Should we translate “Ley” as Law, or Act?

A frequently recurring question in Spanish-English legal translation how to translate the word ley in the sense of “una disposición aprobada por las Cortes y sancionadas por el jefe del Estado”, as in Ley de Propiedad Intelectual, Ley Concursal, Ley de Sociedades de Capital, etc.  Should we use “Act”, or “Law”, i.e. should we say “Intellectual Property Act”, “Insolvency Act”, etc., or “Intellectual Property Law”, “Insolvency Law” and so on?

In the English legal system, a draft law, or bill, passed by parliament becomes an Act (it is “enacted”). In the US, Acts are laws passed by Congress or a state legislature. Therefore, based on Anglo-American legal terminology, the term Act seems to be an appropriate translation of Ley in this context.

However, there are also arguments in favour of translating Ley as “Law”. We must bear in mind that a lot of legal and financial translations into English are read by people for whom English is not a mother tongue, and who might find “Law” to be a more easily recognisable term. They might also think that Law is cognate with Spanish Ley or French Loi (in fact it isn’t: “law” derives from Old English lagu, while ley and loi come from the Latin lex). It is worth noting in this respect that in the EU Directorate General for Translation, “law” is the preferred translation.

So which is the best option? We could say that “act” is probably the most accurate translation of ley from the viewpoint of semantic equivalence, particularly if the potential users of a translation are US or UK English speakers. If a wider reading audience is envisaged, “law” might be recommendable as the more widely recognised term.

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