Dahl’s Law Dictionary — a legal dictionary with a unique approach

I could have called this post “the review that made me buy a legal dictionary” because that’s exactly what the following words made me do:

At last, a Spanish/English law dictionary that acknowledges the impossibility of directly translating a legal term from one system into that of another! The traditional foreign language legal dictionaries tried for a one or two word synonym-type translation and would end up, for example, advising the reader that “jurisprudencia” in Spanish means “jurisprudence” (philosophy of law) in English. In fact, this Spanish term usually refers to judicial opinions or cases.

Which is the first paragraph of Beverly May Carl’s review of Henry S. Dahl’s Spanish/English Law Dictionary.

So inspired was I by these lines that I went straight on to Amazon to order a copy without even finishing the review.

I ended up getting a second-hand copy of the 3rd edition and was equally impressed with what I read in the introduction:

The purpose of this book is to help communication between people from different cultures. Its essence is to explain one legal system using the language of another. It could be seen as a work of law, of linguistics, or as a tangible point where these two disciplines intersect. (Dahl, 1999, xiii)

Bilingual dictionary with a monolingual approach

The Spanish>English section has explanations in English and the English>Spanish section has explanations in Spanish. It does give translations, but the focus is on uncovering meaning rather than listing possible equivalents and then maybe explaining the differences, as most bilingual legal dictionaries do.

I follow a similar approach on this blog, haphazardly it must be said, with LegalSpainTerm. The idea is to discuss Spanish legal terms in English and in context to get to the bottom of their meanings first and then worry about possible translations.

This seems to be the most logical approach, which generally works better—or at least is safer—than just going with the first synonym found in a bilingual dictionary, and I imagine most legal translators work like this anyway, but it’s still nice to find someone writing a whole dictionary based on this philosophy.

Here’s what Dahl has to say about bilingual dictionaries:

A bilingual dictionary that defines contract as acuerdocontratoconvenio, does not tell the Spanish reader very much. The English student does not gain a greater advantage when explained that contrato means agreementcontractcontractcovenant. What a comparative reader needs are functional definitions. Most people who peruse these dictionaries already know that contrato means contract, and vice versa. The reader is better served when being told how a contract operates in the foreign system, what are the formalities, basic requirements, etc. An additional benefit of this approach is that, in explaining how a legal concept operates, many other related words are introduced in their proper context, which the reader would not necessarily find otherwise.

The danger of relying exclusively on synonyms is that it leads to confusion. Comparative law is not an exact science, it is built on approximations. Contrato, of course, does not mean contract. And the converse is also true. Contrato and contract are, the best approximations we can find when our defining capabilities are limited to synonyms. (Dahl, 1999, xiv)

Which is more or less what I was trying to say here about traditional dictionaries and glossaries.

Authoritative sources

In the descriptions to the terms, Dahl often cites his sources, which are generally authoritative ones including legislation and codes from Spain, Latin America and the United States.

He even makes use of the Louisiana Civil Code for definitions in English of some Spanish legal terms, which is an interesting approach that makes use of what is a special and useful resource for Spanish to English legal translation.

The realities of legal translation

So, there you have it, a bilingual legal dictionary that takes into account the realities of legal translation, although there are probably more like this out there. And while the approach it follows might not always be practical, in just trying to apply it, you avoid some of the many traps inherent to translating one legal system into the language of another.


Dahl, H.S. (1999) Dahl’s Law Dictionary/Diccionario Jurídico Dahl. 3rd Ed. New York: William S. Hein & Co.

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

One comment to “Dahl’s Law Dictionary — a legal dictionary with a unique approach”
  1. Pingback: My thoughts on my legal dictionaries - Legally Yours from Spain

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.