How to translate some key Spanish notary terms into English

Civil-law notary terms can be tricky to translate into English. This is because the notary systems in civil- and common-law countries differ. Civil-law notaries have a more wide-ranging role than their common-law counterparts. So you come across terms that don’t have equivalents in English, i.e., non-equivalent terms.

How do you translate non-equivalent terms? The main thing is to get the meaning across to the reader. The key to getting meaning across is understanding the term yourself. So background knowledge is needed to translate non-equivalent terms, which is why this post provides a bit of explanation as well as suggested translations.

And the translations are only suggestions, starting points, if you like. How you translate non-equivalent terms often depends on the context. So you may need to tweak the suggestions from one context to another. Again, the only way can do this is by arming yourself with enough background knowledge.

Credit where it’s due

The post is mainly informed by the book Spanish Law for Notaries by Javier Pérez-Manglano (pp. 44 and 45), unfortunately now out of print. The references for the dictionaries and other sources used are at the bottom of the page.

Acto notarial

An acto notarial is any kind of notarial act, i.e., any document executed before or certified by a notary public. There are three types of actos notariales.

Types of actos notariales

1. Escritura pública

An escritura pública is a notarial act or “instrument used for statements of will, transactions which require express consent of the parties, contracts and other acts and things of any (legal) nature” (Pérez-Manglano, p. 44), which is basically what the source legislation says:

Las escrituras públicas tienen como contenido propio las declaraciones de voluntad, los actos jurídicos que impliquen prestación de consentimiento, los contratos y los negocios jurídicos de todas clases. Article 144, Royal Decree 45/2007

Escrituras públicas are executed in “public form”, which means that “an original is retained in publica custodia by the notary in his or her protocol or recorded with a public registry” (Wikipedia). In contrast to “private form”, in which “a single original is issued directly to the appearer(s)” (Wikipedia). (See this post for more about public and private form.)

Examples of escrituras públicas include powers of attorney, bills of sales, wills and company documents (e.g., for incorporating a company or amending its articles of association).

You can translate escritura pública as “notarial instrument” or some version thereof (e.g., “notarially-recorded instrument”). Both these suggestions come from West (p. 245).

However, when you need to translate the names of the different types of documents, you may be able to use standard English equivalents, e.g., “will” or “power of attorney”. On other occasions, you might want to be more descriptive.

Take, for instance, escritura de constitución, the instrument executed before a notary (in public form) to incorporate a company. I normally translate it as “notarial certificate of incorporation”, which makes use of the common-law term “certificate of incorporation” but also lets the reader know a notary is involved.

You could go even further and signpost that the document is in public form by adding “public form” or maybe just “public” at the beginning (i.e., “public (form) notarial certificate of incorporation”). [UPDATE: As I explain here, I now wouldn’t recommend using “public” or even “public form” in this context.] But I don’t think this is usually necessary for this term. Particularly if, for example, the term is just part of the identification details in the introductory clause of a contract.

However, on certain occasions you might want to highlight that a document is being executed in public form. Especially where similar documents are not in public form in common-law systems.

2. Acta notarial

Not to be confused with acto notarial, actas notariales are certificates issued by notaries. They are certificates “of fact or opinion, made by the notary, where the contents cannot be classified as an act of some other party or as a contract” (Pérez-Manglano, p. 44). Again, this is roughly what the legislation says:

Las actas notariales tienen como contenido la constatación de hechos o la percepción que de los mismos tenga el notario, siempre que por su índole no puedan calificarse de actos y contratos, así como sus juicios o calificaciones. Article 144, Royal Decree 45/2007.

Jowers defines and gives some examples of actas notariales (and their translations) in this post on her blog:

acta notarial refers to a notary’s certification of a given event, such as an Acta notarial de la Junta General (the minutes of a shareholders meeting taken and certified by a notary public); Acta notarial de deslinde con citación de colindantes (notarial certification of property boundaries made in the presence of abutting property owners) or Acta notarial de subasta (which records an auction conducted and certified by a notary).

So a starting point for translating the names of this type of document would be “notarial certificate” (West) or “notary’s certificate” (Alcaraz and Hughes). You might also simply say a document was “certified by a notary public”, as Jowers does in a translation in the above quote.

3. Póliza intervenida

Mentioning this type might cause more confusion that it’s worth given that you may never have to translate this term. But I’ve included it for completeness (the three types).

In this case, a póliza is a contract or even just a document. Intervenida is short for intervenida por notario and means that a notary public is involved or intervenes. So a póliza intervenida is a contract or document you sign before a notary. But it’s not any kind of contract or document signed before a notary. Póliza intervenidas are business or financial contracts signed with financial institutions, as the legislation states:

Las pólizas intervenidas tienen como contenido exclusivo los actos y contratos de carácter mercantil y financiero que sean propios del tráfico habitual y ordinario de al menos uno de sus otorgantes, quedando excluidos de su ámbito los demás actos y negocios jurídicos, y en cualquier caso todos los que tengan objeto inmobiliario; todo ello sin perjuicio, desde luego, de aquellos casos en que la Ley establezca esta forma documental. Article 144, Royal Decree 45/2007.

This includes certain types of loans, leases, bank guarantees, insurance policies and other banking documents, but excludes, notably, anything to do with real property.

Instrumento público/documento público

All notarial acts are public instruments but not all public instruments are notarial acts. In Spanish, as in English, “public instrument” can refer to other documents issued by civil servants, not just notarial documents in public form.

However, Manglano-Peréz points out that the legislation seems to prefer the term instrumento público to acto notarial and uses it even when it refers only to notarial acts. You can see how this usage bleeds into the wording of notarial acts and contracts, where instrumento público may refer to a notarial act.

Thus, “notarial instrument” or something similar will often be the most appropriate translation for instrumento público. It’s more specific than “public instrument” as it gives more information about what the instrument is. Just keep in mind that an instrumento público can refer to other things. You may sometimes want to translate it as “public instrument”.

Elevar a (escritura) público

Elevar a público means to record a document in “public form”, which we talked about above.

Your translation of elevar a público will depend on the context. West (p. 234) gives the following suggestions:

  • To have the document recorded by a notary
  • To have the document put in the form of a notarial instrument

As mentioned above, you could, depending on the context, go further and signpost that the document is in “public form”. For instance, you could translate escritura de elevación a público de acuerdos sociales as “public form notarial act recording company resolutions” (Peréz-Manglano).

Whatever you do, don’t just use “notarise”. As Peréz-Manglano points out, there is a difference between notarising something and having it elevado a público. Notarising may refer to any type of certifying by a notary, including in private form (where no official registration is made). [UPDATE: Having thought more about this, I think “notarise” can be quite useful and is unlikely to cause confusion in legal translations obviously about Spain, as long as readers understand “notarised by a Spanish notary” from the text and context.]

This last point might make the translation of “notarial instrument” not specific enough in some cases. As stated above, most Spanish notarial instruments are in public form. So you will have to take the context into account and decide whether it’s necessary to highlight that the document is in public form. A slightly more concise way of doing this is to add “official” or “public” instead of “public form” (e.g., “public notarial instrument”). [UPDATE: As I said above, I would usually now steer clear of “public” and “public form” in most legal translations. See this post.]


Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes (2007) Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos, A dictionary of Legal Terms, 10th edition.

Javier Pérez-Manglano (2012) Spanish Law for Notaries: An Overview of the Spanish Legal System and a Practical Guide to Spanish Documents and Transactions,

Miguel Ángel del Arco Torres (ed.) (2009) Diccionario Básico Jurídico.

Rebecca Jowers Léxico Jurídico Español-Inglés …a site for exploring legal terminology (a blog).

Real Decreto 45/2007, de 19 de enero, por el que se modifica el Reglamento de la organización y régimen del Notariado, aprobado por Decreto de 2 de junio de 1944.

Thomas L. West III (2012) Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business, 2nd edition

Wikipedia. Civil law notary.

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

9 comments to “How to translate some key Spanish notary terms into English”
  1. Pingback: Notary talk, METM18, references and slides – Rob Lunn Legal Trans

  2. BTW, the verb and noun from certification – in lieu of legalisation – as an apostille, are ‘apostillis/ze’ and ‘apostillis/zation’ respectively: Brooke’s Notary, footnote 78, section 11-24n.

    There appear, from websites, to be some City of London firms of Scrivener-Linguist Notaries – who, incidentally, rank as European-Continental civil-law notaries and sworn translators – and who use a verb of ‘to apostille’.

    BTW, ‘notarial act’ and ‘act of notoriety’ (a kind of Affidavit or Statement of Truth etc.) also appear as ‘terms of art’ in Brooke’s Notary-

    • I wouldn’t use apostille or legalisation when talking about actas notariales. They are different things.

      See this post and the slides from a talk I did here.

      I need to expand on this post based on the research I did for this talk, which slightly changes some of the translations I give here.

  3. Congrats on the conciseness of the slides from your talk, Rob.

    Not wishing to be a bore, I agree about the difference, but notarisation – or strictly ‘notarial attestation’ in City of London Scrivener Notarial-speak to avoid the ambiguity of a notarially drafted vs. a notarially witnessed instrument – is needed for apostillisation or legalisation.

    BTW, my notarially disliked translation making an Escritura Pública equivalent, in English Common law vernacular, to a ‘Deed or Instrument (made) under Notarial Seal’ – to which e.g. a private contract of sale of land had been ‘elevated’ or converted ready for ‘public registration’ – was never queried by any legal clients.

    • Thanks!

      RE apostillisation and legalisation versus acta notarial, I’d keep them well apart so as not to add any more confusion to an already confusing topic. This aside from the fact the apostillisation and legalisation have equivalent processes and terms in both languages and systems — something that can’t be said, strictly speaking anyway, about any of the actas notariales.

      I like your “under notarial seal” solution. It’s accurate and perfectly understandable, so I don’t doubt you got no queries. The skin the cat adage definitely holds true when it comes to the non-equivalent world on notary terms!

  4. What about “placed on public record before the notary public of X, Yyy Esq.” for “elevado a publico ante el notario de X, Don Yyy”.

    • Yes, that’s an option you see about the place. However, documents executed as notarial instruments are not public in the sense that anyone can access them. So “on public record” will often be misleading.

      Technically, none of the documents may be accessible to the public (not sure if it would actually be “none”). What’s on the public record are the entries made in the registers as a result of the notarial instruments executed. Anyone can usually get an extract of these entries.

      As a rule and a little bit contrary to what I wrote in this post (because I’ve changed my mind), I would steer clear of “public” and even the correct “public form” when translating notary terms in most contexts. It’s just too misleading for English speakers who aren’t notaries, i.e., most of us. I’m going to write a new post on this soon.

  5. I found this to be a really helpful article. It’s given me a number of ideas to write about when i eventually get my planned new blog up and running. Thanks for sharing such a good information with us , I hope you will share some more info about How to translate some key Spanish notary terms into English. Please keep sharing.
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    • Thanks, Patrick! I do plan to post more on this and related topics. Good luck with your new blog!

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