False Friends: When absolución isn’t “absolution”

Oh, no! False Friends

absolución; absolution / absolver; to absolve

In religious contexts, absolución and “absolution” are often cognates referring, for example, to the remission of sin imparted by a priest. In that regard, a priest may “absolve someone of his sins” (absolverle de sus pecados). But absolución and “absolution” are not cognates in legal contexts. In criminal procedure, absolución denotes “acquittal,” and refers to a finding that a criminal defendant (el acusado) is “not guilty.” Thus in criminal law contexts absolver is “to acquit” or “to find not guilty.”

In contrast, in civil procedure, absolución (del demandado) refers to a “finding (or) judgment for the defendant.” Thus se absuelve al demandado en primera instancia implies that the trial court “found for the defendant” or “rendered judgment for the defendant.”

In summary, in criminal proceedings absolución and sentencia absolutoria refer to an “acquittal” (a judgment of not guilty), while in civil proceedings absolución and sentencia absolutoria denote a “judgment for the defendant.” And in neither case would it be appropriate to translate absolución as “absolution.”

False Friends: When autor is not an “author”

Oh, no! False Friends

autor; author / autoría; authorship

Autor and “author” are obviously cognates when they describe the creator of a literary or artistic work: el autor de la novela (“the author of the novel”). Thus, for example, the expression derechos de autor refers to “copyright,” while derechos morales de autor are an author’s “moral rights.” In this context, autoría is indeed “authorship” (the fact of having authored or created a literary or artistic work), coautoría denotes “co-authorship,” and coautores are “co-authors.”

In contrast, in Spanish criminal law contexts el autor (de un delito) is the “principal” or “perpetrator” of a crimal offense. A distinction is often drawn between the autor material or ejecutor (the person who actually commits the offense) and autor intelectual (the “brains” or “mastermind” behind a crime). Likewise, an autor mediato uses an innocent third party (for example, a minor or mentally incompetent person) as an instrument to execute a crime. In this context, autoría refers to the fact of being directly responsible for the perpetration of a crime, while coautoría denotes the commission of a crime by two or more principals who are, thus, coautores (“co-principals” or “co-perpetrators”) of the offense.

False Friends 101: trimestre; trimester

False Friends 101

These two terms probably belong in the “False Friends 101” category, but are nevertheless sometimes confused in translation. Both trimestre and “trimester” refer to a period of three months. In English “trimester” is perhaps most often used to refer to stages of human gestation: “the first trimester of pregnancy” (el primer trimestre del embarazo). In addition, many US universities divide the academic year into three trimesters (fall, winter and spring), each having a duration of approximately 12 weeks.

However, in legal, business or accounting contexts a three-month period is called a “quarter” (i.e., la cuarta parte de un año). Thus, in these contexts trimestre must be rendered as “quarter” rather than as “trimester.” To cite a few simple examples, the accounting year (ejercicio contable) is divided into “quarters,” (trimestres); VAT (IVA) is paid “quarterly” (trimestralmente), and business profits are typically announced in a “quarterly earnings report” (informe trimestral de resultados).

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.