Criminal Law in a Nutshell



Nadia Morales


Do you have to translate or simply understand the basics of the United States criminal justice system? Here you will find a criminal law overview to analyse how the law differs from country to country in this field of expertise.


Parties to a Lawsuit

To start with, the first thing we should know is how to call the people who take part in a criminal trial, depending on the stage of the suit. In this context, we could say that the criminal Plaintiff (in Spanish, ‘querellante’) is the person who brings a legal action in a criminal court, and the Defendant (in Spanish, ‘imputado’ or ‘procesado’, depending on the case) is the person who is being investigated or has been charged with a crime. In addition, the Prosecution (in Spanish, ‘la fiscalía’), is the party responsible for proving in court that the person accused of committing a crime is guilty (in Argentina, we also have the “Ministerio Público Fiscal” or ‘Prosecution Office’.)


Concepts to Clear up

We are too influenced by simplified translations or dubbing every time we watch videos, series or films. No wonder many concepts are easily misunderstood.


  • Criminal charges are not crimes. A criminal charge is an official statement (generally made by a prosecutor or the police) which asserts that a person has done something illegal, and it can include one or more counts. In Argentina, we would say that they are ‘acusaciones’ or ‘imputaciones’.
  • The verb ‘to prosecute’ is tricky. It is usually translated as ‘procesar’ in Spanish, which is not accurate here in Argentina. If you prosecute someone, you bring a criminal suit against them, so in Spanish, ‘iniciar la acción penal’ would be more suitable. Curiously enough, when we translate from Spanish into English, we do use the term ‘prosecute’ for our concept of ‘procesar’.
  • Procedure and Proceedings are not the same. A procedure is a way of doing something. In Spanish we would use the term ‘procedimiento’ or ‘trámite’ meaning that we are following some kind of steps or meeting requirements to complete or get something. On the other hand, the term ‘proceedings’ is always used in the plural because it refers to the suit or legal steps or measures to be taken. That is why in Argentina we would translate it as ‘medidas’, ‘juicio’ or ‘proceso penal’, as the case may be.
  • Sentencing involves different things in Argentina and in the USA. In Argentina it refers to the phase in which the offender is found guilty or not guilty (in Spanish, ‘etapa condenatoria’) whereas in the United States it is the punishment itself, so sentencing presupposes conviction.
  • ‘Probation’ also means two different things depending on the system. Whereas in the USA probation (in Spanish, ‘régimen de libertad supervisada’) is a sentence whereby an offender does not go to jail but is released under the supervision of a probation officer for a specific period of time, the Argentine probation is the stay of the proceedings subject to the compliance with certain requirements. That is why we use the expression ‘suspensión del proceso a prueba’ to translate the idea.


You can contact a professional translator to find out more about criminal law.



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