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What Would You Do Answers: The Case Of The Confusing Foreign Document

Last week, we shared a real-life situation where a Notary was presented with a document written in Japanese — but then the signer and an interpreter began arguing over the contents of the document. The signer eventually signed the document but did so reluctantly.

We asked our Notaries how you would handle this unusual scenario, and here are some of the solutions offered by readers:

What Our Notaries Said

Some Notaries felt that the argument between the interpreter and signer didn’t matter — if the signer still wanted the notarization to proceed, they would notarize.

“As the Notary, you are only verifying the signature, not the contents or validity of the document,” said Carletta Wilson. “If you are concerned about the issue, you can make a note in your log.”

Others said the notarization should be stopped since it appears the signer was unclear about the purpose of the document.

“The fact there was a disagreement about what the document contained would arouse my suspicion … about a possible fraud that I would not want to be involved with,” said Carol DiGiore.

“I would have declined the notarization, since I have doubts about the client’s 100 percent willingness to sign,” said Judith Seki. “I would have recommended to the client that they visit a Japanese-speaking Notary.”

Joan Stanley said this scenario illustrates the problems with involving an interpreter in a notarization. “Relying on the truthfulness of a translator unknown to you, and obviously at odds with the signer, are red flags,” she said.

Other Notaries said they would not want to perform the notarization because they aren’t fluent in the document’s language. “I would refuse to notarize the document because I do not read Japanese and therefore I am unable to understand what I am notarizing,” said Walter Ordonez.

Guidance From The NNA

This real-life scenario presents 4 specific issues for the Notary:

  • Making sure the signer is willing to sign the document.
  • Determining the type of document to include in the journal entry.
  • Determining whether the document is complete.
  • Relying on a translator for information necessary to complete the journal entry. 

State laws generally do not explicitly prohibit Notaries from notarizing foreign-language documents that they do not understand. However, because of the potential pitfalls of notarizing these documents, the NNA recommends that you refer a signer to a Notary who does understand the language.

In this case, consider the issues. While it would be a simple matter to double check with the signer that they are willing to sign, you still must determine the type of document and whether it is complete. This could be challenging given that you would have to rely on information from the translator, who had a disagreement over the document with the signer.

For the journal entry, California Notaries could simply describe the document as a “foreign-language document.” But that might not be true for all states. In Texas when notarizing documents conveying land, the journal entry must include the name of the original grantee and the county where the land is located, details the Notary must extract from the document's text.

This brings up the fourth issue. You would have to trust a translator to give you the answer. State laws generally do not address whether translators can facilitate a notarial act, but many Notary commissioning and regulating officials prohibit the practice. Arizona is one state that allows the use of translators, but the law does not envision the translator providing a translation of the document to the Notary. On this point, the Arizona Notary Public Reference Manual states, “A translator may need to be present to verbally translate oaths or affirmations or to explain a document to a signer if they are unable to read the document prior to having their signature notarized.”

Ultimately, it is the best practice to refer the signer to a Notary who speak the language and make a note of the interaction in your journal.

Michael Lewis is Managing Editor of member publications for the National Notary Association.

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1 Comment

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Kathryn Hoffmann

24 Feb 2020

The California Notary Handbook specifically says "An interpreter should not be used, as vital information could be lost in the translation. " So it makes no sense to me that in your article on a foreign document, it says that in California you just write in your journal that it was a foreign document. The scenario presented specifically involves the use of an interpreter.

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