Not all notaries are fluent in a second language and I don’t think anyone could really expect us to have even a basic understanding of all the languages of all the countries we’re expected to notarise documents for.

In my time in practice I’ve notarised documents for over 60 of the 193 states recognised by the United Nations, in over thirty different languages!  Even if we notaries could speak all these languages in even a conversational way, it would then be a completely different thing to say we could also understand the legal meaning of the word in that country.

For example, English notaries may very well understand the English legal meaning of a ‘mortgage’ or a Power of Attorney but even if they could recognise the French equivalent words (for example a hypothèque or a Procuration) they probably couldn’t really advise the client on the legal effect (as it applies in France) of those words and how the French Courts would deal with them.

A notary can however still notarise a document presented to him that’s in a foreign language but will want to check that the client is either fully happy with it or has at the very least a general understanding of the document and has taken independent advice from a lawyer qualified in that jurisdiction about it.

The notary will accordingly ask questions of the client to check that understanding.  In the past I have had to turn some clients away when they’ve acknowledged that they didn’t actually understand the document but that “its ok , you only need to witness my signature”.   Remember, notaries don’t rubber stamp documents.    In these situations clients sometimes have to be referred elsewhere to get that independent advice – much will depend on the nature of the document and, frankly, whether the notary believes the client is competent to understand it.  Sometimes a translation has to be obtained – Google Translate is very good as a starting point and whilst it shouldn’t be relied upon as a definitive document(!) I have successfully used it to prepare very short and very simple letters.  If you’re being presented with a document in a foreign language try and get hold of that in Word format so you can cut and paste it into Google – The client and the notary can then decide together whether a formal translation and third party legal advice is necessary.

The other issues notaries sometimes face is where a client cannot speak or understand spoken English.  There is a subtle difference between Interpreters and Translators and at the end of the day the Notary has to be happy that his client is aware of what they are signing.  That can sometimes mean that an independent Interpreter (not always a member of the client’s family) has to be located.  As mentioned before in these pages, the more notice the notary has the better (and usually cheaper!)