Do you section articles or break sections into articles?

Should you translate artículo literally as “article” or should you use the English functional equivalent “section” when translating references to Spanish legislation into English? You face a similar dilemma when translating other elements of a statute’s division hierarchy (e.g., título, sección and capítulo) and the names of the statutes themselves. For instance, should you translate ley as “law” or “act”?

Be consistent


The most important thing is to be consistent. If you decide to translate ley more literally as “law”, then also translate artículo literally as “article”. If you translate ley as the more English-sounding “act”, then use “section” for artículo. Then translate the other names in the division hierarchy according to the same criterion (i.e., literally or equivalently).

Thus, the choice comes down to whether you want a more source- or target-oriented translation, which will depend on the type of document and the target audience.

Legal documents and expert audiences

I normally use “law” and “article” (see the example below) for translating references to the legislation in legal documents. These more transparent translations make it easier for a reader to locate the source statute or element referred to.

There is another reason for using these more literal translations. The structure of hierarchical elements can be complicated and even inconsistent, and you can muddy the waters even further if you try to use authentic English equivalents for other elements in the hierarchy (e.g., paragraphs, books, titles and clauses).

For instance, if you translate artículo as “section”, what will you use for apartado and sección if they come up in your translation. You will find equivalents in English legislation, but these will be more opaque. And even if you can get your equivalency map right, a reader may find your criterion difficult to fathom. They may have to work hard to decipher your code of equivalency to find the element they are looking for in the original statute.

In his Spanish-English dictionary, West suggests using “law” for the statutes of countries in which the leyes are numbered (as they are in Spain). However, he also uses “act” to translate statute names in other places in his dictionary. Maybe he means only to use “law” for references that only state the statute’s number, as sometimes happens in Spanish.

In any case, using the structure “Spanish Law 15/1999 on Data Protection” gets around this problem by including the statute number in the title. So if the original doesn’t state the number, you might want to add it in.

Of course, in the translation of a legal document, it might not matter how you render the name of the statute because you will probably also include the Spanish name, at least the first time it appears in the text, precisely for reference purposes, e.g.:

  • Article 35.1 of Spanish Law 14/2007 (3 July) on Biomedical Research (Ley de Investigación biomédica)

You also need to consider the approach taken in any translations of the legislation that the reader might find on the Web. However, this kind of second guessing may be counterproductive. You may find these translations incorrect or inconsistent. Also, you can never be sure of which translation a reader will find. The reader may refer only to the original statute or get someone else to translate parts of the original for them.

Therefore, the best bet might be to stick to your own criterion, which is always the easiest to explain and justify. Another option is to refer the reader to a translation of the legislation on the Web and adopt the conventions used there if you find them consistent and appropriate for your translation.

General texts and non-legal audiences

We can probably assume that non-legal audiences prefer functional equivalents and would more appreciate seeing the term “act” in the names of statutes over “law”. Such readers probably don’t care either way about whether you use “article” or “section”. In any case, you probably won’t have to translate many references to hierarchical elements in general texts.

Something like “Spain’s Data Protection Act” or “Spain’s equivalent to the Data Protection Act” usually suffices in general translations.

Not black or white

My approach is not the only one; it’s just the one that makes the most sense to me at this point in time. As you can see in this ProZ discussion on the difference between “section” and “article”, there is a range of opinions on how to deal with this problem.

When dealing with grey areas like this one, it’s useful to think in terms of approaches rather than absolute solutions. The article/section dilemma is a good example of how an overall approach can help you solve a translation problem at the word level in a coherent or at least easy-to-explain manner.


West III, T.L. (2012) Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business, 2nd edition.

Written by Rob

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

6 comments to “Do you section articles or break sections into articles?”
  1. Hi Rob, Interesting post, especially after reading the ProZ thread a couple of weeks ago. Your example of the Data Protection Law often comes up in clinical trial consent forms and I usually translate “artículo” as “article” in that context. Do you approve?
    Out of interest, how do you deal with “de” in the date in Ley Orgánica 15/1999, de 13 de diciembre, de Protección de Datos de Carácter Personal? Do you say “of 13 December” “dated 13 December” or just “13 December”?

    • Hi Emma,

      Yes, I would use “article” in that context. Maybe it’s habit, but I just about always come to the conclusion that it’s the best option. I can’t even remember the last time I did something different.

      I think all those options are fine for the date, I normally use the “of” version or put the date in brackets or between commas.

      Have a good weekend!

  2. One rule of thumb for subdivision is from artículo/ article to apartado = paragraph or section (West) (sección: sub-section, but surely is a whole part of a law e.g. of the Spanish Code of Procedure) Not mentioned: inciso = indent or sub-para (West: paragraph, again).

    Another: section for article > (apartado) subsection > (sección? = paragraph) > (inciso) indent or sub-para.

    The word ‘Article’ etc. can often be omitted as headers and simply numbered 1,2,3 etc, not strictly according to the policy of ‘when in doubt, leave out’.

    French influence dictates Article 1, 2, 3 etc, added to the titles of international treaties and agreements. Even the Biritish Government is presently falling into this ‘franglais’ trap in the drafting of Brexit-mean-Brexit proposals.

    In the case of a two-part company Memorandum of Association and Articles of Association (vs. US-Am Articles of Incorporation), the titles in both the UK and Oz/NZ would be simply numbered 1,2,3, and then referred to in the body of the text as clause 1,2,3 for the Memo part and article 1,2,3 etc. in the Articles part.

    cf. Articles of Partnership (not called Association), again there would be no word of article prefacing the number in the header, but the the number would be prefaced by the word article in the body of the text vs. by the word clause in English Partnership Deeds (that I used to draft inhouse).

    All clear?

    I think I had indulged in these musings and ruminations many years ago, pre-retirement, on ITI Network lists and, using various aliases, on ProZ.Com, but no one paid much attention…

    • I think we have to make a distinction between internal referencing, which is what your comment is mainly about, and external referencing, more the point of the post.

      When referencing internally (basically translating anything other than legislation), yes, by all means the default option or at least the starting point should be to follow target-system convention, as you give some examples of.

      However, when externally referencing foreign legislation for which no (good) translation may exist, you have to be transparent enough for readers to be able find your reference (without being non-sensically literal). Using too-functional, target-language translations won’t help the reader and will cause more work for you to keep it logical.

  3. Thanks, Rob, for the great points echoing a debate that has been going on for many years.

    The bridge between internal and external referencing is what I tried to cross in my reply. So I used the example of international conventions, treaties and agreements as hybrid contracts and national legislation cf. the EEC and EU Founding Treaties that count as part of EU legislation.

    My own impression was that the (drafting) convention of prefacing Treaty clauses with the header of Article had been mistakenly carried over (cross-fertilised or -contaminated) into English translations of internal referencing documents, like ‘Company Statutes’ /’Articles of Association’, and IMO is rooted in a misconception of English legal drafting techniques

    Articles in `Titles`, incidentally, breaking down into `paragraphs` and `points`.

    Good on you, Ocker!

    • Yes, international documents can be a great source of inspiration. I find EU judgments fantastic for that, too. Particularly as they are multilingual. Although you still have to be wary of Euro-English and Euroese.

      Still, externally referencing national legislation should be straightforward. You’ve just got to make the referencing transparent enough for people to find whatever you’re referring to.

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