Notarizing Documents in Foreign Languages

I've had this question come up twice in the past couple of weeks, so I thought it would probably make for an interesting article. As notaries, we are approached to notarize documents for a number of different reasons.

Depending on where you are located, you may have a rather large population of people who speak another language. For instance, I am located in the San Antonio, Texas area, and we have a large Spanish-speaking population here. Thus, on occasion, I have notarized documents written in Spanish, but only as long as I am able to communicate with the signer in English, the notarial certificate is written in English, and I am able to collect information required to record in my notary journal without the help of an interpreter.

There seems to be a misconception among some of my colleagues here in Texas that when we are asked to notarize a particular document that we need to make sure we understand the document content. Some think we can only notarize documents that are in English. I had one notary tell me that he requires documents in a foreign language to be translated to English before he will notarize it. We had a lengthy discussion about this.

I can't speak for all states, but I do know that in both Texas and New Mexico, you can notarize documents written in a language you don't understand. The important thing to note about the rules of these states is that, as notaries, we are actually not notarizing the document itself, we are notarizing the signature of the person signing the document. Our job is to properly identify the person who is signing the document and serve as a disinterested third party witness to the signing of the document.

Personally, I briefly read the documents. I just scan the documents to collect a brief description of information required to be recorded in my record book, and to make sure there are no blank spaces. On occasion, I have had signers tell me they waited until I arrived to fill out the document so that I can make sure they filled the document out correctly. In these cases, I let the signer know that I was only there to make sure everything was filled out, that there are no blank spaces left in the document, that they are who they say they are, and to administer an oath or take an acknowledgement.

I think a lot of misunderstandings may stem from the myth that once we (notaries) notarize the document, it's legal. I gently remind the signers that, as a notary, I am not notarizing the document, I am notarizing their signatures. This concept is sometimes hard for both the notary and the signer to grasp, but it is important to know how to handle these situations. As I mentioned earlier, I can't speak about the rules in all states. However, it is your responsibility to become familiar with the notary public laws for your particular state.

-- Phyllis Traylor, U.S. Army Retired is a Contributing Writer with the American Association of Notaries

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