Spanish legal translation: the two legal systems

I've written about legal translation before but want to write more specifically about Spanish to English legal translation.

The ideal Spanish to English legal translator is someone who is dual-qualified in both law, ideally in both jurisdictions and who also speaks extremely good Spanish and native English.

I'm an ex-lawyer, and have worked as a Spanish translator. I've also done enough legal translation find the topic fascinating.

I have some fairly strong ideas about legal translation, and have seen extremely good translations. I have seen others showing both a lack of understanding of drafting (which don't read well to lawyers), and a lack of awareness of the differences between the Spanish and English (UK) legal frameworks.

It is fair to say that not all legal translators have spend enough time reading about law, and gaining the background knowledge necessary to produce top quality work.

Luckily there are a lot of law books out there ...

If you are interested in legal translation in general, and Spanish to English legal translation in particular, the following books may be of interest to you.

These books concern the legal systems and frameworks within which the law functions in England and Spain, and have nothing to do with translation per se.

The first is Learning the Law by Glanville Williams.

He was a welsh legal scholar, and Learning the Law reflects this. It is the book recommended for anyone intending to study law, and I would suggest for anyone who is interested in legal translation.

Learning the Law is not a book about drafting contracts, wills, translation or any specific areas of law. It describes the framework within which the legal system functions, and which you must understand in order to be an effective and precise legal translator working with English law.

It is perhaps, for the non-lawyer, quite heavy in places, and if this isn't your cup of tea, it might be that legal translation is not for you.

I'm an English not a Spanish lawyer, and the book that I read to gain an initial understanding of the spanish legal system was Spanish law and legal system by Elena Merino-Blano.

Learning the Law has a certain charm, and despite the later editions being written about his death, a certain style.

Spanish law and legal system is far more functional. It is in fact more of a legal textbook for English law students who need to gain an understanding of the principles and practices of Spanish law.

It could be that this difference in style reflects the fundamental distinctions between the two legal systems. Common law and civil law.

The English legal system

English law is a common law system.

English law originates from European directives (but for how much longer is open to dobut), acts of parliament (creating statutes) and judge made or common law.

However, it is not codified. Judges apply statutes and legal precedent (from previous decisions) to the facts in hand.

There are numerous courts depending on the case being tried: ranging from the Magistrates Court, the Crown Court, the High Court, the Appeal Court, the Supreme Court and many others.

Courts are generally open in the UK, meaning that anyone can go and watch the proceedings.

It is a good idea to do this as a legal translator, not so much to learn about legal matters, but to get an idea of the flavour of the legal system.

The backdrop to good legal translation requires a good understanding of the English legal system. It is helpful to be aware of the possible paths a case may take through the Couurts, which depends on the type of law and matter involved.

English law is split into two main strands. Criminal and civil.

Criminal proceedings (generally) begin in the Magistrates courts and civil proceedings in the County Court, with different terminology. Criminal procedure includes indictment, charging, being tried, acquitted or sentenced. Civil terminology includes claimants (plaintiffs), damages, specific performance and lots more.

I'm using these terms for illustration of potential difficulties with translation, rather than more concrete examples from contracts.

Even though most legal documents are never subject to litigation, and it is unlikely that your translation will be litigated upon, no-one knows in advance which documents will be litigated on and which will not. It is incumbent on the legal translator to translate each as accurately as possible, bearing in mind the consequences.

Legal documents are interpreted by the courts subject to precedent (similar cases), and similar wording in previous documents in similar cases.

Archaic language isn't just used to be pompous - although that is undoubtedly a factor. There is a reason that traditionally a will ends with:-

"Signed by the said as his [Signature of testator], last will in the presence of us [Signature of first witness], both being present at the same [Name, address and occupation of ]" ... and so on.

A lot of traditional wording has been subject to litigation over the years, and consequently the meaning is very clear in a legal sense.

Be warned, and take care if you decide to avoid legalese (a bit of a trend nowadays) in your translations. Legal phrases are used because the exact meaning is clear, or likely to be clear if the contract or document is tested in court.

An outline of the Spanish legal system

The Spanish legal system is a civil law system.

Spanish law stems from European directives, various treaties and government legislation.

Again it would be fair to consider Spanish law in two main strands. Criminal and civil. These are covered by the Criminal and Civil codes, great bodies of law comprising thousands or Articles

Once the Spanish goverment or executive makes law, it is created as an Article within the appropriate Civil or Criminal code.

Judge made law (the interpretation of Statutes) has no place in a civil law system, and judges within the Spanish system judge each case on its facts applied to the relevant articles.

Conversely, laws in England are brought into force by Statutes. These are interpreted by the courts according to past decisions and the existing corpus of law.

There are numerous courts in the Spanish legal system. These range from El Juzgado de Instruccion and El Juzgado de lo Penal to the Tribunal Supremo.

The codification of law has meant that the concept of precedent doesn't exist within Spanish law.

It isn't that these are of particular importance on a day-to-day basis in translation, but they provide the backdrop to the legal systems, which is helps if you have to translate terms that are ambiguous or unclear.

If you don't know what precedent is, or understand the differences between civil and common law systems problems can arise over ambiguity between the two legal systems. Legal translation is, like the law itself, full of grey areas and it is only through experience and understanding that these can be successfully navigated.

One of the difficulties facing the legal translator is trying to provide a translation which matches the original as far as possible, but also makes sense to the reader.

El Juzgado de Instruccion could be translated as 'court of instruction' or 'investigative court'. El Juzgado de Instruccion is the Spanish court in which minor offences are tried.

However, these courts are not directly equivalent to the English equivalents and there is no 'court of instruction' or 'investigative court' in English criminal proceedings. The nearest equivalent would be 'Magistrates Court' which serves a similar function in the UK.

All English lawyers know the function of the 'Magistrates Courts', and reading 'Magistrates Court' in a legal document would make sense whereas 'court of instruction' has no legal meaning.

And yet, by choosing 'Magistrates Court' instead of 'court of instruction' the legal translator has made the decision to equate the legal systems, which are manifestly different.

Which term is the better one?

Ambiguity arises both within documents themselves, if you are translating for example, a Spanish contract, and within the larger legal framework.

Spanish criminal proceedings are initiated by the Ministerio Fiscal, who could be described as the 'public prosecutor'.

Again, rather like the 'Magistrates Court' example above, there is no concept of a 'public prosecutor' in English criminal proceedings. Proceedings are launched by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Becoming a better legal translator

I think it is valuable to look more holistically at Spanish legal translation, and by that I mean learning as much as possible about the Spanish and English legal systems respectively.

It is only by doing so, that you can gain the background knowledge necessary to translate those ambiguous phrases with precision.

In fact without doing so, it is possible that you won't even recognise that a phrase is ambiguous, or that there are possible difficulties or maybe a better translation. If you don't' know about 'the Magistrates' and El Juzgado de Instruccion equivalence, the option disappears.

So think holistically, stop being a translator (briefly) and spend time looking at the wider context.

You don't need to become a lawyer, but reading the introductory texts used by law students will point you in the right direction.

The same arises with contractual terms, both in meaning and drafting.