How possessive can you be under Greek law?

by Mata Salogianni

Legal translators translating from Greek into English often come across this strange term of νομή (nomí), which often appears together with its friends, κυριότητα (kyriótita) and κατοχή (katohí). The usual translations into English proposed for this term vary from occupancy, seizin and possession to, last but not least, full freehold rights.

The problem here is the one I discussed in my previous blog post about culture-bound terms: translators are faced with a triad that needs to be translated into English, so they must find an equivalent for all three words. There is no problem with translating kyriótita, as it means “ownership”. The problem arises when nomí appears together with katohí, which it usually does when translating documents about property rights.

Katohí is nothing more than “possession”, i.e. having physical control over a piece of property, be it movable or immovable. Nomí however is the intent to own such property, regardless of whether you have physical control over it or not. Confused? Let me elaborate with an example.

Under Greek law, if you are renting an apartment, as a tenant you only have the katohí or possession of such apartment. Your landlord is the one having the kyriótita or ownership -which is only natural since he is, you know, your landlord- and also having the nomí,meaning that neither landlord nor tenant have any doubts as to whose property the apartment is: it’s the landlord’s.

Nomí may be manifested in various ways. If, for example, you own a piece of land far away from where you live but you make sure to visit it, install a fence so as to prevent others from squatting, plant trees and water them and in general you take care of it in a manner indicating that you consider it to be indefinitely your own, then you are expressing nomí, or what the Romans called animus domini.

Note, however, that nomí may be also demonstrated by someone who is not the owner of the property. In the same example I just used above, you may do all such things on the same piece of land but not own it; if the actual owner does not do anything about it, then after 20 years you can claim the property as your own.

If  you are familiar with common law terminology, you may have spotted the problem translators face: both katohí and nomí translate into English as possession. A definition of possession as given by Black’s Dictionary of Law tells us that possession is both “The right under which one may exercise control over something to the exclusion of all others” and “The detention or use of a physical thing with the intent to hold it as one’s own”.

So when the set of kyriótita, nomí and katohí come up in a Greek source text, translators find that they must come up with yet another term, other than possession, to complete the triplet. However, the terms I mentioned in the first paragraph are not good options: occupancy may mean actual residence in real estate or even acquiring possession of an abandoned piece of property and seizin both ownership and possession and only regards real estate.

Some try to avoid this conundrum created by the overlapping definitions of katohí and nomí by choosing the term full freehold rights to translate all three Greek terms. Yet, this is an even worse route: not only is freehold the very definition of a culture-bound term, it only regards immovable property. What is more, having freehold over a piece of real estate does not mean that you are also in possession of such real estate, as it may be leased under a leasehold agreement, meaning that it is the tenant who will be the one in possession of it.

Are therefore all those terms doomed to never being translated into English? No, of course not.

Let me go on by saying that there is an exact translation for both katohí and nomí. In the Civil Code of Louisiana, a distinction is made between possession[1] and civil possession[2] which very well corresponds to our Greek terms. Is therefore our quest over?

Not so fast. If we take a closer look at the history of Louisiana, we will see that it once was a French colony. In my first blog post here (in Greek), I mentioned that the course of a country’s history leaves its marks on its legal language. I will not go further into this matter here, as I would be digressing. You can read more in the Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, featuring interesting articles on this matter by Peter M. Tiersma, formerly Professor of Law at the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. What needs to be said, though, is that due to its colonial past, Louisiana has the particularity of being a civil law jurisdiction in a federation of common law states.

For this reason, while a Louisiana lawyer should understand what you mean when you write that “the buyer acquired the ownership, possession and civil possession of The Wonderful Property Sold under This Agreement”, most other common law lawyers would not.

It his case then, it may be required that we elaborate and provide a descriptive translation of the term nomí. My suggestion is that we say possession with animus domini (or owner-like possession or possession with the intent to hold as one’s own) and if we have to translate katohí next to it, use the term simple possession.

In this manner, we would be following the EU example, where the legal terminology used for drafting specific EU texts does not usually coincide with member states’ national legislation, the main purpose being to avoid confusion.

I have written on the exact same topic in Lexilogia translation forum; if you are not running for the hills yet, you can read it here (in Greek). And let me know what you think about the topic of this article in the comments; I would love to hear your views!

[1] Article 3421 of the Louisiana Civil Code: “Possession is the detention or enjoyment of a corporeal thing, movable or immovable, that one holds or exercises by himself or by another who keeps or exercises it in his name”

[2] Article 3431 of the Louisiana Civil Code: “Once acquired, possession is retained by the intent to possess as owner even if the possessor ceases to possess corporeally.  This is civil possession.”

Mata Salogianni is a graduate of the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University. Her working languages are English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Turkish, and she also has a basic knowledge of German. She has been working as a professional translator since 2000, specialising in legal, financial and corporate texts. She has been teaching legal translation since 2006.

She has also been translating literature since 2005, mostly works by Portuguese-speaking writers, such as Paolo Coelho. 

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