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Official and Legal Translating and Interpreting


When invited to write this article, I didn’t think it would grow to this length. For 12 years, I have been a sworn legal translator, affiliated to the Court of Appeal of Poitiers. A “traducteur assermenté” in French. I am also (and primarily) a full-time university lecturer. From time to time, I get phone calls asking if a certain document needs a sworn or ordinary translation, or how to find a sworn translator / interpreter, or how much they cost, or even how to become a sworn translator in France, (which is a bit cheeky). I’ll answer these common questions as best I can.

A sworn translator is a qualified person who has stood before the Procureur de la République (State Prosecutor) in the regional Court of Appeal and held up his or her hand to swear under oath to provide legally reliable translations. S/He is then officially registered, with a rubber stamp to prove this commitment. This ‘ceremony’ has been preceded by a long investigation into his or her moral standing called an ‘enquête des moeurs’. The regional Court of Appeal runs this.

All sworn translators need to have three capabilities, namely: a) excellent familiarity with the source language and its culture, b) excellent familiarity with the target language and its culture, and c) excellent familiarity with the subject matter of normal legal documents. When translating, we work on three levels at the same time. When a particular word has a target language “equivalent”, we can work at the word-for-word level. This is fine for single words, but when two words collocate or when a text has damned sentences things get a bit more complicated because the number and range of meanings, and the possible collocations of a source language word are never the same as those of its dictionary “equivalent”. More often, we have to work at the idea level (which may or may not be the same as the sentence level), translating a French idea for its near equivalent idea in English, even if some of the words are left out, added or completely changed. This is where excellent familiarity with both languages’ cultures is necessary. A simple example would be the translation of …“yours sincerely”. Is it « sincèrement le votre »? Or “Je vous prie d'agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations les meilleures. »  ? The answer depends on the letter’s context and especially its destination. Using the three capabilities above, a sworn translator selects the nearest equivalent in the target language for each word or each idea.

A translation is unacceptable if it violates the spelling, the syntactic rules or the cultural customs of the target language. It’s also unacceptable if it denatures the meaning of the original text or if it introduces needless changes. A sworn translator has to keep all this in mind and do the necessary linguistic juggling within a legally-binding context, laying his or her reputation and responsibility on the line with each translation.

The types of documents that need sworn translations are all those that will be for official or legally-binging purposes. For courts, we translate summonses of English suspects, calls for witnesses and letters from children saying why they don’t want to visit their daddy anymore (which aren’t easy). We get requisitioned to interpret English drug smugglers, African stowaways and prostitutes with broken English. This is often very confrontational interpreting where the judge fires many quick questions and the suspects try to avoid answering them. It’s very hard, even with plenty of training. We are requisitioned for these jobs and can’t really refuse them and we do it for cap feathers as the state coughs up precious little.

For lawyers we translate summonses and judgements and everything in between. For notaries we translate powers of attorney, wills, deed polls, house sale contracts and much else. Some say too many transactions have to go through a notary in France. This does however make them traceable to an official source. I once had to refuse to translate an English will without a graphologist’s signature check because, with the old guy gone, there was nothing on the will to make it authentic except the countersignatures of two English police constables who were no longer to be found. Sometimes I think that if I had my life over I’d like to be a French notary, mind you they only keep a percentage of their fees; taxes snaffle the best part.

I met one of my favourite clients when he asked me to translate a power of attorney in order to sell his overseas property. Things were not easy but they worked out and we became good acquaintances. Now he even gets me to translate his letters for the doctor or for the post office.

For the Chambre de Metiers/Commerce and the URSSAF we get to translate previous English work attestations. Other work certificates, such as nursing qualifications need sworn translating for the Ministry of Health. Prefectures need sworn translations of overseas driving licences and I.D. papers, Town Halls need sworn translations of birth certificates for weddings, some also ask for medical check up translations.Embassies need sworn translations for resident visas, companies need official documents for overseas authorities and so the list goes on. When wanting to know if a document needs a sworn translation or not, the quick answer is that sworn translations are needed for official / governmental / judicial destinations.

Newcomers to France need to remember to bring the originals of every document that is even remotely likely to be necessary with them. Birth certificates, marriage papers, divorce papers and drivers’ licences are obvious, but if you want to stay in France also bring property documents, bank statements, professional attestations, car registration papers and so on. Even a recent police record is needed for naturalisation.

Reading this list you would think that we were swamped with work but that’s not the case. Most people only need one or two sworn translations in their lifetime and I for instance only translate very part-time. I hardly do ‘ordinary’ translations except for favourite clients.

All sworn translators can translate the above “everyday” official documents. On top of that, most translators have other interests (thank God) that have given them more than average knowledge in some speciality fields. For instance, loving carpentry and having enjoyed building my own house in France led me to seek property translations, which in turn taught me even more about them and their specific vocabulary. My interest in boats and the sea has led me to seek “marine” translations.

The price of a sworn translation is well above that of an ordinary translation. I had one English client who, at 80-something, had put off getting remarried in France because of the price of the necessary sworn translations. This was too much of a shame for me. I’d say that the actual translating time accounts for only half of our fee. First of all we occasionally get forgeries and so have to check all documental sources. Personally, I have received false English work attestations and that dubious will. I have contacted a South African University before translating a Doctor’s diploma and a Massachusetts registry before translating a birth certificate and of course university transcripts are a classic. Students going to an overseas university need sworn translations of all their degrees and transcripts which often aren’t signed by the university. In fact they need so many pages of sworn translations that I give them a student discount. But each time I need to get on the phone to authenticate the transcripts.

We are under penalty of perjury if we translate a forged or false document, so we have to do this checking, and we have to take out professional insurance to be defended in case of perjury. Basically we only translate from an original document (which we must see with our own eyes) and if we can’t find and check the source of an official document, we won’t translate it. It’s as simple as that.

This checking and responsibility take a good part of our fees, but taxes take more! Ongoing training to keep up with legislation changes takes some and sending documents to and fro by registered post also takes its toll as almost all my work arrives by registered post (unfortunately for my poor postie as I live down a long lane). That’s where the cost goes.

In order to find a sworn translator, you can contact me (let’s be honest) or ask for a list at your Town Hall, Tribunal or Court of Appeal. Many embassies also have us on their lists. The Court of Appeal that I am affiliated to has a list of sworn translators on its internet site; many other CA’s have the same. For example, to find me follow these steps : > professionnels > experts > liste des experts (alphabétique) > sélectionner un expert > RAWLINGSON Peter > lancer la récherche.

I get many three-question emails: Dear Peter, Can you translate my xxxx document for xxx reason? How much will it cost? Can you do it by yesterday?

I hope that this article has answered the first question. All sworn translators can translate everyday official documents, but specialist articles and contracts need specialist translators. The answer to the second question depends on the third question as well as on the length and difficulty of the translation. The answer to the third question is “no”.

Peter Rawlingson has been a sworn translator (traducteur assermenté) for 12 years. He is a New Zealander living with his family on Oléron Island. He translates all official and legal documents for all official and legal purposes, in France and overseas.




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