of the Spanish Civil Code (Código Civil).

By virtue of their vecindad civil (“regional domicile”) Spaniards are subject to either Derecho (civil) común (the common law of the Civil Code) or Derecho (civil) foral o especial (local law). In that regard, an expression such as el presente contrato se rige por el Derecho común español implies that “the present contract is governed by the Spanish Civil Code.” In the context of sources of business law (fuentes de Derecho mercantil), transactions not covered by the Commercial Code (Código de Comercio) are likewise governed by Derecho común, once again being a reference to the law of the Civil Code: En ausencia de normas mercantiles se aplica el Derecho común, esto es, el Derecho civil. And an expression such as las CCAA de régimen común likewise refers to the “Autonomous Communities subject to civil law (or) the Civil Code, rather than to Derecho foral o especial (local law).

In summary, unless the context suggests otherwise, in Spanish legal texts Derecho común denotes Spain’s common law (the Civil Code). If not clearly a mistranslation, rendering Derecho común in this context as “common law” might prove to be a miscue, prompting readers to assume that the reference is to English or Anglo-American “common law.” Thus, in this case Derecho común is perhaps best rendered as “(Spanish) civil law” or the “law of the (Spanish) Civil Code.”

More here on vecindad civil and the regions in Spain that have their own local law (Derecho foral o especial).

Legal Look-alikes: When “evidence” isn’t evidencia

Legal _Look-alikes_

In the context of Spanish procedural law, “evidence” cannot usually be rendered as evidencia, but rather refers to prueba(s). After the parties’ initial “proposal of evidence” (proposición de la prueba), the judge will issue a “ruling on the admissibility of the proposed evidence” (resolución sobre la admisibilidad de las pruebas propuestas). In this context, inadmisión de los medios de prueba denotes a judge’s “exclusión of evidence” and práctica de la prueba refers to the “examination of evidence” at trial. Specific types of evidence (medios de prueba) include, among others, prueba testifical (“testimonial evidence,” “witness testimony”); prueba documental (“documentary evidence”) and prueba pericial (“expert evidence,” “expert witness testimony”).

Although the terminology of evidence is quite extensive, common classifications include prueba pertinente/impertinente (“relevant/irrelevant evidence”), prueba útil/inútil (“material/immaterial evidence,” in the sense of being appropriate or inappropriate for demonstrating the fact that it is intended to prove), and prueba directa or prueba presencial (“direct evidence, “eyewitness evidence”) as opposed to prueba indirecta or prueba indiciaria (“indirect evidence”or “circumstancial evidence”). In Spanish criminal procedure the expression prueba preconstituida denotes documented evidence existing prior to trial, which cannot be reproduced and examined later during the trial itself. Typical examples include “crime scene inspections” (inspecciones oculares en el lugar del delito); “autopsies” (autopsias), “breath alcohol tests” (pruebas de alcoholemia), and “police lineups” (ruedas de reconocimiento), called “identity parades” in BrE. In contrast, prueba anticipada refers to “evidence taken prior to trial” by the criminal trial judge, in the presence of all parties and under extraordinary circumstances (such as taking testimony from a terminally-ill witness who might not be able to testify in court at a later date).

Likewise in criminal procedure contexts, prueba obtenida ilícitamente is “illegally-obtained evidence,” while prueba prohibida specifically denotes “evidence obtained in violation of fundamental rights” (pruebas obtenidas, directamente o indirectamente, violentando los derechos o libertades fundamentales). And prueba de cargo is “incriminating evidence” as opposed to prueba de descargo (“exculpatory evidence”).

More ES-EN Legal False Friends: falta isn’t always “fault”

false friends fridays

In legal contexts there are several instances in which “fault” may be an inappropriate translation for falta. In criminal law, faltas may denote “misdemeanors” (minor criminal offenses), which are now called delitos leves in Spain. Falta may likewise have the meaning of “defect,” as in falta subsanable de un título presentado para su inscripción en el Registro, in reference to a “curable defect in a document presented for entry on the Register.”

In other respects, falta de often denotes a “lack of” something, and is thus rendered in multiple legal expressions such as falta de legitimación (“lack of standing”), falta de competencia (“lack of jurisdiction”), falta de pruebas (“lack of evidence”) or falta de diligencia o cuidado (“lack of diligence or care”).

And, similarly, falta de may also mean “failure to” do something, as in falta de pago de la prima (“failure to pay a premium”); falta de avenencia entre las partes (“parties’ failure to reach a settlement”); falta de personación en el procedimiento (“failure to enter an appearance in the proceedings”) ; falta de presentación de la declaración tributaria (“failure to file a tax return”), or falta de contestación a la demanda (“failure to answer the complaint”).

False Friends in Criminal Procedure: arresto vs. arrest and detención vs. detention

Spanish-English Crimpro Terms

Arresto and “arrest” are often false friends, since in criminal procedure “arrest” is generally rendered in Spanish as detención, and “to arrest” or “to make an arrest” is detener: “the suspect was arrested” (se detuvo al sospechoso). In that regard “arrest warrant” is orden de detención or, perhaps more accurately for Spain, auto de detención (since judges issue arrest warrants in the form of an auto). A person who is “under arrest” (que está detenido) is often known (particularly in AmE) as an “arrestee” (el detenido) and will have an “arrest record” (ficha policial or antecedentes policiales). In that regard, the expression “arrestee rights” (known in the US as “Miranda rights”) denotes los derechos del detenido and include the “right to remain silent” (el derecho de guardar silencio), the “privilege against self-incrimination” (derecho a no declarar contra sí mismo y a no confesarse culpable) and the “right to counsel” (el derecho a la asistencia letrada).

In contrast, in Spain arresto is most often used in military law contexts to denote the arrest of military personnel (arresto en prisión militar), but there are several exceptions. Arresto sustitutorio (por impago de multa) describes a custodial sentence (pena privativa de libertad) to be served for failure to pay a fine imposed as the result of a criminal conviction. And arresto was likewise previously used in expressions such as arresto domiciliario (“house arrest”) and arresto de fin de semana (“weekend arrest”), two former custodial sentences that under the present Spanish Criminal Code are known as pena de localización permanente and generally require the offender to wear some type of electronic monitoring device such as an ankle monitor, known in Spain as a pulsera (or) tobillera telemática.

As for “detention,” the term is used in the common expression “arrest and pretrial detention.” Here “arrest” denotes detención, while “pretrial detention” (also called “pretrial custody”) refers to prisión provisional (or) preventiva. Thus, “arrest and pretrial detention” may be rendered as detención y prisión provisional (or) preventiva. And, in other respects, the Spanish criminal law offense of detención ilegal is akin to the concept of “false imprisonment” of Anglo-American jurisdictions.