Danger! “Notario Público” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Many of the words we explore in this column have to do with everyday culture:  la yapa and “lagniappe” for that little something extra; “¡Felicidades!” and “¡Felicitaciones!” as two varieties of congratulation; the nearly untranslatable piropo for a very special kind of compliment; a comparison of “my better half” and mi media naranja.

Much of our translation work, in contrast, is legal in nature: contracts, wills, powers of attorney, divorce decrees. and an endless array of other kinds of legal documents.


Typical notary stamp in the US. The mistranslation of the title into Spanish as notario is not only incorrect, but potentially dangerous—and, in some states, illegal.

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, seemingly direct—and all-too-common—translation as notario or notario público is absolutely, dead wrong. Notario is a “false friend”, linguists’ term for words with similar appearance and origins but different meanings. Thus Spanish fábrica (factory) is not fabric, a sentencia (a legal 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 attorneys specialized in legalization of documents and a wide range of civil-law matters. In Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, the equivalent title is escribano.

In the US, in contrast, notaries public receive training and must know and comply with the regulations of the state that licenses them as to verifying the identity of an individual who signs a document, taking oaths, and other notarial functions.

But they are not attorneys, any more than a skilled welder is a civil engineer. (Louisiana and Puerto Rico, with roots in the civil-law tradition, are special cases, as is Quebec in Canada; in those jurisdictions there is a civil-law notary equivalent to the notario of the Hispanic world.)

notario publico aviso ficticio

Advertisements aimed at a mainly Spanish-speaking immigrant market often use the term “Notario Público”; when the business offers a variety of services of a legal nature, the misleading effect is enhanced.

Thus the frequent mistranslation of “notary” as notario, besides being incorrect, can mislead many Spanish speakers into thinking that these individuals are attorneys, licensed to practice law and give legal advice.

There are those who use notario innocently, unaware of how problematic this term is; others do so knowingly, with fraudulent intent. In either case, however, the resulting misunderstanding in the immigrant communities can have quite serious consequences.

In fact, this erroneous translation is expressly prohibited by law in some states. In Section 406.017 (Representation as Attorney) of the Government Code of Texas, for instance, Subsection (a)(4) makes it an offense for any notary public to “use[] the phrase ‘notario’ or ‘notario publico’ to advertise the services of a notary public, whether by signs, pamphlets, stationery, or other written communication or by radio or television[.]” Indeed, under Texas law, a notary who uses that mistranslation is committing the same offense as if he or she were explicitly claiming to be an attorney—and the law makes no distinction as to whether the individual’s intent is fraudulent or not.

Here is Section 8219.5 of the California Government Code: “Literal translation of the phrase ‘notary public’ into Spanish, hereby defined as ‘notario publico’ or ‘notario,’ is prohibited.” New Mexico’s Notary Public Act contains a similar prohibition: “A notary public shall not use the term ‘notario publico’ or any equivalent non-English term in any business card, advertisement, notice or sign.” (NMSA 14-12A-15)

Tennessee, like many states, requires notaries who advertise to post “conspicuous” notice in English and  in the language of the advertisement, containing the phrase “I am not an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee, and I may not give legal advice or accept fees for legal advice.” (T.C.A. 8-16-201)  The Tennessee Attorney General has also, in the past few years, begun to prosecute individuals who advertise as “notarios” without the requisite disclaimer.

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. Even importing the English word into Spanish (“Necesito un notary“) is infinitely preferable to its mistranslation as notario, with its confusing and legally dangerous connotations. The price of this mistranslation is simply too high: a community’s trust abused, millions of dollars lost, immigrants deported, families broken apart.

¡Buenas palabras!

Copyright ©2013-2015 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. A version of 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. Dr. Davis is an attorney and an American Translators Association (ATA) Certified Translator (English > Spanish), who has served the legal communities of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Maryland as a certified interpreter, as well as conducted training and workshops in interpreting, translation, intercultural understanding, and related topics. He holds the Ph.D. in History from The Johns Hopkins University, and has taught Latin American, U.S., and Comparative History as well as Spanish. Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo is a lawyer, translator, and historian. Many of the posts, or short essays, here are drawn from the newspaper column “MIsterios y Enigmas de la Traducción/Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” (published weekly in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, since July 2012). Pablo had the good luck to grow up marinating in at least a half-dozen languages—his native Spanish and English; French, used by his parents to communicate what they thought were secrets; a salting of Yiddish and a rumor of German; and seasonings of Italian, Portuguese, and Russian. He has always been fascinated with language in its many aspects—a form of human behavior; a medium for the creation of beauty; a tool of persuasion and inspiration; a weapon and instrument of power; and a record of human history, knowledge, and thought, to name just a few. These are some of the concerns and passions that run through the essays on this site. Your interest is appreciated, and your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

One Response to Danger! “Notario Público” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

  1. Pingback: Notaries, notarios y las trampas de la traducción « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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