Yes, you read that right! And it’s quite intriguing to see a number of online posts, articles and even websites of law firms talking about “notaries public” (“NP”) in their civil-law jurisdictions, when in the US we have civil-law notaries carrying out the very same or similar acts as Notario in the civil law legal systems.  

So there comes the need for knowing the difference between a Notary Public in the US – which is a common-law notary – and a Notario in Spanish-speaking countries when translating legal documents. More often than not, the latter is mistakenly rendered as “Notary Public.” When translating the Spanish term, it should convey the role the Notario has in civil law countries, as NP is a common-law notary.

Given the substantial differences across common-law and civil-law jurisdictions, let’s examine the roles of the two capacities at the fundamental level:

US Notary PublicNotario
Unlike a Notario, a NP is in a lower-level post.Unlike a NP, a Notario is a law-trained professional or high-ranking official.
While requirements to become a NP vary from state to state, the applicant usually must be a US-citizen and resident in the state where he or she seeks commission.He or she usually holds a law degree or has a license to practice law in a given jurisdiction.To become a Notario, the candidate often needs to have several years of law practice, depending on the jurisdiction.
The duty of a NP is to certify the authenticity of the documents and parties thereof, which can include taking acknowledgements, administering oaths and taking depositions, among other activities depending on the state jurisdiction.He or she has broad range of duties, such as representing others before government bodies and signing documents (especially for real estate purposes).  

As the title of this post implies, there are several US territories or states where civil-law notaries are established (given their hybrid legal systems and history under civil codes). Notaries in Puerto Rico and Florida are similarly as described in the right column above. The National Notary Association notes that “A civil law Notary has training and duties similar to an attorney, and is authorized to prepare legal documents, authenticate transactions and advise participants in certain legal matters.”

In Louisiana, however, the aspiring candidate does not necessarily need to be law-trained, but having a license to practice law in Louisiana waives the general requirement of having to pass the state notary exam to become a Louisiana Notary, which the Professional Civil Law Notaries Association states is a “CIVIL LAW NOTARY and has broad powers usually reserved for attorneys in other states.  The Louisiana Civil Law Notary can draft, prepare and execute affidavits, acknowledgements and authentic acts. Louisiana Civil Law provides for much of our legal documentation to be passed by a Notary, a public official, who has qualified for a commission authorizing those powers.”

In a nutshell, a notario has legal advisory capacity and carries out a variety of legal transactions, whereas a NP has certifying or authenticating capacity. The proper Spanish translation for NP is Fedetario (público) (given its certifying authority). However, a NP in the UK is ironically a qualified lawyer, and often has prior practice as a solicitor. For more on this, I highly recommend checking out the Notaries Society in the UK, as well as Ruth and Fernando’s post in Spanish about the various roles of a NP in the US and UK.

Thus, I strongly advise rendering the Notario as “Civil-Law Notary” when translating to US English. When the distinction is not necessary in the document you are translating, simply “notary” will do. “Nonattorney Notary” is another term used by the National Notary Association that could work in some contexts (not that I personally use though, as it may not be proper for certain jurisdictions) for a notary that is not law-trained.

Like with most things, there are always exceptions to the rule. That said, I would love to hear what you think!



About Seth Phillips

- Legal and Financial Translator (10 years) - Avid Marathon Runner (16 full marathons and 30+ half marathons)
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  1. Sami ⠠⠕⠎⠃⠕⠗⠝⠑ says:

    Hi Seth,

    It’s Sami from the MS in Translation program at NYU. I just saw you posted the link to your blog post on the Terminology class forum. It’s really interesting! I’ll definitely keep all this in mind for future work if I ever run into anything like this. Just for fun though, could you do some research on the distinctions/terms on notaries in France? I know you’re probably not familiar with France or the French language, but I’m Franco-American and am very curious about all things France-related, especially now after reading your blog post. If you don’t want to conduct any research or if it’s too confusing, that’s fine. I don’t need that for any classes or anything, this is purely for fun and just out of curiosity. Thank you very much/muchas ⠛⠗⠁⠉⠊⠁⠎⠖⠖⠖

    • In fact, I am planning to analyze certain legal concepts or practices in Latin America that originated from the French system. I am not familiar with the French System. In France, from what I understand, there is the Notaire. And also in Spain and Latin America the Notario. They equate to the civil-law notary that I mentioned in the post.

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