When translating between Spanish and English, we want to avoid using so-called “false friends” as much as possible. False friends are words that share a common root in Spanish and English (usually from Latin), but which have evolved to mean different things in each language. As linguists, one of our main challenges is knowing when to use and when to drop words with similar roots. Interestingly enough, legal English vocabulary is full of words that share a common Latin root with legal Spanish vocabulary. Thus requiring much attention to detail from linguists when working in this particular language pair.
One such word is “antecedent.” This may seem like a false friend of the Spanish term antecedentes or, more specifically, antecedentes penales, but it isn’t. In fact, the English word “antecedent” is often used to refer to the prior criminal record of a defendant in a criminal trial under the common law tradition. While our ears are more accustomed to the colloquial terms “prior offenses,” “prior convictions,” or just plain “priors,” the word “antecedents” continues to be used to this day in formal legal settings.
The common ancestor of these terms is the Latin ante, meaning “before” and cedere, meaning “go.” Antecedent made its way first into Old French and from there into late Middle English, as French was the language of the king of England and his court until the end of the 14th century.
In a recent online discussion among Spanish speaking legal translators, someone raised the question of how to translate the Spanish term persona jurídica into English. The level of debate that arose around this simple term was astounding, inspiring this Word of the Week in Law.
The answer, of course, is as simple as legal person; and a qualified legal translator should know this. But you don’t have to take our word for it alone. Legal person is defined by Oxford’s Dictionary of Law as: “a natural person (i.e. a human being) or a juristic person.” Where “juristic person” is then defined as: “an entity, such as a corporation that is recognized as having legal personality.” Legal personality is, in turn, the ability to exercise rights and obligations.
While many translators recommended “legal capacity” as a translation for persona jurídica, we respectfully disagree. Legal personality is a prerequisite to legal capacity; therefore, they cannot be linguistic equivalents.
Though seemingly one of the simplest terms in legal translation, it never ceases to amaze me how many times “jurisprudence” gets mistranslated. Spanish speaking lawyers and legal translators are sometimes under the incorrect impression that when native English speaking lawyers use the word “jurisprudence,” what they mean is jurisprudencia in Spanish. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In English, the term jurisprudence is used to refer to what in Spanish is known as filosofía del derecho, but with a twist. English differentiates between jurisprudence and legal philosophy depending on the level of abstraction, where jurisprudence involves the highest level of abstraction.
Jurisprudence can be distinguished from legal philosophy by looking at the questions it asks. Jurisprudence asks questions about the nature of the law itself or a particular duty, right or legal reasoning within substantive legal disciplines; while legal philosophy focuses on the questions that would normally concern moral or political philosophers inasmuch as it applies to the law. In Spanish, we do not make that theoretical distinction, which is why the term jurisprudence is often found in Spanish texts written out in English and in italics (indicating that it is a foreign term) and then followed by the words filosofía del derecho in parenthesis, like this: jurisprudence (legal philosophy). That’s usually how Spanish speaking legal scholars and practitioners manage to convey this small, yet meaningful distinction.
Meanwhile, jurisprudence’s false friend jurisprudencia is used in Spanish to refer to court decisions or, more accurately in translation, to what in English is referred to as “case law.”
In conclusion, though both jurisprudencia and jurisprudence share the same Latin root (jur meaning law + prudentia meaning knowledge), they are used quite differently across these two vast languages. Therefore, when translating, we need to be very careful to resist the temptation to equate them without regard to their modern usage.
Thank you for reading our very first Word of the Week in Law. If you enjoyed this mini-post, join us next Monday to learn about the term “legal person” and its nuances in translation.