On the Horns of a Dilemma: Accuracy vs. Brevity in the Use of Legal Terms by Court Interpreters

Originally published in Translation and the Law, ATA Monograph Series, Vol. 8, Marshall Morris, ed. John Benjamins, pub., 1995.

by Holly Mikkelson

Note: Many of the footnotes that originally accompanied this paper are not reproduced here. Only those notes that are explanatory in nature have been retained.

The principle that language is a reflection of culture, and that translators and interpreters therefore provide a cultural bridge as well as a linguistic one, is a theme that runs through virtually all writings on translation and interpretation. Nowhere is this principle clearer than in the field of law, where translators and interpreters must transfer linguistic messages generated by actors in legal systems that are based on fundamentally different principles. Thus, a Spanish court interpreter in the United States must convey ideas expressed in English by participants in a system derived from the English common-law tradition, to Spanish speakers from countries where legal concepts were inherited from the civil-law tradition originated by the Romans. This paper attempts to show how court interpreters can bridge such cultural and linguistic gaps with the speed and accuracy demanded in the courtroom.

Despite major differences among the world's legal traditions, there are certain universals, crimes that are recognized as such by every culture on earth: taking the life of another human being, stealing the property of another, committing violent acts against others. The difficulty faced by the translator/interpreter is that these crimes are defined and categorized differently in the various legal systems. This paper examines one of these "universal" crimes, homicide, and explores the related terms in English, as used in the United States, and in Spanish, drawn from penal codes and other references from Spanish-speaking countries, with a view to developing a terminology glossary suitable for use by court interpreters.

The two major criteria for selecting terms for inclusion in the proposed glossary are precision and language economy. In today's overburdened courts, the need to clear crowded dockets and process cases expeditiously contrasts with the painstaking (some might say plodding) pace of traditional legal procedure. Jury instructions, for example, contain language that dates back centuries and is characterized by convoluted syntax and arcane terms of art; but when the judge reads them to the jury, he or she is anxious to get on to the next case on the calender and may race through them at 180 to 200 words per minute. From the interpreter's point of view, it is hard enough to interpret a speaker who is reading from a prepared text, but the complex, frozen language of legal discourse compounds the problem. It is imperative that the interpreter find the most concise possible equivalents in the target language so that he or she will not fall behind.

Why not just look the terms up in a dictionary and have done with it? Students in translation and interpretation courses are taught early on that dictionaries, particularly bilingual ones, are not necessarily the most reliable resources. In the best of cases, they must be supplemented with monolingual dictionaries and primary sources; in the worst of cases, they are to be spurned altogether. To be sure, great strides have been made in the field of terminology in the last two decades, and many of the dictionaries published recently, the fruit of years of painstaking research, are valuable additions to the translator/interpreter's reference library. Even in the field of law, where bilingual dictionaries have been notoriously unreliable in years past, recent contributions represent a quantum leap forward. (The bibliography at the end of this paper includes recommended legal dictionaries.)

The translator/interpreter cannot expect to find every term in a dictionary, however, and even if a term is found, it should be cross-checked in other references to make sure it is the appropriate equivalent for the situation at hand. Consequently, anyone who translates legal documents or interprets judicial proceedings must become adept at terminology research, and must have access to a good reference library. The following discussion of homicide terms illustrates a research process that can be used to check existing sources and to develop new terminology glossaries on any subject.

Homicide Defined

According to Black's Law Dictionary, homicide is "(t)he killing of one human being by the act, procurement, or omission of another. The act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being." The dictionary goes on to note that "the term 'homicide' is neutral; while it describes the act, it pronounces no judgment on its moral or legal quality." In other words, killing someone is not necessarily a crime; it depends on the circumstances. In the case of an accident or an act of self-defense that results in a person's death, the term "excusable homicide" applies, and no criminal charges are filed. Similarly, if someone dies as a result of an act carried out in the line of duty, such as when a police officer kills someone to stop a felony in progress, the act is considered "justifiable homicide" and is not a crime.

When homicide is considered a crime, it is known as criminal or felonious homicide (not to be confused with felony murder, about which more later). Within the general category of criminal homicide are murder (subdivided into first- and second-degree murder in many states), manslaughter (often classified as voluntary, involuntary, or vehicular), and other forms of homicide such as negligent or reckless homicide. Not every state in the United States recognizes each of these subcategories, but the general distinction between murder and manslaughter is accepted everywhere.

Finding Spanish Equivalents

translating the various homicide-related terms into Spanish is problematic for a number of reasons. As noted above, every society has laws prohibiting the taking of human life; but each society, in its own way, differentiates various acts of homicide according to the circumstances surrounding them, for the purpose of determining the severity of the penalty, and defines exceptions that exonerate the killer from culpability. Factors such as religion, sex roles, and caste have a major impact on how these distinctions are drawn. Spain and Latin America share many cultural roots with the United States, and accordingly, their legal systems have a great deal in common. Nevertheless, each country has developed its own legal tradition to meet its particular needs, and its codes, treatises and legislation reflect its unique situation. There is surprisingly little international communication among legal scholars and jurists in the Spanish-speaking world, and little effort has been made to standardize terminology. The result is a confusing array of terms from which the court interpreter must choose the closest equivalent to a given English term (which, I suppose, is better than having no equivalent whatsoever, a circumstance that forces the interpreter to coin a new term).

The first step in selecting the best equivalent is to gain a full understanding of the English term by reading about it in reference works such as monolingual legal dictionaries, penal codes, legal treatises, legislation, and jury instructions. Parallel research must then be conducted in Spanish-language equivalents of these reference works. After culling a number of potential terms from these sources, the interpreter can determine which one comes closest to conveying the meaning of the English term and is concise enough to be used in courtroom interpreting. A secondary consideration is the country where the term is used; if the client in need of interpreting services is from Argentina, Argentine legal terms should be given priority. Unfortunately, the court interpreter can never predict where the next client will be from, and it is difficult to keep changing terminology from one client to the next. Therefore, choosing terms that are as neutral or universal as possible is the best course to take.

The following analysis of homicide-related terms illustrates this research and selection process. The general categories of "murder" and "manslaughter" are the point of departure for the discussion. Other terms used to define nuances or variants will also be discussed as they arise in context.


The term "murder" refers to killing someone in the most heinous way, not just taking the victim's life but doing so in a particularly violent or malicious way. According to Black's Law Dictionary,

Criminal homicide constitutes murder when: (a) it is committed purposely or knowingly; or (b) it is committed recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. Such recklessness and indifference are presumed if the actor is engaged or is an accomplice in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit robbery rape or deviate sexual intercourse by force or threat of force, arson, burglary, kidnapping or felonious escape. Model Penal Code, §210.

One of the most important features distinguishing murder from lesser forms of homicide is the notion of "malice aforethought." This is a rather enigmatic term that sources seem to have difficulty defining without employing that circuitous logic that drives dictionary users insane: using the term itself in the definition. For example, Black's Law Dictionary cites one precedent decision in which the term is defined as "a malicious design to injure." It goes on to quote other precedent decisions in which the term is defined as "(t)he intentional doing of an unlawful act which was determined upon before it was executed" and "(a)n intent, at the time of killing, willfully to take the life of a human being, or an intent willfully to act in callous and wanton disregard of the consequences to human life." The California Jury Instructions further state that "The mental state constituting malice aforethought does not necessarily require any ill will or hatred of the person killed. The word 'aforethought' does not imply deliberation or the lapse of considerable time. It only means that the required mental state must precede rather than follow the act." Thus, the ordinary meanings of "malice" as ill will or malevolence, and of "aforethought" as planning something ahead of time, do not necessarily hold true. The idea of "intent" seems to be more important than any other factor in constituting malice aforethought.

Other circumstances that may make a killing a murder are: lying in wait to kill the victim, poisoning or torturing the victim, using a destructive device or explosive, or taking the victim's life during the commission or attempted commission of a felony such as arson, rape, kidnapping, sodomy, mayhem, robbery or burglary, or while fleeing after committing one of those crimes. When someone is killed as a result of the perpetration of a felony, even if the death was unintentional, the perpetrator may be charged with murder under the felony murder doctrine.

In states where two different degrees of murder are recognized, the circumstances listed above generally constitute first-degree murder, which carries a more severe penalty; all other murder (that is, killing someone intentionally and with wanton disregard for human life but without these aggravating circumstances) is of the second degree. In making a distinction between first- and second-degree murder, premeditation seems to be the deciding factor. For example, in California, "(m)urder of the second degree is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought when there is manifested an intention unlawfully to kill a human being but the evidence is insufficient to establish deliberation and premeditation."

Certain additional circumstances must be present for the death penalty to be imposed, in states where that is a possibility. In California, for example, these special circumstances include murder for hire; murdering a law enforcement officer, fireman, judge, prosecutor, or government official; murdering a witness to prevent or retaliate for testimony in court; sending a letter bomb; killing someone because of his race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin; or perpetrating the murder with particular cruelty or atrocity.

Spanish Terms for Murder

As noted earlier, the crime of taking another person's life is defined according to different criteria in Spanish-speaking countries, but many of the factors mentioned above are taken into consideration in the tipificación (definition) of homicide. It is generally placed under the heading of delitos contra la vida (crimes against life) or delitos contra las personas (crimes against persons), and it may not be given a specific name. For example, in the penal code of Argentina, Article 80 states,

Se impondrá reclusión perpetua o prisión perpetua ... al que matare:

  1. a su ascendiente, descendiente o cónyuge, sabiendo que lo son;
  2. con ensañamiento, alevosía, veneno u otro procedimiento insidioso;
  3. por precio o promesa remuneratoria;
  4. por placer, codicia, odio racial o religioso;
  5. por un medio idóneo para crear un peligro común;
  6. con el concurso premeditado de 2 o más personas;
  7. para preparar, facilitar, consumar u ocultar otro delito o para asegurar sus resultados o procurar la impunidad para sí o para otro o por no haber logrado el fin propuesto al intentar otro delito.1

Note that the crime is not given a name like homicidio or asesinato; the characteristics of the act and the prison term are specified, but only the verb matar (to kill) is used. This offense is clearly the equivalent of the English crime of "murder," however, because the defining circumstances (especially numbers 2, 3, and 7) coincide with those mentioned above for first-degree murder. Moreover, the Argentine penal code goes on to list other circumstances under which killing someone is a punishable act, and the punishments specified in the succeeding articles are much less severe than the life imprisonment imposed under this article. Thus, when comparing penal codes for the purpose of finding linguistic equivalents, it is a good idea to look at both the defining characteristics and the corresponding penalties for each crime. The importance of relative penalties should not be overemphasized, however, since they are heavily influenced by cultural factors.

Other penal codes do give a specific name to the most serious form of homicide: In Spain and Ecuador, the term asesinato is used (Art. 406 and Art. 450, respectively), while the Peruvian penal code defines it as homicidio agravado: asesinato (Art. 108) and Mexico's penal code calls it homicidio calificado (Art. 315).

The aggravating circumstances listed in the Argentine penal code, as cited above, are fairly typical. Manuel Ossorio's Diccionario de ciencias jurídicas, políticas y sociales, a compendium of terms with definitions drawn from myriad sources, defines asesinato as an act of killing

que se configura por su comisión alevosa, premeditada o ensañada, así como también por realizarse mediante precio, recompensa o promesa. La agravación del homicidio simple para convertirse en calificado o 'asesinato', puede también estar determinada por los vínculos de parentesco entre el agresor y la víctima (ascendientes, descendientes o cónyuges).

The notion of kinship is not taken into consideration in the definition of "murder" in English, but the other factors, treachery (alevosía), premeditation, and cruelty (ensañamiento, or in other penal codes, sevicia), and the idea of murder for hire, are certainly present.

Of course, there are no neat and clean equivalents for these defining characteristics, either. Just as "malice aforethought" is a slippery term, alevosía has no direct equivalent in English. Ossorio defines the term as "cautela para asegurar la comisión de un delito contra las personas, sin riesgo del delincuente. Equivale a traición y a perfidia." The concepts of traición (treachery or betrayal) and perfidia (perfidy) are included in "lying in wait," but nowhere in the English definitions of "murder" does the idea of the perpetrator not being at risk appear.

An additional factor in homicidio calificado, according to the Mexican penal code, is ventaja (Art. 315). It is defined as having greater physical strength than the victim, being better armed than the victim, weakening the victim's defenses in some way, or taking advantage of the victim's inferior position (if the victim is lying on the ground and the perpetrator standing, for example). (Art. 316) None of these characteristics is included in any of the definitions of "murder" that have been considered here.

Despite the differences in nuance, however, it is clear that the Spanish terms asesinato, homicidio agravado, and homicidio calificado correspond closely to the English term "murder." Given that brevity is a primary consideration, asesinato is preferable to the others.

The two degrees of murder are a little harder to differentiate in Spanish. Although some bilingual legal dictionaries simply translate the term "degree" as grado, monolingual Spanish dictionaries do not include anything about severity of a crime in the definition of this term; rather, it has to do with degree of kinship or stages in trial procedure. The most accurate translation can be found in Butterworth's Legal Dictionary, which gives asesinato con premeditación o alevosía, o cometido en relación con un hecho punible con pena de muerte o de prisión perpetua for "first-degree murder" and homicidio doloso, pero sin premeditación ni alevosía for "second-degree murder." Given the constraints faced by an interpreter who must keep up with a judge reading text at 180 words per minute, however, these phrases, no matter how accurate, are unacceptable for courtroom interpreting. In this case, coining the term asesinato en primer grado/en segundo grado is the best expedient; after all, one of the definitions of grado in the Vox Diccionario general ilustrado de la lengua española is "(c)ada uno de los diversos estados, valores o calidades que, en relación de mayor a menor, puede tener una cosa," so the use of the term will not be at all confusing or misleading to the Spanish-speaking audience. This is an example of a situation in which there is no direct equivalent in the target language, and the interpreter must choose the most concise way of conveying the meaning of the term, even if he or she has to coin a new phrase. Alternatively, the interpreter could focus on the fundamental distinction between the two degrees of murder and call them asesinato premeditado and asesinato sin premeditación.


Black's Law Dictionary defines "manslaughter" as "(t)he unlawful killing of a human without malice and without premeditation and deliberation." It could be said that manslaughter is the basic form of criminal homicide, whereas murder is a more aggravated form. The California Jury Instructions differentiate the terms in this way:

The distinction between murder and manslaughter is that murder requires malice while manslaughter does not. When the act causing the death, though unlawful, is done in the heat of passion or is excited by a sudden quarrel such as amounts to adequate provocation, or in the honest but unreasonable belief in the necessity to defend against imminent peril to life or great bodily injury, the offense is manslaughter. In such a case, even if an intent to kill exists, the law is that malice, which is an essential element of murder, is absent.

Manslaughter, in turn, is divided into subcategories. "Voluntary manslaughter" is that which is committed "upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion"; "involuntary manslaughter" is a killing that takes place as a result of "an unlawful act not felonious or tending to great bodily harm, or in committing a lawful act without proper caution or requisite skill"; and "vehicular manslaughter" is involuntary manslaughter committed with a vehicle. The basic distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter is that the former is accompanied by an intent to kill, whereas the latter is not. In California, voluntary manslaughter is punishable by three to eleven years in prison; involuntary manslaughter, by two to four years.

Spanish Terms for Manslaughter

If we accept the assertion that manslaughter is the basic form of homicide, we can simply translate the term as homicidio. True, homicidio is not necessarily a crime, given that there are non-criminal forms of homicide such as homicidio legítimo (justifiable or excusable homicide) or that committed in legítima defensa (self-defense). There is scant reference to these terms in the literature, however; most dictionaries define the term as a crime and ignore the non-criminal variants. In the context of the courtroom, presumably everyone will know that the act in question is considered a crime, or they would not be in a court of law.

The real problem arises with the adjectives "voluntary" and "involuntary" that usually accompany the term "manslaughter." There are abundant variations on the homicide theme in Spanish legal doctrine, but whether a precise equivalent for the English term can be found is another question entirely. For example, the Diccionario de derecho penal by Amado Ezaine Chávez lists the following types of homicide: homicidio calificado (discussed in connection with "murder," above), homicidio por emoción violenta, homicidio consentido, homicidio culposo, homicidio doloso, homicidio en riña, homicidio legítimo, homicidio por caso fortuito, homicidio preterintencional o ultraintencional, homicidio simple, and homicidio-suicidio. The Vocabulario de derecho y ciencias sociales by Rogelio Moreno Rodríguez, in addition to some of the terms mentioned above, lists homicidio alevoso, homicidio con ensañamiento (both of which correspond more closely to "murder," as noted above), homicidio concausal, homicidio eugenésico, homicidio pasional, homicidio piadoso, and homicidio premeditado (ditto regarding "murder"). Quite a list for the hapless interpreter to choose from. Obviously, we must delve further into the definitions of these terms.

The first task is to eliminate those terms that clearly do not refer to manslaughter. Homicidio consentido, piadoso o por piedad is euthanasia. A typical definition can be found in the Colombian penal code: Art. 326. Homicidio por piedad. El que matare a otro por piedad, para poner fin a intensos sufrimientos provenientes de lesión corporal o enfermedad grave e incurable, incurrirá en prisión de seis (6) meses a tres (3) años. The related term homicidio-suicidio, as defined by Ezaine Chávez, involves a suicide pact between two persons; but as defined by Moreno Rodríguez, it is an assisted suicide that involves no humanitarian motives. At any rate, Dr. Kevorkian is not likely to take up residence in Latin America.

Homicidio en riña is an interesting concept I have not come across in any English source; it refers to a death resulting from a brawl in which blame cannot be assessed. For example, in Spain's penal code, Article 408 provides:

Cuando riñendo varios y acometiéndose entre sí confusa y tumultuariamente hubiere resultado muerte y no constare su autor, pero sí los que hubieren causado lesiones graves, serán éstos castigados con la pena de prisión mayor. No constando tampoco los que hubieren causado lesiones graves al ofendido, se impondrá a todos los que hubieren ejercido violencias en su persona la de prisión menor.

Thus, everyone involved in the fighting is given the same penalty, prisión menor (in Spain, six months to six years in prison). Incidentally, a related concept found in many Latin American penal codes is an example of how law reflects cultural attitudes: homicidio en duelo. For example, Ecuador's penal code provides in Article 484, "El que en un duelo hubiere herido o muerto a su adversario, será reprimido como reo de lesiones corporales intencionales, o de homicidio simple, con arreglo a este Código." I know of no similar provision in English legal doctrine.

Homicidio legítimo, as noted above, is not a crime, nor is homicidio por caso fortuito, a death resulting from an accident for which no one is criminally liable. Homicidio concausal is a crime, but it is less serious because the victim had a pre- existing condition without which he would not have died as a result of the punishable act. And finally, homicidio eugenésico is a legal term for practices such as the "ethnic cleansing" that was reported in the former Yugoslavia: killing people for the purpose of eliminating undesirable elements from the gene pool.

Thus, we have narrowed down the field of potential translations for "voluntary manslaughter" and "involuntary manslaughter" to six terms: homicidio simple, homicidio culposo, homicidio preterintencional o ultraintencional, homicidio por emoción violenta, homicidio doloso, and homicidio pasional. Let's look at them one by one.

Homicidio simple is defined by Ezaine Chávez as "la muerte injusta de un ser humano, cometida por el agente, sin mediar causa de calificación atenuante, ni agravante." The Mexican penal code states, "Artículo 302. Comete el delito de homicidio: el que priva de la vida a otro." This appears to be the best way to translate "manslaughter" when it appears without qualification: the basic form of criminal homicide.

Homicidio culposo is also used to translate plain "manslaughter" in some sources. It would appear to be somewhat more specific than mere "manslaughter," however. Moreno Rodríguez provides a typical definition:

Involuntaria muerte de una persona causada por un acto voluntario, lícito en su origen, cuyas consecuencias no fueron, aunque debieron serlo, previstas por el agente. Es decir que el homicida, si bien no quiso la muerte de su víctima, no tomó las precauciones debidas, frente a la previsibilidad de ésta.

This sounds more like the definition of "involuntary manslaughter" quoted from Black's Law Dictionary above. For comparative purposes, note that the Colombian penal code specifies a term of two to six years in prison for homicidio culposo. (Art. 329)

Homicidio preterintencional o ultraintencional is defined as a killing that results when, "sin ánimo de matar, el agente da un golpe o causa una lesión, que produce la muerte de la víctima." This definition goes on to cite three elements that must be present:

  1. Animo de perjudicar, no de matar;
  2. Que la muerte no sólo no se haya querido, sino que no se la haya previsto;
  3. Que la muerte sea previsible.

In other words, the situation got out of hand and went beyond what the perpetrator originally intended. This also sounds very similar to "involuntary manslaughter," in that there is no intention to kill. Yet the Colombian penal code has provisions for both homicidio culposo and homicidio preterintencional, so the terms are not synonymous, at least in that country. The penalty for homicidio preterintencional is much higher than that for homicidio culposo. (Art. 325) Another source, Ossorio, notes that

... el homicidio preterintencional será aquel en que la muerte de la víctima se produce sin que estuviese en el homicida el propósito de causarla, porque su intención iba encaminada a consumar un delito distinto.

This definition differs from that of "involuntary manslaughter" cited above in that the perpetrator must intend to commit another crime, whereas with involuntary manslaughter, either a lawful act or an unlawful one may be the cause of death. In fact, it appears that in terms of semantic area, the English term covers both homicidio culposo and homicidio preterintencional. In a written translation, it would be appropriate to choose one of the terms and write a translator's note fully defining the term. In court, the best expedient is to opt for the shorter term and sacrifice some of the meaning of the original. Most Spanish-speaking laymen are not aware of the subtle distinction between the two terms (a distinction that is not recognized in every country, anyway), so I don't think the resulting inaccuracy is a serious one. In conclusion, homicidio culposo appears to be the best choice for translating "involuntary manslaughter."

Now we are left with three terms that may or may not correspond to "voluntary manslaughter," that is, killing someone upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Again, we'll look at them one by one. According to Ezaine Chávez' definition of homicidio por emoción violenta, "es un calificativo atenuante matar a otro bajo el impulso de la emoción violenta, a la cual las circunstancias hicieran excusable." It is noteworthy that Ezaine Chávez considers this crime a lesser included offense within the category of homicidio calificado, and that the penal code of his native Peru provides a term of three to five years in prison, five to ten if further aggravating circumstances exist (Art. 109), compared to six to twenty years for homicidio simple and fifteen or more years for asesinato (Arts. 106 and 108). This is similar to the penalty imposed in California for voluntary manslaughter.

Homicidio pasional sounds like it might be synonymous with homicidio por emoción violenta, but Moreno Rodríguez draws a distinction:

Es el cometido bajo la influencia de una perturbación psíquica que gira alrededor de una idea fija o dominante, de duración más o menos larga, en contraposición con la del "raptus emocional", que es de irrupción violenta y de corta duración.

In other words, the killing occurs as a result of a long- simmering emotion rather than a "sudden quarrel or heat of passion." The idea of suddenness is important in distinguishing manslaughter from murder. An act defined as homicidio pasional in a country where that concept is recognized might be classified as second-degree murder in the United States, given that the simmering emotion may be considered malice.

And finally, homicidio doloso is defined by Ezaine Chávez as "el cometido por el agente con intención de matar. La destrucción de la vida humana, tuvo que ser voluntaria, destrucción que se realiza con dolo de muerte." And dolo, in turn, is defined as la voluntad de delinquir, es la intención criminal del agente. Because one of the key elements for determining whether a killing is voluntary or involuntary manslaughter is the intent to kill, it would appear that homicidio doloso corresponds to voluntary manslaughter, although the definition makes no mention of passion.

Other terms not mentioned in the dictionaries cited here but found in penal codes include homicidio simple intencional (Mexican penal code Art. 307), homicidio voluntario (Ecuadoran penal code Art. 448), and homicidio con intención de dar la muerte (Ibid. Art. 449). Unfortunately, the terms are just mentioned in passing in the penal codes and are not defined, but judging by the sentence (eight to twenty years, compared to twenty to fifty years for homicidio calificado in Mexico; eight to twelve years, compared to twelve to sixteen for asesinato in Ecuador), they would appear to be roughly equivalent to voluntary manslaughter. On the other hand, they might be more akin to second-degree murder; it depends on whether the idea of intención or voluntariedad corresponds more closely to malice or to intent to kill. The latter is more likely, but since there are fewer gradations of homicide in Mexico and Ecuador than in the United States, the terms probably correspond to both second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

Another option available to court interpreters is to look at Puerto Rican legal terminology, since Puerto Rico's justice system is a unique blend of Spanish and English legal traditions. Early in the twentieth century, Puerto Rico's codes were translated or adapted by scholars with knowledge of both English and Spanish. The Puerto Rican penal code recognizes two types of homicide, asesinato and homicidio, which, in turn, are divided into asesinato en primer grado and asesinato en segundo grado, and homicidio and homicidio involuntario (Arts. 82-86). According to the Instrucciones al Jurado Para El Tribunal Superior de Puerto Rico,

La diferencia entre Homicidio y Homicidio Involuntario consiste en que en el primero se requiere la presencia de una intención de ocasionar la muerte de un semejante mientras que en el segundo la muerte se ocasiona sin la intención de matar.

Using Puerto Rican terms, then, "voluntary manslaughter" would be simply homicidio. Another way of looking at it would be that manslaughter is presumed to be voluntary unless a lack of intent to kill is shown. At any rate, there is a very close correspondence between Puerto Rican and U.S. terms, and given that the Spanish equivalents in use in Puerto Rico are readily understandable to any Spanish speaker, regardless of country of origin, it is arguable that the Puerto Rican terms should simply be adopted by court interpreters in the United States. Nonetheless, interpreters seeking more "authenticity" may choose to use terms more directly connected to the Spanish legal tradition. Ultimately, after considerations of accuracy and brevity have been taken into account, it is a matter of personal choice.

Glossary of Terms

In conclusion, I offer this glossary of homicide-related terms. In some cases, I have given the interpreter/translator a choice, recognizing that there is room for individual preferences.

English-Spanish Homicide Terms

deliberation - deliberación

due caution and circumspection - debida cautela y prudencia

excusable homicide - homicidio casual, homicidio por caso fortuito, homicidio excusable

felony murder - homicidio cometido en el curso de un delito mayor

first-degree murder - asesinato en primer grado, asesinato premeditado

great bodily injury - graves lesiones corporales

heat of passion - arrebato de pasión, arrebato y obcecación, emoción violenta

imminent peril to life - peligro inmediato que amenaza la vida

indifference to the value of human life - indiferencia ante el valor de la vida humana

intent to kill - ánimo de matar, dolo de muerte, intención de matar

involuntary manslaughter - homicidio culposo, homicidio involuntario

justifiable homicide - homicidio legítimo, homicidio inculpable, homicidio justificado

killing - muerte, matar, dar muerte

lying in wait - acecho

malice aforethought - intención dolosa, malicia deliberada

manslaughter - homicidio, homicidio simple

murder for hire - asesinato mediante precio, asesinato por recompensa

murder - asesinato, homicidio calificado, homicidio agravado

premeditation - premeditación

recklessness - imprudencia, negligencia grave

second-degree murder - asesinato en segundo grado, asesinato sin premeditación

self-defense - legítima defensa

sudden quarrel - súbita pendencia

vehicular manslaughter - homicidio causado con un vehículo

voluntary manslaughter - homicidio intencional, homicidio doloso, homicidio por emoción violenta, homicidio voluntario

wanton disregard of the consequences to human life - desestimación temeraria por las consecuencias sufridas por la vida humana

Spanish-English Homicide Terms

alevosía - treachery, perfidy

asesinato - murder

asesinato mediante precio - murder for hire

asesinato por recompensa - murder for hire

autor - perpetrator

dolo - criminal intent

ensañamiento - cruelty, barbarity

homicida - killer, perpetrator of a homicide

homicidio agravado - murder

homicidio alevoso - first-degree murder

homicidio calificado - murder

homicidio concausal - contributory homicide

homicidio consentido - euthanasia

homicidio culposo - involuntary manslaughter

homicidio doloso - voluntary manslaughter

homicidio en duelo - manslaughter resulting from a duel

homicidio en riña - manslaughter resulting from a brawl

homicidio eugenésico - eugenic murder

homicidio pasional - murder of passion

homicidio piadoso - euthanasia

homicidio por caso fortuito - excusable homicide, accidental homicide

homicidio por emoción violenta - voluntary manslaughter

homicidio simple - manslaughter

homicidio suicidio - assisted suicide; suicide pact

legítima defensa - self-defense

preterintencional - beyond what was intended

sevicia - excessive cruelty

ventaja - unfair advantage, undue advantage


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