Guest post – Successful, yet questionable translations

Today I am delighted to welcome Ignacio Sanchez-Roman Plañiol, a Spanish lawyer-linguist who works in the Legal Department of the European Central Bank. This post is, however, in an entirely personal capacity.

Over to you, Ignacio.

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Two translated terms struck me as odd as soon as I joined an EU institution a long time ago as a Spanish lawyer-linguist.

To translate ‘legal act’ as ‘acto jurídico’ and ‘to adopt’ as ‘adoptar’ was alien to my legal culture and my experience as a lawyer and a legal translator. 

Legal act

At least in the general theory of civil law systems, there is a clear difference between a ‘legal act’ in the sense of ‘actum iuris’ (ES ‘acto jurídico’) and a ‘rule of law’ or ‘legal provision’ (Latin ‘lex’ or ‘norma iuris’, ES ‘norma jurídica’).

An ‘actum iuris’ is a human act that has such legal effects as provided for in a ‘norma iuris’ and because they are provided for in a ‘norma iuris’.

However, if we replace Latin with English, the result is a tautology:

A ‘legal act’ is a human act that has such legal effects as provided for in a ‘legal act’ and because they are provided for in a ‘legal act’.  

See the Spanish definition of ‘acto jurídico’ (Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, DRAE):

1. m. Der. Hecho voluntario que crea, modifica o extingue relaciones de derecho, conforme a este.’ [Law. A voluntary action that creates, modifies or extinguishes law relationships according to law.]


Take for instance a regulation on mergers: the legal act in the sense of ‘actum iuris’ is a merger, or its registration, but not the regulation itself, which is the ‘norma iuris’ under which a merger is legally effective.

I am not questioning the English usage, as in this language an ‘act’ is both an action or deed and (Garmonsway) ‘a decree made by a legislative body’, so that it is possible in English to use a same word – act – to refer both to an action (a criminal act) and to the legal provisions dealing with it (the Criminal Act of XXXX).

But that usage is alien to Romance languages and also to German, where a ‘Rechtsakt’ is defined (Duden), at least outside of the EU legal context, as a ‘Rechtshandlung’. 

In all of these systems, the difference between ‘actum iuris’ and ‘norma iuris’ is clear and therefore the literal translations of ‘legal act’ in the EU legal context as ‘acto jurídico’, ‘atto giuridico’, ‘acte juridique’, ‘ato jurídico’, ‘Rechtsakt’, etc. is as solid by now as it was (initially) questionable. 

To adopt

Similarly, ‘adoptar’, the Spanish literal equivalent of ‘to adopt’, which in English also means (Garmonsway) ‘to give formal approval to’, and in French (Robert) ‘approuver par un vote’, is seldom used with this meaning in ordinary and legal Spanish, where ‘aprobar’ clearly prevails (there are very few occurrences of ‘adoptar’ in the sense of ‘approve’ in Spanish legislation (national law) and in legislation in Spanish outside of the EU context (e.g. United Nations legal instruments)).

The DRAE registers ‘adoptar’ with the meaning of ‘approve’ but only as a fourth entry

‘4. tr. Tomar resoluciones o acuerdos con previo examen o deliberación.’ [To take a resolution or reach an agreement after a discussion or deliberation.]

and after a third entry which is, indeed, well known in legal contexts but rather refers to endorsing someone else’s creation:

‘3. tr. Recibir, haciéndolo propio, un parecer, un método, una doctrina, etc., que han sidocreados por otros.’ [To receive, making it one’s own, an opinion, a method, a doctrine, etc., created by others.]

This meaning is also common in English, (Garmonsway) ‘to take over and use as one’s own’, and in French (Robert) ‘faire sien en décidant de suivre’.


Then I asked myself about the origins of these successful yet questionable translations and, knowing that the UK had only joined the Communities in 1973, I was curious about how legal instruments were referred to in previous Treaties in the ‘founding’ languages, while suspecting all along that I would not find a literal equivalent to ‘adopt legal acts’.

Indeed, neither the Treaty establishing the ECSC (1951) nor the Treaty of Rome (1957), establishing the EEC, use a term equivalent to ‘legal act’.

Article 189 of the Treaty of Rome, which has no heading and is placed in chapter 2, on general provisions common to the various institutions, does not use a literal equivalent to ‘adopt’ either. Instead it uses: (FR) arrêter, prendre, formuler; (DE) erlassen; (IT) stabilire, and (NL) uitgeben, uitbrengen, vaststellen.

It should be easy to ascertain when the terms ‘legal acts’ and ‘adopt’ and their literal renditions into other languages started to be used in the Treaties. The question I cannot answer is why this happened.

The Maastricht Treaty, 1992, refers to the ECB ‘legal acts’ in Article 34, though it does not use the verb ‘to adopt’ there: 

EN: ‘Article 34. Legal acts. 34.1. In accordance with Article 108a of this Treaty, the ECB shall: – make regulations to the extent necessary to implement the tasks defined in Article 3.1, first indent, Articles 19.1, 22 or 25.2 and in cases which shall be laid down in the acts of the Council referred to in Article 42; – take decisions necessary for carrying out the tasks entrusted to the ESCB under this Treaty and this Statute; – make recommendations and deliver opinions.’
FR: ‘Article 34. Actes juridiques. 34.1. Conformément à l’article 108 A du traité, la BCE: arrête des règlements dans la mesure nécessaire à l’accomplissement des missions définies à l’article 3.1 premier tiret, aux articles 19.1, 22 ou 25.2 des statuts du SEBC, ainsi que dans les cas qui sont prévus dans les actes du Conseil visés à l’article 42; prend les décisions nécessaires à l’accomplissement des missions confiées au SEBC en vertu du traité et des statuts du SEBC; émet des recommandations et des avis.’

The Treaty of Lisbon, 2007, seems to go for ‘legal acts’ and ‘adopt’ in EN and their literal equivalents in FR:

233) The heading of Chapter 2 shall be replaced by the following ‘LEGAL ACTS OF THE UNION, ADOPTION PROCEDURES AND OTHER PROVISIONS’.
233) L’intitulé du chapitre 2 est remplacé par l’intitulé suivant «ACTES JURIDIQUES DE L’UNION, PROCÉDURES D’ADOPTION ET AUTRES DISPOSITIONS».

And this is all. Of course I will keep on writing ‘actos jurídicos adoptados por XX’ [legal acts adopted by XX] but with a strong feeling that what I am using is ‘EU Spanish’.


Garmonsway, G. N., The Penguin English Directionary, Third Edition, Revised.
Le Robert Micro, Dictionnaire de la langue française, Édition 1998
Duden online German dictionary,
DRAE, the online Spanish dictionary of the Real Academia Española: 

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You might also be interested in this post: “What exactly is a lawyer-linguist?

2 thoughts on “Guest post – Successful, yet questionable translations

  1. Thanks, the author refers to an exciting example! I believe the problem with the translation of the “legal act” is that’s alien to the common law tradition. The “legal act” was originally a scholarly creation of the legal-dogmatic school of thought of the civil law tradition, in particular in Germanic countries. Most civil codes in Latin America and Continental Europe have “positivized” the notion. Anglo-American Common Law has no equivalent to Civil Codes (US codes such as the USC are mere compilations) nor a school of thought with the level of abstraction as legal dogmatism neither a conceptual methodology (is mostly analogical). Then, how you properly translate a concept to a target language that does not know of that concept? Here are some ideas, either you explain it (in a TN), you keep the Latin version (understandable in learned communities), or create a new phrase in the target language, e.g. “juridical act”?

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