Hardline election promises and translating “delito” and “falta”

This week, Duran i Lleida, CiU’s candidate for the Spanish general election to be held this month, announced that one of his party’s election proposals was to reform the criminal code to change theft (hurto) from being classed as a minor offence (falta) to a serious offence (delito).

This is, of course, one of the usual strategies of politicians (more often from the right, I suppose, although not exclusively) at election time of trying to out hardline each other. And this year it looks like it’s one of the cards to play, with the PP, Spain’s main opposition party, proposing the introduction of life sentences in Spain.

The PP’s proposal caused a much greater stir, as you would expect given the party’s greater influence than CiU’s, although in practice, it probably wouldn’t, or won’t—depending on what happens on the 20th, make much of a difference.

A judge interviewed on the radio the other day (I can’t remember his name, but it was probably José Luis Ramírez as he is quoted here saying similar things), described the PP’s idea as an empty electoral ploy. He said it was already possible to give very long sentences in Spain and that the Spanish criminal system was one of the toughest in Europe, with a comparatively high prisoner per capita rate for a relatively low number of serious crimes.

In Spain, it seems, there are a lot of people in prison for theft and other minor offences, which gets us back to Duran’s proposal and the classification of crimes in Spain, which can be a bit of a pain when it comes to legal translation.

So, what’s the difference between a falta and a delito?

In short, it’s the difference between getting a fine and going to prison, which means that while Duran’s proposal has had less of an impact in the media, such a change would potentially have a bigger impact socially.

There are actually three types of offences in Spain: serious, less serious and minor offences (delitos graves, delitos menos graves and delitos leves or faltas), which are, logically enough, each punishable by serious, less serious and light sentences (penas graves, penas menos graves and penas leves).

If you read Article 10 of the Spanish Criminal Code, you’ll see that offences are classified according to the punishment they receive. In fact, hurto already receives punishments that class it as a delito menos grave, although this is for the theft of things worth over €400, so I suppose that Duran was referring to thefts for less than this amount when he was talking about faltas, unless it’s just a case of him adding to all that electoral hot air that’s about at the moment.

What we have in Spain, then, is a nice system of classifying offences and punishments that in no way resembles that of the English legal system, which leaves the legal translator with the problem of deciding what to call these things in English.

Calling them summary or indictable offences is not very useful as that would effectively mean trying to classify them according to what English court they’d be heard in. Although it’s actually quite simple in this case, and there is more than one way of doing it. All you really have to do is use terms that are not likely to be confused with concepts that are specific to the English system that mean something different, which is basically how I have translated them above.

Interestingly enough, the Spanish Government’s English translation of the Spanish Civil Code uses “felony” and “misdemeanor”. In terms of meaning, these are quite good options, although, according to this article, apparently the distinction between the two was blurred even long before the terms stopped being used in England and Wales. Personally, I think they are too culturally bound and prefer the more neutral translation of “offence”.

In some contexts, you can even forget about the “less serious offences” and just talk about the other two, which is what usually happens in Spanish anyway, as in the case of Duran’s proposed reform. After all, we’re just talking about classifying crimes by the sentences they receive, so “(serious) offences” and “minor offences” may be enough.

All of this, of course, depends on the context. It also goes to show that even with fairly straightforward concepts, care needs to be taken when translating legal terms. Each legal system defines the concepts and terms it uses as it pleases, and the legal translator needs to understand any differences and nuances that might exist to be able to deliver a quality translation.

And then, when you think you know what you’re talking about, someone like Duran comes along and wants to change it all. Although in this case, you probably wouldn’t be too worried because he is not likely to become Spain’s next president. You might, however, think about brushing up on what the PP has in its electoral bag of fun because Rajoy, its candidate, does stand a chance of getting elected.


Definitions of delitos graves, delitos menos graves and delitos leves or faltas: iabogado, augccantabria, delitosfaltas

Article on proposed reform: Diario de Cadiz

Article on reaction to life sentencing: elplural.com

Written by Rob

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

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