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Today I needed an authorization letter notarized for a visa my daughter is applying for. Since I speak the language of the foreign country, I used that language for the letter. And when I went to my usual notary, he refused to notarize it because it is not in English (or, more properly, I guess, because he cannot understand the language).

After a brief search, it looks like this is fairly standard. But my question is why. Looking online, I find phrasing such as

The notary public is a commissioned representative of a state government and is charged with verifying your identity as the signer, ensuring you sign under your own free will, and witnessing the signing event.

Doing that doesn't require understanding the contents of the document. Other sites, including the corresponding the Wikipedia article, list steps that a notary should take, and none mentions "reading the document and understanding it".

So, the question is

Why is the notary required to understand the document I present him, when all that needs to be done is to certify that my signature is mine?

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  • You may be able to get the document notarized at the consulate of the country for which your daughter is applying for a visa. If they won't notarize it themselves, or if going there is inconvenient, they may have a list of notaries who speak their language. – phoog Oct 21 '17 at 7:10
  • "ensuring you sign under your own free will" - and if they can't understand the language, how can they reliably be assured that you do, and that it says what you think it says, and that you do honestly agree to signing it? – Nij Oct 21 '17 at 11:30
  • @Nij: I was standing in front of him, with no one else present. How else could he ensure? How does understanding the document guarantee that I'm not coerced, better than me saying so? – Martin Argerami Oct 21 '17 at 11:41
  • @phoog: the inconvenience was having to go home to translate and print the letter again, and then having to drive to the notary again. Now, the situation is analog to you in China, having to send a letter to the American embassy, and being told you have to write it in chinese. – Martin Argerami Oct 21 '17 at 11:47
  • @MartinArgerami the situation is analogous to being told I have to write the letter in Chinese because I tried to use a notary who spoke only Chinese. The solution in that case would be to find a notary in China who is qualified to notarize documents in English. If I were in that situation, I'd start with china.usembassy-china.org.cn/u-s-citizen-services/…. Is my earlier comment clearer now? – phoog Oct 21 '17 at 15:28
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Various states have different laws about foreign language documents. Without knowing what state you are in, there is no way to answer.

Another consideration is whether just the letter is in the foreign language, or the notarial certificate too. There are states that would allow the document to be in a foreign language but not the notarial certificate. Since the notarial certificate is where the notary states what the notary did, such as administer an oath or listen to you acknowledge your signature, the notary must be able to understand it.

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  • That's what puzzled me. What I wanted was for the notary to notarize my signature. I'm curious why the content of the letter is relevant at all. – Martin Argerami Oct 21 '17 at 2:58
  • Just for a ridiculous example...there are two documents written in a foreign language. One is a rental agreement, and one confirms the sale of all your worldly possessions for $1. Without being able to read the document, how does a notary testify as to which one you're signing? – cHao Oct 24 '17 at 21:27
  • cHao brings up a good point. Some states require the notary to determine whether the signer has a general understanding of the document being signed. If the notary can't skim the document to figure out what it's about, the notary can't determine that. – Gerard Ashton Oct 24 '17 at 22:18
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There may be a requirement saying "No notary public shall subscribe his signature or affix his seal, where a seal is necessary, to a document until it has been fully completed with respect to the particulars required for the purposes of the document" (Saskatchewan). If the document is written in Arabic and the notary does not know Arabic, he can't know if he is legally permitted to sign the document, even if your exchanges with the notary are all in a common language. There may also be a prohibition in serving as a notary for a transaction which you have a financial interest in – which requires that you be able to judge what the document is about (Florida). Another rationale could be invoked in Washington, that the notary must determine that "the signature is that of the person appearing before the notary public and named in the document" (hard to do in a language you don't know), also that "In certifying or attesting a copy of a document or other item, a notary public must determine that the proffered copy is a full, true, and accurate transcription or reproduction of that which was copied", also "that a person is the person described in a document". In other words, a notary may do more than just say "I saw this person sign their name here".

As for the specifics of Saskatchewan law, I don't see that refusal is necessary on the part of the notary, but in a regulated business, an abundance of caution is not unreasonable. If 5 out of 5 notaries refuse for the same reason, it probably is "established" in local law that you have to know the language the document is written in.

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  • This is indeed in Saskatchewan, so it is very appropriate. Now, could you clarify what "fully completed with respect to the particulars required for the purposes of the document" means? I have to admit it sounds like nonsense to me. What could the notary possibly say about my commitment to pay for something or not? – Martin Argerami Oct 21 '17 at 3:00
  • I don't know exactly what that refers to, but it most likely is intended to mean "is complete". Purportedly there are states that directly require the notary to understand the language: members.usnotaries.net/faq.asp?FaqSubCategoryID=112#FAQ1243. I can't say what the legislative intent in the Saskatchewan law is, or whether the notary was over-interpreting the law. – user6726 Oct 21 '17 at 15:12

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