Spanish to English legal translation style guide

Welcome to Rob Lunn’s legal translation style guide page!

Substance AND style

Translating legal documents can be tricky. As well as having to work your way around non-equivalent legal terms, you also have to make decisions about style and usage to:

  1. Bridge the gap between the differing norms, forms and customs of foreign legal languages.
  2. Select the right target-language term from a range of equally compelling options.

My default style settings

This page lists solutions to common questions of style in legal translation and includes problems you find when translating from Spanish to English and matters solely to do with legal English. By no means definitive solutions, these points are just what I do in certain grey areas.

Prickly points of style in ES>EN legal translation

That or which for non-defining clauses
Law vs act
The singular-they dilemma

NB: British English followed except when the US option is better.


Use in contracts and similar only to express the obligations of the parties in active sentences (i.e., The Seller shall … but not The Agreement shall or the meeting shall be held). Recast as necessary.

Why? Sensible middle-ground option between banishing it from your vocabulary, as plain Englishers and others suggest, and using it every second word (I’m looking at you, EU documents) that observes broadly understood and sometimes expected traditional usage in legal documents. I have one doubt with this approach that I’ll discuss when I write the fuller explanation.

See also this post for some vague reflection on shall and this article by Ken Adams, which is basically what I base my usage on.

That or which for non-defining relative clauses?

Follow US-English rule, i.e., use which for non-defining relative clauses and that for defining relative clauses. (Link to fuller explanation to come.)

Why? To avoid confusion: it’s clearer. However, I do have a doubt about register in UK-EN documents…

Law and article or act and section?

Use law and article to translate ley and artículo when they refer to statutes (NOT act and section, another accepted option). See here for a more detailed discussion.

Why? Mainly because it’s more transparent. A literal translation makes it easier for readers who want to refer to the legislation.

The singular they

It depends but in general and in the following order:

1. Avoid by using strategies including making the clause plural; recasting to second person and using you (normally done throughout the entire document; useful for terms of use); using he or she when you know it’s a he or a she (e.g., in contracts); and putting he/she in square brackets for the user of the document to choose in each case (templates).

2. Use they where the most likely of the above strategies produces even a hint of awkwardness.

3. Use he/she where all the above options prove awkward (i.e., more awkward the he/she) or might cause confusion.

Why? Avoiding without awkwardness is the best or at least the safest option in more formal writing and translations. In my own writing, I have no problem with the singular they and use it when it doesn’t cause confusion between plural and singular.

Stay tuned. More to come…

Please let me know what you think. Any input would be much appreciated.

2 comments to “Spanish to English legal translation style guide”
  1. I’m looking forward to more of these posts, Rob. I am totally with you on your views on using ‘that’ for defining and ‘which’ for non-defining relative clauses, in UK English, too. For me, using ‘which’ in defining relative clauses makes the sentence jerkier and I don’t feel that using ‘that’ has any real impact on register.

    • Thanks, Gwen. The doubt I have with register is that sometimes “which” comes more naturally in defining relative clauses, and I suspect others (UK/AUS English readers at least) have the same feeling, probably just because we’ve seen certain phrases always taking “which”.

      A proofreader once even changed some of my defining “thats” to “whichs” in a text. I never got a chance to ask why, but as he didn’t do it consistently, I suspect he had done it by feel, which would support the idea of register.

      So while for legal texts at least I’ll stick with the distinction (because I think it’s more precise), I’ll have to accept that I’ll probably come up with phrasings that will on occasions jar for some readers.

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