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.