Translating notary terms 1: What do notaries do?

In Spain and other civil law countries, you seem to need a notary for anything of gravity.

You buy a house, you need a notary. You inherit some money, you need a notary. You start a company, you need a notary. The list goes on.

What do notaries do in common law countries?

So little that even if you live in one you may not know. I know I never had a clue when I lived in Australia.

The main thing notaries do in common law countries is authenticate documents for use in civil law countries. So you may only ever need the services of a notary in a common law country if you need a document for a legal transaction in a civil law jurisdiction

Common law notaries do other things. But most of these other things can be done by somebody else, usually a solicitor. For a full list of the things English and Welsh* notaries do, see this page.

Really worlds apart?

The civil and common law notary systems are separate and different systems. But they do fit together in a funny way.

The main role of common law notaries is to authenticate documents for use abroad. Thus, the world and work of common law notaries has to be in tune with the requirements for notarial documents in civil law countries.

As depicted in the slide below, the English and Welsh system is like a piece in a more complex and deeply rooted civil law system.

The English and Welsh notarial system as a piece of a more complex civil law system.

Truly non-equivalent terms?

If you look hard enough (try here), you can find equivalent English terms (exact translations) for many key foreign notary terms.

However, a lot of these equivalent and authentic translations are obscure in English. As people in common law countries rarely have to visit notaries, they know little about them or their mysterious ways.

So we are back at square one. We have authentic English terms, but the readers of our translations, unless they are notaries, probably won’t be familiar with them.

In following posts, I’m going to look at some of these terms, including public form, private form, notarial act, deed, protocol and notary public.


See this page.

* When I get specific in this and following posts, I’m referring to the English and Welsh notarial system. Other common law systems are similar, but you will find differences in terminology and practice.

Written by Rob

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

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