That’s Not How You Say it in Gringa-Land!

Here’s the thing about my Spanish: I learned it from a book. When I enrolled in my first Spanish class, I didn’t even know how to ask someone, “How are you?” But I progressed quickly, with brilliant professors hailing from places like Peru, Costa Rica, Spain and Chile.

I regarded my teachers and my native-speaking classmates with envy. Their “r”s rolled without even trying and they understood all the political in-jokes while I struggled valiantly to hide my laughable ignorance of world geography and current events. Most importantly, I, the lowly gringa, would not dream of claiming the intuitive understanding that allowed them to announce, “Yes, that word just sounds right.”

So you’ll understand, then, that I trusted my professors and my classmates blindly when it came to terminology. I memorized the false cognates and as we moved into problem areas of legal translation/ court interpretation, I promised them I would never utter the words corte or ocupación (“court” and “occupation,” respectively). Medicina (the science of medicine) was not the same as medicamento (as in, “medicine,” the pill), and I would avoid saying probatoria (probation) and use of the passive voice altogether. Let’s not even discuss how to use the word sentencia (“sentence,” as in “what the judge passes”) correctly.

legaleseImagine my surprise, then, when I began working in the professional world and met people who completely disagreed with those whom I had trusted to guide me on my linguistic journey. And these new acquaintances were native speakers too! They swore that corte was acceptable and that medicina was fine. Furthermore, Guatemalan lawyers were using the passive voices combined with false cognates, and these were learned professionals! My compass was suddenly off, and I had no Mexican grandmother or Cuban Papi to give me the final say.

I’ve since learned to grow a bit of gringa-confidence. I can actually make intuitive decisions about idiomatic expressions and grammar, and I can proofread your Spanish documents any day of the week, accents and all. Likewise, I’ve learned that the language varies from region to region and what is one country’s uneducated Gringa talking is another country’s respected Ph.D. I generally use as a starting point, and then I give the final say. I trust my instincts, my research, and the input of my learned colleagues, but I take every “never say that ever” with a grain of salt.

And yet, the perfectionist flame burns deep in an interpreter and translator’s soul, and we all want the perfect equivalent. And sometimes, our terminology assurances are turned upside down. For years I’ve been saying ocupación is a false cognate (for the non-Spanish speakers among us, this is commonly viewed as a false cognate for the English word, “occupation.”. But the other day I looked it in the Diccionario de la lengua española , since I always tell my students not to just take my word on things and I wanted to practice what I preached.  The third definition was, and I quote, “3. f. Trabajo, empleo, oficio.” ( 2/9/17). In other words, ocupación means occupation, at least according to Spain’s Royal Academy.

What’s a gringa to do? I’m not quite sure. My go-to is to use the phrase that no-one will argue with. If anyone has a problem with it, I opt for something more “socially acceptable,” if you will. But does that mean that the other way is wrong? If you can find it in a well-respected dictionary, and there’s no caveat like Americanism that precedes it, I don’t think so.

What about you? What are the words and phrases, in Spanish or in any other language, that you think are absolute no-nos, or which you grew up using but have since been told are wrong?

How do you say it, in Gringa-Land or anywhere else?

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

  • Holly Mikkelson
    Posted at 17:16h, 10 February Reply

    Try looking up “asaltar” in the DRAE — turns out it means the same thing as assault in many contexts (and the military uses “carro de asalto” for “tank.” “Confrontar” is another one I was always told was a false cognate, but it’s used in legal systems all over Latin America to mean the same as its English counterpart. I’ve been interpreting for over 40 years and I’m *still* baffled by the Spanish language!

  • Felix Lizarraga
    Posted at 18:01h, 10 February Reply

    Thank you for the wonderful article! As a native Spanish speaker, and a professional translator, I can assure you that “ocupación” is not only perfectly fine, but probably the term most widely used, and that “medicina” and “medicamento” are indeed synonyms –though I personally prefer using “medicamento” when translating, since it is *the* professional term. “Corte” is used in some countries but not in others; again, personally I prefer “tribunal” simply because it is not cognate. To your EXCELLENT rule of thumb, “My go-to is to use the phrase that no-one will argue with,” I would add: using non cognates will make you sound more educated (sort of like the equivalent of using the longer word in English).

    Alas, Spanish speakers can become quite confrontational about our (incredibly fragmented) language. I have seen (and been in) too many arguments that amount to discussing whether “color” or “colour” is the correct spelling…

  • Alfredo Vargas
    Posted at 18:01h, 10 February Reply

    In legalese, as in every situation, context is king. The first question I ask is the country of origin of the Spanish speaking individual.

    False cognates are not the only words to avoid. Words such as “government” or “state” in the Court environment, are better rendered as “fiscal”, “procurador”, “fiscalía”, etc. but hardly ever as “gobierno” or “estado”.

    In the same manner “corte”, “tribunal”, “juzgado”, “Sr. Juez/a”, in the right context is a better choice when Court is uttered.

  • Susana Ekis
    Posted at 18:36h, 10 February Reply

    I agree with Holly, it can be baffling, and unfortunately many times left up to US to rapidly decide if it is acceptable or not. But as US English continues its unrelenting march into the four corners of the world, I sense more and more Anglicisms will become the order of the day.

  • Susan Schweigert
    Posted at 19:23h, 10 February Reply

    I experienced something very similar. I was telling my Nicaraguan friend what I did for a living, explaining how I worked in the “tribunales” and the “juzgados,” when she responded, sort of confused, “O sea, ¿trabajas en las cortes?” Yes. Exactly. Trabajo en la corte.

    Posted at 19:24h, 10 February Reply

    Lectura y convivencia… pero aún así.
    As comic relief, I share this funny perspective:

  • Gabriela Burgess
    Posted at 21:02h, 10 February Reply

    Great article Athena!

  • Sylvia J. Andrade
    Posted at 07:17h, 11 February Reply

    “Un asalto, asaltar,” in Mexico, refer to an armed robbery.. Words vary between countries. I trust my knowledge of Mexican Spanish, but I tend to be more careful if I think a client may be from somewhere else.
    “Corte” is slang when referring to the trial court. In Mexico, there is one “Corte”– the Supreme Court for cases beginning as federal cases. “Tribunal Superior de Justicia” is the highest court for cases beginning in the individual states. Don’t use that term for out superior courts.
    As a child, I would hear a close friend from New Mexico say “bloque” instead of “cuadra.”

  • Rebecca Thatcher Murcia
    Posted at 14:04h, 11 February Reply

    So true, Athena! Our work is difficult but fascinating. I find Sandro Tomasi’s resources and teaching to be invaluable. Because of Tomasi, I no longer say, “Como se declara Ud.,” for “How do you plead,” But rather, “Como contesta Ud.”

  • Kathleen Morris
    Posted at 14:20h, 11 February Reply

    Bloque is fine instead of cuadra or manzana. I have lately started saying “pronunciar o imponer sentencia”, though I shied away from “sentencia” for years, assuming it to be a false cognate., in favor of “condena”. Legal and other language evolves constantly, and we need to be flexible enough to evolve with it. This does not mean blindly following “new” terms that we hear being used by court parties or bilingual attorneys. You have to do your own research of such terms. Yes, I have learned perfectly correct Spanish legal terms from bilingual attorneys, on occasion!

  • Bethany Korp
    Posted at 17:37h, 11 February Reply

    You’re speaking *my* language, here! Like you, I have a natural distrust of cognates, and I hesitate more than I should sometimes. Recently, I got stuck during a jury charge on “speculation and conjecture,” only to discover that indeed, they are “especulación y conjetura.” I don’t know how old you were when you started learning Spanish. I started young enough to take partial advantage of the second critical window for language learning that occurs in the early teens. So I have some grasp of “it just feels right” in some contexts, but not nearly enough.

    In choosing a rendition, I have two ironclad rules: 1. Does it mean what I mean to say? and 2. Are there people who would understand it to mean something different? The latter is why I wouldn’t hesitate to use ocupación, corte will still never leave my lips unless it’s the Supreme Court that I’m talking about.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 18:51h, 11 February Reply

    We have Ministério Público that some translate as “public ministry.” I always feel like asking “where is the church?” It is the prosecution or prosecution office. I once had to correct a translation into the record because of that. If you read Javier’s articles (, you will understand how multi-layered and confusing things are in Brazilian Portuguese.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 02:24h, 12 February Reply

    I love this discussion! Thanks everyone for your insightful replies. I am thinking, as we discuss it further, that really what matters most is finding the phrase/word with the most precision and the least ambiguity. That means that if there’s a chance that “corte” could be misinterpreted, while “tribunal” is more widely understood, then that is what we keep in mind while making our choice. Ideally of course, we know our target audience and their regionalisms. Ideally. 🙂

  • Jeff Henson
    Posted at 13:35h, 12 February Reply

    One big “No-No” in French is to translate “common law” as “droit comun”. In French, “droit commun” refers to “general” or “ordinary” law. In other words, any area of the law which is not allocated to the jurisdiction of a specialised court such as the Juvenile Court, the Commercial Court, etc. “Common law” should always be translated into French as… (wait for it)… “common law” !

  • Marina Sanchez Hranac
    Posted at 16:25h, 13 February Reply

    I experienced something similar when I returned to the U.S.A. after having lived and worked several years in Spain. Clients here were using false cognates and Spanglish terms I never would have considered using. Obviously, I still try to stay away from the Spanglish, but sometimes it’s as if my clients understand that word better the actual word in Spanish. The impact of English on Spanish due to some countries’ mere geographic proximity and the industry one is working in is really shocking.

  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 21:16h, 13 February Reply

    I love your post, Athena! Fortunately, we have the Diccionario del español jurídico published by the RAE ( to answer a lot of these questions.

  • Lilian Victoria
    Posted at 10:18h, 14 February Reply

    My main concern when I interpret is that the parties involved understand my words. There is no point in using the correct word according to the dictionary, if the message is not clear for the audience.

  • Vicki Santamaria
    Posted at 16:50h, 14 February Reply

    Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking a different language than my court customers! I have valiantly tried to use the “correct” terms, but the overwhelming majority of my customers (that’s what Colorado courts call them) use Spanglish right and left. Most of my customers are Mexicans, so when a Peruvian or Colombian shows up, it almost shocks me when they use “seguro” instead of “aseguranza”. But those times that I’m interpreting for someone who doesn’t speak Spanglish remind me that I need to use the words that are most widely understood and also “correct”.

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  • George W Gage
    Posted at 18:54h, 17 June Reply

    I feel like I’ve seen the “americanismo” notation in dictionaries in reference to Spanish usage in the Americas–South America, Central America, Mexico–as opposed to usage in Spain. I agree that the use of variants from country to country and region to region is HUGE, and from what I’ve seen (and heard, and read) the use and acceptance of cognates in Latin America goes on a country-by-country basis. In terms of non-legal language, I have had people correct me in Ecuador on usage that is perfectly acceptable in Mexico: ¿Qué hora es? vs. ¿Qué horas son? Of course Manu Chao uses it all: Spanish, Portuguese, French, throwing the beloved “so” code-switch into his music. We’ll see what educated speakers are doing fifty years from now. For me, that’s the fun of all this: keep reading, keep traveling, keep interpreting! Cool topic.

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