3 Questions For Notaries To Ask When Dealing With Foreign-Language Issues

Updated 2-3-16. What do you do if you’re asked to notarize a signature on a document in a language you can’t read — or for a signer whose language you don’t understand? Here are three questions to ask yourself before proceeding with a foreign-language notarization.

Can I notarize foreign-language documents?

The first and most important thing is to check if your state statutes or Notary-regulating agency has provided guidelines on its website or in its Notary handbook that address the issue of foreign language documents or foreign-speaking signers. If so, be sure you follow your state’s rules regarding foreign-language notarizations.

For example, Arizona law states that documents must be signed in characters the Notary can read and understand — otherwise, the Notary cannot notarize the signature. North Dakota requires a foreign language document to include a permanently affixed, accurate English translation in order to be notarized.

Other states do not directly address foreign-language issues in the law, but provide guidelines. In Oregon, the Secretary of State recommends that Notaries refuse to notarize documents in languages they don’t understand and instead refer the signer to another Notary fluent in the language.

Can I communicate directly with the signer?

In order to properly perform a notarization, it’s essential — and often required — to be able to communicate directly with the signer to establish the signer’s identity and willingness to sign the document. Because of this, most states do not permit third parties to bridge the communication gap between a Notary Public and signer during a notarization.

Only one state — Arizona — expressly allows an interpreter to translate for a signer when the signer and Notary do not speak the same language, and requires the translator and signer to be physically in the presence of the Notary at the time of the notarization.

Can I perform the notarial act?

Notaries in other countries often perform significantly different duties than U.S. Notaries. A signer from another country or a document written in a foreign language may require a notarial act that’s commonly performed in another country, but isn’t authorized in your state.

Many countries require citizens living abroad to have a document called a “Life Certificate” notarized each year in order to collect government pension benefits. These documents may require the Notary to certify to facts not allowed under state Notary laws. For example, the documents may require the Notary to certify that the individual is a government pensioner and was alive on the date the individual appeared before the Notary. In others, the type of notarization may be allowed in some states, but not others.

If you need additional assistance with a foreign-language notarization, you can contact your state’s Notary regulating agency for help. Counselors on the NNA Hotline also are available to help answer questions for members and subscribers.

David Thun is an Associate Editor at the National Notary Association.

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