Many of the words we explore in this column have to do with everyday culture: yapa and “lagniappe”; “¡Felicidades!”and “¡Felicitaciones!” as two varieties of congratulation; the nearly untranslatable piropo.
Much of our translation work, in contrast, is legal in nature: contracts, wills, powers of attorney, lawsuits.
In that work, it’s common to have to translate the title “notary public”.
“Notary”: what a trap that word lays for the unwary!
Because the obvious, direct translation to notario or notario público is wrong.
It’s a “false friend”, linguists’ term for words with similar appearance and origins but different meanings.Thus Spanish fábrica (factory) is not fabric, a sentencia(ruling, judgment) is not a sentence (punishment), a compromiso (commitment) no compromise.
In Spanish-speaking countries, notarios (they’re público by definition, as the position requires government authorization) are lawyers specialized in legalization of documents and related matters. In Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, the title is escribano.
US notaries are not attorneys; the requirements to become one are minimal.
Thus the frequent mistranslation of “notary” as notario can, in effect, mislead Spanish speakers into thinking of these officials as attorneys.
In fact, this erroneous direct translation is expressly prohibited by law in various states, including Texas and Florida.
Our general recommendation is to translate “notary” as fedatario, the Spanish term for an official authorized to attest to the legitimacy of signatures and oaths.
Copyright ©2013 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the January 27, 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.