Thoughts on the origins of judiciary language in Spanish

Venezuela, where I was born and raised, is a country in South America, where the official language is Spanish, as well as several indigenous languages. The fact that Venezuelans speak Spanish means that, as most Hispanic nations, Venezuela was colonized by the Spanish. It is in that former empire that we must look in order to decipher the origins of most commonly used Spanish-language judiciary terms. The work of researcher Margarita Hernando de Larramendi Martinez at the University of Alcala (Spain) states that Spanish law is of Roman-Germanic origin. In contrast to the explanation found on the electronic presentation by Prof. Michael Piper regarding “common law”, Spanish law emphasizes written edicts, codes that are final (but able to be amended), and a tendency of the law to attempt to meet a spectrum of judiciary needs from the community – all conceived beforehand. (Hernando).

Slow-turning wheels…


Common law countries emphasize “jurisprudence”, that is to say cases that set precedents and keep laws dynamic and alive. Written law countries, in my opinion, tend to be more rigid, bureaucratic and dependent on written texts, archaic terms and an excess of formality in the practice of law. These basic differences affect judiciary language, especially in the interpretation of English and Spanish judiciary terms, since the very nature of the law in the countries using each language is different. Interpreters and translators in this field should always keep this in mind, as it will inform the correct usage and need for language adaptation for judiciary terms. This is also why there may not be equivalent judiciary terms in English and Spanish, because certain judiciary processes or terms in one language may not even exist in the realm of law in the other language. Nevertheless, the Roman element is present for both languages, and since Latin was the lingua franca, many of these Latin terms and archaisms are present in both languages. For Spanish-speakers, it may be a little easier to find out what a Latin term means in an English text, given the close relationship with Romance languages.

As a child and adolescent in Venezuela, I always wondered why laws were so bureaucratic and difficult to change. I had much exposure to the judiciary system in Venezuela, especially in civil and labor cases, because my mom is an attorney and she taught me to help her with her briefs and other written texts. The language is highly verbose, riddled with redundancy and obsolete expressions. It always struck me as strange that I always watched American films that had scenes in a courthouse and the witnesses actually spoke. In Venezuela, testimonies were given orally, but they were not heard very publicly or cross-examined, and the most important thing was that they be written and submitted to the proper judicial authority. I imagine that as countries’ laws evolve, so do languages, though in the case of the United States, interpreters may be finding themselves trying to fit a square peg in a round hole given the nature of the law in most Spanish-speaking countries.

A caricature of all the different "stations" you need to get some random paper notarized, legalized, sealed, stamped and approved
A caricature of all the different “stations” you need to get some random paper notarized, legalized, sealed, stamped and approved

Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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