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


The Notary Hotline receives hundreds of calls daily from Notaries nationwide who find themselves in challenging situations. To boost your knowledge of Notary standards of practice, we’ve created a series of scenarios based on actual situations and ask a simple question: What would you do?

Notaries often encounter documents in a foreign language or signers who only speak a foreign language. While these situations present a variety of challenges, this real-life scenario poses a different conundrum. A signer needed his signature notarized on a document that was written in Japanese. However, the signer did not speak or read Japanese — only English — and he brought a translator with him to explain the document.

As the Notary began going through the normal steps, the signer and the translator began arguing over what the document said. Eventually the signer decided to sign the document but did not appear happy about it.

What Would You Do?

Members of the NNA community frequently share accounts of dubious or confusing notarial situations, and it is not always clear how they should respond. This case suggests several issues.

To participate in this week’s “What Would You Do?” scenario, share your answers in the comments section below. We may mention your response in next week’s Bulletin, when we offer the best possible answer(s) to this notarial challenge.

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


View All: Best Practices


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12 Feb 2020

I would asked the the translator to elaborate what was the issue.

Adeline J Eyanson

17 Feb 2020

If translater and signer can't come to an agreement on what the document reads, I wouldn't notarize the document until their is a mutual agreement. Have a second oppinion,with another translater.


17 Feb 2020

I would be hesitant about notarizing a document that the signer couldn't read and disagreed with his own translator over. It seems to me that issue should have been resolved before ever showing up and the notaries office.

Karen Klein

17 Feb 2020

I would ask the borrower to call his lender and ask the lender to explain the document to him/her and the translator. After this occurs, if the borrower still is uncomfortable about signing the document, then he should tell the lender and the notary that he doesn't want to sign it and shouldn't sign it.


17 Feb 2020

First anyone who signs any document should be clear on the content that is in the document being signed (or at least I would). With that in mind I understand that documents requesting notarization can very, specially when you come across legal documents, medical documents, contracts, etc. since the composition of these can at time become more challenging to understand and even more so to interpret. Personally the writer should have a certified interpreter for legal documents (or someone who is fluent and can understand the documents for less legalize documents) that can clearly interpret the contents. As Notaries that is technically neither here or there for us to carry our responsibility and would be fully at the discretion of the signer, but it is good to keep in mind to advise or suggest the signer that they have clear understanding prior to signing. We do need to emphasize this but if the signer wants to proceed it is good best we include the fact that there was a translator present, name the translator, to protect the notarization a bit more the notarization being performed. I would go as far as to use the translator as witness and maybe even get their info to direct any inquiries done to us to the correct part.


17 Feb 2020

My rule is that I do not notarize documents in a foreign language that I can’t read. Thankfully I speak and write several.


17 Feb 2020

I would find out what language was spoke and find a trusted translator in the notary community to appear with me, if possible. Most times county or city courthouses Have access to translating personnel.

Carletta Wilson

17 Feb 2020

As the Notary you are only verifying the signature not the contents or validity of the document. If you are concerned about the issue you can make a note in your log about the differences noted between the signer and translator. And the signers reluctance to sign.

Karen DeLise

17 Feb 2020

I would ask the translator to explain the issue of disagreement and see if there was a misunderstanding so they could agree and perform the notarial act. If not, of course couldn't do the signing until they resolved their issue.

Frank T. Hunt

17 Feb 2020

I personally would not sign any document that I cannot read or understand. Unless it as transcribed and attached to the document I would refuse to notarize that document.

Carol DiGiore

17 Feb 2020

I would not notarize the document. Even though I may not speak Japanese the fact that there was a disagreement in what the document contained would arouse my suspicion as to its contents that the signor was displeased about and a possible fraud which I would not want to be involved with. I would suggest the document be translated and then I would sign it.

Judith Seki

17 Feb 2020

I would have declined the notarization, since I have doubts about the client’s 100% willingness to sign. I would have recommended to the client that they visit a Japanese-speaking notary, since a notary is not allowed to work via a translator.

Linda Millstone

17 Feb 2020

The contents of the document are not my concern as a notary. My job is to determine if the signer is signing of their own free will and if they present proper identification. Then perform the notarial act requested.


17 Feb 2020

My Secretary of State "recommends that a notary public should not notarize a document written in a language they cannot read nor use a notarial certificate written in a language that they cannot read. When in doubt, a notary can always refuse to notarize and refer the customer to a bilingual notary."

Gregg Edwards

17 Feb 2020

Notary verifies identity, being unhappy is not undo influence.

Wade Jeffries

17 Feb 2020

We are notaries, not mediators, our job here is to properly ID the signers.

Michael W Blackburn

17 Feb 2020

I would simply decline to notarize. Communication is vital, some documents cannot be notarized so if you don't know what the document says ( and in california it's not legal to use a translator), then just don't do it.


17 Feb 2020

The content is for the parties to agree. I am only notarizing the signature not content.


17 Feb 2020

refused to notarize, until issue it resolved.

Dori Wollen

17 Feb 2020

The customer was reluctant to sign, so I would NOT proceed with the notarization

Evalyn L Hayes

17 Feb 2020

After listening to the translator translate the document in English and the signer appears upset and it confused it is my job as a Notary to ask the signer to wait before signing. I would then call the Notary Hotline to explain the situation and ask how to handle it?

Charles Kendall

17 Feb 2020

Would not perform the notary. Would refer the signer to the issuer of the document to determine its purpose

Ruby L. Watts

17 Feb 2020

Seem like the signer is under duress, the document is only in a foreign language, I would not notarize the document.

Joe Ewing

17 Feb 2020

The signer and the translator should have discussed the translation of the document long before meeting with a notary. Pressure to sign from the “translator” would be alarming to any notary.


17 Feb 2020

I would refuse to notarize the document due to the unwillingness of the signer. I would not want the signer to feel that they were coerced into signing and coming back after me if the documents caused them issues down the road.


17 Feb 2020

I create another line for the translator to also sign the same document and underneath put a stated that the translator's translation was true to the best of their knowledge.

Joan Stanley

17 Feb 2020

I would not provide notary services from the beginning. A notary is required to be able to communicate with the signer without the aid of another person. And this scenario suggests exactly why. We have no way of knowing for what reason the two are disagreeing other than what the interpreter decides to tell us - be it truth or not. The fact the signer is unhappy suggests he/she is unhappy about signing, and the apparent argument suggest that the signer is being pressured. This scenario has every red flag to leave it alone. Just explain there cannot be a communication gap between signer and notary and refer them perhaps to their bank, church, or consulate where this would not be an issue.

Joan Stanley

17 Feb 2020

Oops! Didn't read scenario thoroughly in my first answer. But - still no. If I am unable to read a document, I'm not going to notarize it. Relying on the truthfulness of a translator unknown to you, and obviously at ends with the signer are red flags to refer them to another notary where the language barrier will not be a problem. And hopefully give the signer the time to disengage from the pressure obviously being applied by the translator.

Barbara A. Hof

17 Feb 2020

I would not notarize for 2 reasons, the dispute between the two parties, and the lack of confidence of the signer.

Paula Stiles

17 Feb 2020

I would not proceed with the notarization if the signer is not certain about what they are signing.


17 Feb 2020

The scenario appears to display a signer under duress. I would ask to speak privately with the signer and make a determination whether or not to continue based on those observations and questions to verify or refute my suspicions.

vivienne caldwell

17 Feb 2020

I would not accept this notary. I would have told my client to find a notary who speaks, read, and understand Japanese. Getting a translator is also taking a chance because I have dealt with translators on my previous job and they never translate information correctly so to save myself from a lawsuit and from losing my license I would inform my client to find a notary who speaks Japanese.

Lenora L Bull

17 Feb 2020

I would request the signer and/ or translator to bring me the document in English so that everyone can have a clear understanding of what the document says. I would not notarize the document under these circumstances.

Lucila Mascorro

17 Feb 2020

The content of documents is not relevant to notary. Only notorizing signature

Monique L Lee

17 Feb 2020

I would ask if there was another translator available from my company to have someone of no bias to translate for with the first translator present.


17 Feb 2020

I wouldn’t do the notary unless you understood the language that was being spoken It’s cheaper to walk away

Stephanie Hulme

17 Feb 2020

I just had a person ask for a notary on an Italian document. It was all in Italian, even my part. I’m from California. I told her to find an Notary who speaks Italian . That’s the only way to get it notarized in a Calif.

Judith E. Miller

17 Feb 2020

I would not notarize the document for two reasons. First, I do not know Japanese. Second, the signer is reluctant to sign the document. I would refer the signer to a notary who can speak Japanese.

Luz Rose

17 Feb 2020

If the signer wants to sign, and all we need to do is check for blank spaces and notarized his signature, I will do it.

Walter Ordonez

17 Feb 2020

I would refuse to notorize the document because I do not read Japanese and therefore I am unable to understand what I am notorizing.


17 Feb 2020

It's up to the signer, it is not up to the notary to determine if the signer agrees with somebody else.

Virginia Davis

17 Feb 2020

It seems to me that if the individual hiring you to notarize his signature actually signs the document, there is no problem. If the person hiring you is uncomfortable with the translation it's up to him to seek a second opinion, but not your job to say so as that might be considered practicing law. I'd sit tight until the signature is afixed or a decision to cancel is reached.


18 Feb 2020

Since I could communicate directly with the signer and are presumably would be able to read the certificate that is in English, And I was allowed to perform the type of notarization being indicated, I would perform the notarization and I would make a notation in my notary journal about the incident between the translator and the signer.

Patrick Patterson

18 Feb 2020

The question posed to me based on their argument, is whether he understands the document or is unhappy with its terms. If he does not understand it, I would not notarize for him, and suggest he take other means to make sure he understands it. If he is unhappy with the terms, but signs it anyway knowingly, I would have no other choice but to notarize the document. The only way I could refuse to in this case, if I sensed any coercion or duress in his signing it. Then I would have to refuse, and report the incident to the proper authority.

Danette Flippin

18 Feb 2020

Go ahead and notarize the document. The Notary Public is to verify the identify of the signer and not to engage in the legal matters or to question the choice of the signer who, in this case, is choosing to sign even though he doesn't want to.


18 Feb 2020

First of all if I didn't know how to speak the language I would see if they could find another Notary that spoke/read the language. If I proceeded then I would have the translator explain the issue and if they both agreed then I would have the translator also sign a statement stating the translation is accurate and agreed upon by both parties.

Claire F

18 Feb 2020

I would not notarize the document. The signer and interpreter have a different understanding of what the document says/requires. An unhappy signer may be a signer under duress. It is best practice not to notarize something in a language you cannot understand. I Recommend finding a notary that can understand the language the document is written in.

S. F. Bastow

18 Feb 2020

In the scenario presented the document is in Japanese and needs to be notarized. Assuming there is a Japanese certificate, I must refuse the notarization. As I do not read that language. Whether there is an interpreter or not is irrelevant. The scenario does not mention what type of certificate or whether I am to attach one per the signers request. More info needed to completely answer.

Carmen Martinez

18 Feb 2020

Unless there is duress the notary should notarize the document if presented with proper identification. In this case the signer is unhappy and I would interpret that as reluctance, and I would refuse to notarize the document on that basis. I would make that clear to the signer and make a note of the situation for my records, any other suggestions like get a notary who speaks the language or get a translation of the document or speak to the company or get an attorney who speaks the language may be construed as legal advice so I would preface any suggestion as a suggestion.

Michelle Hyso

19 Feb 2020

At this point in the encounter I would cease all notorial activity. Clearly the signer could not confirm that they have read, understand and are signing the document of their own free will - let alone swear to or affirm the belief of the truthfulness of the document, so no notary could legally be performed - not in California, anyhow.....

Patricia Jansen

20 Feb 2020

In Oregon we can use a certified translator in some cases but if there is a dispute of some sort especially when the signer doesn't know the language I would not notarize. They should probably go to an embassy.


20 Feb 2020

I only recently became a Notary Public, but from what I recall a Notary Public is to simply verify the signature NOT what is written in the documents. It is my further understanding also that we are to ensure the signer is not feeling pressured or unclear about what they are signing to. My thought would be not to move forward with the notarization because of the uneasiness and disruption between the signer and the translator.

20 Feb 2020

Signer did not seem to know what he is signing, in this case I would not do the notary however I would suggest that instead of having a verbal translator present, to have a written translation done by a DMV approved translator so he can be sure what he is signing.

Linda Beebe

23 Feb 2020

I would not notarize the document for two reasons. 1. The signer is unable to read the contents of the document he is signing. 2. The signer seemed to possibly be signing the document under duress. I don't need to be able to read the document, only to see that it appears complete.

Shelly Dyer

12 Oct 2020

Although the contents of the document shouldn't be a concern, it is important to note we cannot ( in the state of Idaho ) notarize a documents that refers to "the notary" stating the information on the document is true. As long as all the blanks are completed and the signer decides to sign I would just attach my own certificate to ensure that the wording does state the signer swears to the content and not me.

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