Mistranslations: Don’t confuse libertad condicional and libertad provisional

The headline of this morning’s online edition of the Madrid daily El Mundo states: “Puigdemont y sus ex ‘consellers’ huidos, en libertad condicional en Bélgica.” El Público repeats the same mistake indicating that “El juez deja en libertad condicional a Puigdemont y a los cuatro exconsellers.” And, of course, this is not the case: the editors of both newspapers have repeated an error sometimes appearing in the press, confusing libertad condicional with libertad provisional.

In Spain libertad condicional generally denotes the early release of a prison inmate who is classified in what is termed tercer grado de tratamiento (the minimum security level of the offender treatment program), has served at least three-fourths of his sentence (que haya cumplido las tres cuartas partes de la condena) and who has exhibited good behavior (observado buena conducta).* When granted libertad conditional, an inmate is allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence in the community. In that regard, libertad condicional may be rendered as “early release” or as “parole” (the latter defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “the release of a prisoner from imprisonment before the full sentence has been served”).

Thus Mr. Puigdemont and the former Catalan consellers are obviously not en libertad condicional (on parole), because they have not been formally accused, tried or convicted of an offense, nor have they served a custodial sentence (pena privativa de libertad) for which they could be granted parole. What the journalists meant to say was that they have been granted libertad provisional, having been released until the Belgian judge issues a decision concerning the pending euroorden (orden de detención europea or European arrest warrant) issued against them.

Indeed, in criminal proceedings libertad provisional generally denotes “pretrial release,” or “release pending trial,” referring to the release of a criminal suspect or defendant pending the outcome of a criminal investigation or while awaiting trial. In this case, among other possible orders, a judge may grant “release on bail” (libertad con fianza) or “release without bail” (libertad sin fianza), often with medidas cautelares (in this context, “conditions”) such as the requirement to periodically report to the court (obligación de comparecer en el juzgado).

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*Early release can granted exceptionally under other circumstances (supuestos especiales de adelantamiento de la libertad condicional). These include libertad anticipada por enfermedad (often referred to in English as “compassionate release”) for inmates suffering from a serious incurable disease (internos aquejados de enfermedad grave incurable), or inmates over 70 years old (internos mayores de 70 años).

Mistranslations(?): “attorney-at-law”

I have sometimes seen “attorney-at-law” mistranslated as licenciado en Derecho. A licenciado en Derecho has completed an undergraduate law degree (similar to the LL.B. or “Bachelor of Laws” awarded at British universities) and may (or may not) decide to practice law. In contrast “attorney-at-law” is the term generally used in the US to denote a lawyer who is engaged in the practice of law, a “practicing attorney” (ejerciente or abogado en ejercicio). A practicing attorney must of course hold a law degree (licenciatura en Derecho) but, in fact, many licenciados en Derecho are engaged in professions other than the practice of law.

It should perhaps be noted that with the adoption of the European Union’s Bologna Process, Spanish universities have phased out their licenciatura programs and now offer a Bologna-compatible undergraduate degree called grado. Thus a law degree is now known as grado en Derecho and those formerly called licenciados are now graduados en Derecho.

Mistranslations(?): autotutela administrativa

The meaning of autotutela administrativa has sometimes been misunderstood, and the term has been translated variously as “self-control,” “self-regulation, “self-protection,” “self-authorization,” “self-government” and “self-help.” The expression actually denotes the public administration’s powers to compel compliance and to enforce its own decisions without the intervention of the courts. In that regard, autotutela administrativa is defined as el privilegio de las Administraciones públicas según el cual sus actos se presumen válidos y pueden ser impuestos a los ciudadanos, incluso coactivamente, sin necesidad del concurso de los tribunales, y al margen del consentimiento de aquellos.* Thus, in this context autotutela denotes the “self-executing decision-making powers” of governmental agencies and may perhaps be rendered as the public administration’s (or) the government’s “compliance and enforcement powers,” an expression often used to describe the powers exercised by governmental agencies in the UK, Canada and Australia.

*EJ Enciclopedia Jurídica. http://www.enciclopedia-juridica.biz14.com

Mistranslations? cuantía del litigio

Cuantía del litigio and similar expressions such as cuantía de la demanda denoting the valor del objeto del proceso have sometimes been translated literally as “amount of the claim,” “amount claimed in the complaint,” or “amount of the litigation.” But in US civil procedure there are specific terms that express this concept including “amount in controversy” and “jurisdictional amount,” both of which denote the monetary amount claimed in a lawsuit that often determines which court will have jurisdiction to hear a given case. In this context an expression such as competencia por razón de la cuantía refers to “jurisdiction based on the amount in controversy.” Cuantía was likewise used in this context in the former Spanish Civil Procedure Act (Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil de 1881) in expressions such as juicio de menor cuantía (“small claims action/proceeding”) and juicio de mayor cuantía (“large claims action/proceeding”). In British English the amount in controversy is also often referred to as the “quantum” or “amount in dispute.”

When the Decano not a “Dean”

“Mistranslations?” includes examples of what I believe may be considered mistranslations that I have encountered over a twenty-five year period while working as a legal translator and teacher of legal English in Spain. Some may be actual mistranslations, while others are perhaps all-too-literal renderings of expressions that may have sufficiently close counterparts (“functional equivalents”) in the other language. Still others are translations that may simply not be accurate in the context in which they originally appeared.

decano ; juez decano; decanato ; juzgado decano

In academic contexts, decano can certainly be rendered as “dean,” as in the expression Decano de la Facultad de Derecho (“Dean of the Law School/Faculty of Law”). But decano has often been translated as “dean” in contexts in which this rendering is inappropriate. When referring to the head of a professional association in expressions such as Decano del Ilustre Colegio Notarial de Valencia and Decano del Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Madrid, “decano” refers to the “president” of those entities. In this context colegio denotes a “professional association,” rather than a “college,” and in English the head of a professional association is most often its “president,” rather than a “dean.” Thus the decanos mentioned above are respectively the “President of the Valencia Notaries Association” and the “President of the Madrid Bar Association.” Some of the prominent international notaries associations that have presidents as their head officer include the International Union of Latin Notaries, National Notary Association of America, the Notaries Society of England and Wales and the Council of the Notariats of the European Union. Likewise, the head of the major US bar associations such as the American Bar Association or the National Bar Association, as well as the heads of the state bar associations are all called “presidents,” rather than “deans.” In this context vice decano refers to a “vice president,” while decano accidental is “acting (or) interim president.”

Similarly, in the context of the organization of the Spanish judiciary, decanato does not refer to a “dean’s office,” “deanery,” or even a “senior court” or “court clerk’s office,” as the term has sometimes been mistranslated, but rather to a juzgado decano, the court that oversees administrative matters for all of the courts within a given judicial district. In that regard, although often translated as “senior judge,” the juez decano (or simply decano) who presides a decanato is not necessarily the “senior judge” in the district, i.e., the judge with the most seniority (antigüedad), which is more appropriately expressed in Spanish as el juez más antiguo. In large judicial districts where there are a number of courts, the juez decano is elected by his fellow judges on the “Judges Board (or) Committee” (Junta de Jueces) to oversee court operations and to provide centralized judicial services, (although, in effect, in smaller districts this job may automatically fall to the senior judge). In view of his duties, a juez decano may perhaps be considered the Spanish counterpart of the “Chief Judge” of US Federal District Courts (not to be confused with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), who likewise oversees court administration. Thus for US audiences decano or juez decano and decanato or juzgado decano might be translated respectively as “Chief Judge” and “office of the Chief Judge.” For other audiences, or if there is a risk of confusion with the Chief Justice, perhaps “judge/office in charge of court administration” would be an appropriate descriptive translation for the two concepts.

Mistranslations(?): Why Derecho mercantil is “Business Law”

“Mistranslations?” includes examples of what I believe may be considered mistranslations that I have encountered over a twenty-five year period while working as a legal translator and teacher of legal English in Spain. Some may be actual mistranslations, while others are perhaps all-too-literal renderings of expressions that may have sufficiently close counterparts (“functional equivalents”) in the other language. Still others are translations that may simply not be accurate in the context in which they originally appeared.

One of my students recently asked me why I translate Derecho mercantil as “Business Law,” and why can’t the term be rendered literally as “Mercantile Law” or as “Commercial Law.” There is certainly no official translation for Derecho mercantil, and translations between different legal systems are never 100% equivalents, but in this case I believe “Business Law” is simply closer to the meaning of Derecho mercantil than the other two options.

In its strictest sense, “Mercantile Law” is often understood to refer to the “law merchant” or lex mercatoria, the system of customary law widely adopted in Europe during the Middle Ages.

“Commercial Law” is a narrower concept than Derecho mercantil. In England and Wales a course on commercial law may sometimes be limited to the study of the sale of goods (compraventa de mercancías), international sales (compraventa internacional), the law of agency (Derecho de agencia) and consumer credit (crédito al consumo). Likewise, in the US “commercial law” is often understood as being limited to those areas of law governed by the Uniform Commercial Code, including the sale of goods (compraventa de mercancías), negotiable instruments (títulos valores), bank deposits (depósitos bancarios) and secured transactions (operaciones garantizadas), among others.

And, finally, a quick look at the table of contents of any standard Spanish law school textbook on Derecho mercantil makes it clear that it is much broader than “commercial law,” and shares many of the disciplines studied in the US in business law courses. These include:

  • Derecho societario (corporate law or, in its broader meaning, law of business entities)
  • Contabilidad mercantil (business accounting)
  • Propiedad intelectual e industrial (intellectual property)
  • Derecho de la competencia (competition/anti-trust law)
  • Derecho de la competencia desleal (unfair competition law)
  • Derecho de la publicidad (advertising law)
  • Contratos mercantiles (commercial contracts)
  • Títulos valores (negotiable instruments)
  • Derecho del mercado de valores (securities markets law)
  • Derecho bancario (banking law)
  • Derecho de los seguros privados (insurance law)
  • Derecho concursal (insolvency law)

Mistranslations(?): prevaricación

“Mistranslations?” includes examples of what I believe may be considered mistranslations that I have encountered over a twenty-five year period while working as a legal translator and teacher of legal English in Spain. Some may be actual mistranslations, while others are perhaps all-too-literal renderings of expressions that may have sufficiently close counterparts (“functional equivalents”) in the other language. Still others are translations that may simply not be accurate in the context in which they originally appeared.

Just what is prevaricación?

News from the Spanish press: El juez cita al secretario de Estado para responder por cinco delitos, entre ellos prevaricación… and El partido interpuso ante el alto tribunal una querella por prevaricación contra el juez que envió a los dos artistas a prisión preventiva sin fianza. But just what is prevaricación and, more importantly, how can we translate it?

 Prevaricación is perhaps one of the most misunderstood (and mistranslated) terms of Spanish criminal law.* It is often translated literally as “prevarication,” a term defined in Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed.) as “the act or an instance of lying or avoiding the truth.” Other renderings that I have seen include:

  • breach of public duties
  • deliberate neglect of duty
  • betrayal of trust
  • criminal breach of trust
  • abuse of authority; abuse of office; abuse of process
  • irregular dealings (and)
  • malfeasance

But these translations aren’t really accurate. Indeed, prevaricación has a very specific meaning in Spanish criminal law, ** referring to a judge or civil servant who issues an arbitrary decision with the knowledge that it is unfair. The Criminal Code distinguishes two types of prevaricación. Prevaricación committed by public officials or civil servants (autoridad o funcionario público), often called prevaricación administrativa, is defined as dictar resolución arbitraria en asunto administrativo a sabiendas de su injusticia (Art. 404). Prevaricación committed by judges (prevaricación judicial) is similarly defined as dictar a sabiendas resolución o sentencia injusta (Art. 446).

So as used in Spanish criminal law, there is unfortunately no short, snappy rendering for prevaricación that would fit nicely in a translation, and none of those listed above expresses the meaning of the term. Thus, in this case we are obliged to render prevaricación with a “definitional translation” such as “knowingly issuing an unfair decision” or devise a similar expression that reflects its true meaning.

Read more here: http://guiasjuridicas.wolterskluwer.es/home/EX0000013706/20080708/Prevaricacion

*For possible English translations of other difficult criminal law terms see previous posts on:

**The meaning of prevaricación may, of course, be different in other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions.