Notarization on the Horizon?

A new trend regarding contracts

By Stafford Hemmer

A recent discussion on the NCTA web forum suggested that agencies are dispensing with a generally more lenient attitude toward employment terms and conditions in favor of a more legally airtight, formalized contractual relationship sealed by notarization. This article summarizes the viewpoints of several NCTA members who participated in the discussion.

When an agency engages an interpreter or translator, the respective contractual obligations are established by countersignature to the relevant documents, typically confidentiality and independent contractor agreements. Not uncommonly, both parties forego even these most basic of conventions—whether intentionally or by default—and work with each other on the basis of verbal agreements reached on the phone, or written covenants established by an exchange of emails. Yet these circumstances seem to be changing.

NCTA member Naomi Baer recently confronted this situation and asked fellow members, “Is anyone else being asked more frequently to notarize employment applications in order to get an assignment?” The case at hand pertained to a confidentiality agreement and a “proprietary agreement” that the agency wanted notarized by the translator-interpreter before consenting to give her the assignment. Although it was for a small project, the expectation was that it might lead to more serious work down the road. And yet the concept of having to pay to get set up to work with an agency seemed problematic, given the range of agencies Naomi has worked with, and given that, in general, she had no way to know if it would pay for itself over time.

Notarization refers to the certifying of documents by a notary public—an officer authorized by the state (such as California) who can also administer oaths, take acknowledgments, and take depositions if the notary is a court reporter as well.

“This new phenomenon seems to have reached epidemic proportions,” replied long-time NCTA member Peter Gergay. “Agencies that did not require notarized statements before, do so now, and nowadays new agencies with which I begin to do business tack it on almost routinely.” Not all NCTA members share the opinion that this phenomenon is so common; indeed, another long-time member, George Plohn, who has been a freelancer since 1990, translating into and from ten language combinations, claimed to have never heard about such a requirement.

Whether or not the trend is pervasive, both experienced translators agree on one thing: compliance is generally advisable. Peter replied that he uses a standard text that had been originally drawn up by educational credentialing institutions for diplomas and transcripts and subsequently approved—a long time ago—by government agencies and the ATA; he kindly volunteered to send interested colleagues a sample. He also added that he bills for the reimbursement of these charges ($10 per document) as well as for his time in getting the translations notarized. George added that he “would not  hesitate to satisfy such a requirement if it would bring business.” But he also pointed out that his bank provides this service free of charge, and suggests that translators should find out from their own financial institutions if they provide such a free service; if not, he suggests opening a small account at another bank that would.

Clients often ask agencies, and ultimately translators, to obtain notarizations, for instance of a translated college transcript or birth record. In most cases, the notary is merely certifying that the translator presenting the documents has properly identified himself or herself to the notary. The notary is not attesting to the accuracy or veracity of the translation itself. So what does an agency gain by asking its contractors to get signatures to an employment contract notarized? Other than the obvious additional legal gravitas derived from the signature and stamp of a notary public added to an otherwise valid contractual relationship, it is difficult to extrapolate from the group list discussion why agencies are increasingly asking contractors to provide these notarizations.

Still, there was consensus among translators, interpreters, and agencies alike that understanding the phenomenon of notarization is important. Wrote Michael Alioto, who runs an agency based in Italy, “There is a lot of confusion in the U.S. translation market about rules that are either non-existent or vague at best.” He points out that this is not the case in Europe, where agencies often deal with notarized documents, and especially in the context of the Hague Convention. (Michael’s clients have Italian estate matters that have to be addressed via various powers of attorney). As Michael says, “Because we do many translations for direct clients and attorneys, I found this subject needs to have a legal foundation that is understood by all.”

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