Terminology of criminal law: comparison of USA/UK/CZ concepts

Joruna Hrabalová

The topic of this thesis was familiar to me because I have been working as a sworn interpreter for the past twenty years or so. During this time, I have collected a considerable amount of various terms and expressions that I have found to be complicated in some way or other. They have either no direct equivalent in the other language, or the equivalent has a slightly different definition which makes its use inappropriate, or the terms differ in American and British terminology. For most legal fields, especially commercial law, the definitions and correct terms are easily found in dictionaries and specialised seminars, but for criminal law I have been able to find very little information. I therefore decided to take the opportunity presented by my Bachelor’s thesis to finally compile and thoroughly analyse all these terms, and perhaps to find solutions to some terms which so far lack satisfactory translations.

Let me first explain why there are so many differences between legal English and legal Czech as such. Both countries abide by different systems of law, which have developed separately from two sources since the Middle Ages. Czech law is part of so-called “continental” or “civil” law, which originates from a set of laws compiled by a Roman emperor called Justinian in the 6th century. This system of law is the most widely used in the world today. However, England’s courts of the Middle Ages functioned according to decisions made by itinerant judges, who rode from one court to another and applied the same principles of decision-making in an effort to unify the law, so that the law would be “common” for everybody – hence the name. Those judges would then come back and discuss their decisions, and any new decisions made later reflected the ones which had already been made. Ever since those days, judges in the common law system have abided by decisions made in similar cases by other judges previously. These are called precedents.

Analysis of the terms has required me to study the criminal codes and acts of the relevant countries. Sometimes, however, this has not helped me to understand some very complicated terms, so I have held consultations with judges of the criminal divisions of the Brno courts. I have also looked at existing translations available in various courses, dictionaries, specific literature and internet sources. The result is a total of 27 terms in Czech criminal law and 25 terms in common criminal law. I have found several mistakes in existing and widely-accepted translations of certain terms. For example, the common way of translating “spolupachatel” is “accomplice”. Try googling it now and see how many times that translation will appear. The Czech term “spolupachatel” means that this person is directly involved in committing the crime, however. He cooperates directly with the main offender (pachatel) and is viewed as being in the same category. The category to which the accomplice belongs in common law is known in Czech criminal law under the term “součinnost”, specifically as “účastník”. The correct term for “spolupachatel” is therefore one that belongs in the same category in both systems of law, being “joint principal” in UK criminal law.

It was a very interesting undertaking for me to study the terminology of criminal law in depth and so to start understanding the underlying principles. It is definitely something I would like to develop in future, for academic research still pays too little attention to this very important topic.