“False Friends” in legal Spanish

Five hundred years ago, celebrated philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli said: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer”. And when talking about enemies, we can´t forget the most dangerous of them all: the false friends. As professional translators, Machiavelli’s words serve as a true mantra. False friends are confusing, deceptive and misleading, and can be found in every terminological area of the Spanish language. Given that it is very easy to make a mistake by using a false friend, the success of our work will depend on finding the accurate equivalence and translate these words correctly.


False friends occur when words in two languages resemble each other either in sound or appearance, suggesting that they may be literally translated; in fact, however, they have very distinct meanings. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus dedicates an entry to false friends, defining them as “a word that is often confused with a word in another language with a different meaning because the two words look or sound similar.

The origin of this term may be traced to the well-known book Les faux amis ou les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais” by French linguists Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny, published in 1928. The current term, “false friend” is the shortened version of the English translation of this book (“False Friends, or the Treacheries of English Vocabulary”), and englobes an enormous amount of terms, having the same etymological origin or not, constituting a challenge for translators, language learners and linguists.

When translating from Spanish into English, these words may be found in every subject area, from colloquial language to advanced specialized terminology, but the most relevant ones are part of legal and sworn translation terminology.

Here is an initial episode of a series of posts dedicated to false friends between English and Spanish, offering a glossary of Spanish false friends related to legal translation, with a corresponding explanation and the adequate equivalent in English.



The Spanish noun “artículo” may be correctly translated as article, even in legal English, when individually discussing the different provisions contained in a law. The plural shall be used referring to the whole set of provisions, known in Spanish as “articulado.” Regarding this false friend, special care should be taken in Contract Law, where the term articles of association is the perfect equivalent for Spanish “estatutos sociales”, meaning the document containing the necessary provisions with regards to a company’s incorporation (in a broad sense).


“Condición suspensiva” and “Condición resolutoria” are both terms belonging to the specific terminology used in Contract Law. They both refer to provisions settled in an agreement affecting its validity.

Condición suspensiva” is a type of provision whereby something must be done in order for the agreement to enter into force. If the specific condition is not fulfilled, the agreement will be left on hold, postponed. Once accomplished, the agreement will be legally in force. In English, it should not be literally translated as “suspensive condition”, one of the most common and serious mistakes made in this subject area. Based on its meaning, the legal English term that matches perfectly this sense is condition precedent.

Condición resolutoria” is a type of provision which, unlike the previous, does not affect the entering into force of the agreement, but rather, its termination. It includes a set of provisions, settled by the parties, regarding any particular event or situation whose occurrence results in the termination of the agreement prior to the expiration of its validity. Even if the translation as resolutory condition is accepted, condition subsequent is far more appropriate, and more commonly used.



Evicción” seems to refer (falsely) to the English term eviction, although in fact, they have very different meanings. In Spanish it denotes the loss of title to or deprivation of property due to a third party’s superior title. It is very common in sales agreements, referring to those cases when, after the sale has taken place, a court determines that another person holds a superior title to the property sold in virtue of the sales contract, therefore, the buyer is deprived of the acquired title. In these cases, the seller is held responsible for the loss suffered and should compensate the buyer for it. An appropriate translation of this legal term would be loss of title.

On the other hand, the English noun eviction refers to the action of forcing someone to move out of a property, legally dispossessing someone from rental property, due to diverse events, such as failing to pay the rent or any other quantities that are rightfully owned to the landlord, causing intentional damage to the property or lease expiration. This concept is translated into Spanish as “desahucio” or “lanzamiento.”


“Sentencia”, along with the previously explained term “evicción” is one of the most common false friends found in legal Spanish. The Spanish noun “sentencia” is generally used to denominate any court’s disposition of a case, rendered in trial or appeal, final or not, stating the legal grounds for the decision adopted. “Sentencias” may be rendered in any area of law (civil, criminal, labor…).

Thus, it is obvious that “sentencia” and sentence have different meanings. Even though in the beginning we shall translate “sentencia” as judgment or decision, we should recall that it may also be translated as sentence when we are dealing with Criminal Law. The English term sentence means a punishment given by a judge in court to a person or after having been found guilty, so it merely has a punitive sense. Since in Spanish, the word “sentencia” lacks this permanent sense, it should only be used when the context involves a criminal procedure, while we shall use “judgment” for decisions rendered in labour, social and civil proceedings, even when one of the parties ends up by being condemned and ordered to pay damages, as the losing party, to the other party.


Thus, false friends in the legal area require an appropriate level of identification and comprehension in order to be accurately translated. As translators, we should pay suitable attention to and be careful with these terms. As the proverb says: ”False friends are worse than open enemies”.



Artículo / Clausula




Estatutos Sociales

Articles of Association

Condición suspensiva

Condition Precedent

Condición resolutoria

Condition Subsequent


Lanzamiento / Desahucio

Lanzamiento / Desahucio

Loss of title


Judgment / Decision

Condena / Pena / Veredicto


About María Jesús Fernández Villar

Bachelor's degree in Translation and Interpreting. Degree in Law. Sworn Translator ES-FR No. 8381. Translator and proofreader in the French and English to Spanish combinations.

You May Also Like