Sworn Translations 101 – Everything You Need to Know

Created: Oct 8, 2020 | Updated: Nov 7, 2022

If you have ever had to supply documents that have some legal significance to a foreign government body, or an employer, you will soon discover the importance they attach to ensuring the documents are genuine. Documents that have ‘some legal significance’ could be anything from personal documents like professional qualifications, birth and marriage certificates to business or corporate documents and court documents. 

Sworn Translations

If you have been asked to provide these to anyone in a foreign country where the language is the same, e.g. if you are British, but are asked to provide legal documents to an Australian government agency, then the agency may ask to see the original documents or certified copies of them. Certified copies are typically photocopies of the original that have been certified by a lawyer or someone in the community who is trusted, e.g. a Justice of the Peace. It is becoming increasingly common for government agencies around the world to want more evidence of authenticity when important legal documents are checked.

The situation is made more complicated when a legal document is to be used in another country where the official language is different from that used in the document. How does a government agency in Italy or Indonesia, for example, know whether an original document in English is valid? In fact, it is general procedure for important documents to be professionally translated into the official language of the country for which the documents are to be used. Getting your documents translated by a professional translator, rather than your neighbour or friend, is also usually not enough to show that the documents are authentic, i.e. truly accurate versions of the original. Each country has its own rules for how a translated document should be presented.  The main methods used worldwide are:

  • sworn translations;
  • certified translations;
  • notarized translations:
  • some combination of the above.


What is a sworn translator?

A sworn translator is someone who has the authority to provide sworn translations of important legal documents that have been provided in a language which is not the official language of that country. Not every country has a system of sworn translators and sworn translations. It is quite common in Europe, so if you want to get a legal document translated from English to French, Spanish or Italian, for example, you would have to use a sworn translator based in France, Spain or Italy respectively. Many countries do not use sworn translators, such as the U.S.A., Australia and the U.K. They use other ways to authenticate translations.

Each country that has a system of sworn translators has an individually unique method of approving sworn translators. The term ‘sworn translator’ comes from the fact that at some point the translator must swear an oath before a national court. However, in some countries, the term “sworn translator’ simply means the translator swears before a court, or lawyer that the translation he/she has completed is a true version of the original. All sworn translations completed by sworn translators are accompanied by the signature of the translator and a stamp or seal certifying that it has been translated by a sworn translator. 

Sworn translators in most countries are only approved by the authority that regulates them to translate from one specific language into another. In some countries this may also mean that the sworn translator only translates from one specific foreign language into the official language of the translator’s country. 

Sworn translations are trusted by those agencies that require them because they trust the sworn translators who have translated them. Most professional translators never become sworn translators as they may specialize in fields of translation that have no legal value, such as website translation or technical translation. It is not easy to become a sworn translator so those who do are highly regarded and in great demand.


How does someone become a sworn translator?

There is no internationally agreed method of appointing sworn translators. Each country that uses this method of approving the authenticity of a legal document translation has its own way of approving its own list of sworn translators. 

In Spain, for example, professional translators must achieve accreditation with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (El Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y Cooperación). This involves an examination of their language ability, their ability to carry out translations or interpreting and their suitability to become sworn translators. Once they have been accredited, they receive the title of sworn translator (traductor jurado).

In France, people who have mastered another language and become professional translators may after gaining experience apply to the Public Prosecutor (Procureur de la République au Tribunal) at a district level High Court. Only a few translators are selected every year after a rigorous vetting period to be called to swear an oath at the Court of Appeal (Cour d’Appel). Sworn translators (traducteurs assermentés), once approved, can use their position to translate for government departments, organizations and private individuals requiring sworn translations.

In Italy, a sworn translator must apply to be registered as a certified translator of the Court. Once on the register, the translator must still swear an oath before the court that a translation they have made is a true and accurate version of the original. An apostille (see below) is normally attached to the translation.

In the Netherlands, the rules for sworn translators are laid down by the Sworn Interpreters and Translators Act (Wbtv). The register of sworn interpreters and translators is maintained by a government authority, the Bureau of Sworn Interpreters and Translators. Professional translators must first apply to get on the register, which involves character and translation ability checks and finally an appearance at the district court close to where the translator lives to swear an oath. 


The Apostille and the Hague Convention

The Hague Convention of 5th October 1961 simplified certification a lot by guaranteeing that all documents issued by the 51 members of the Convention were genuine. Because sworn translators have already sworn an oath before a court, any sworn translation they provide can be accompanied by an Apostille, basically a seal of legalisation together with a number of references attached specifying who the translator is, the author of the original document, etc.


Sworn Translations vs. Certified Translations and Notarized translations

To summarize what has been said so far, when many legal documents are translated into another language and used in a different country it is important that it can be trusted that they have been translated honestly and accurately. Each country has a different system of knowing whether a document translation is authentic. Some use sworn translations while others use certified or notarized translations. Unfortunately, when the term ‘certified translation’ is used, it doesnot mean the same in every country. Even where sworn translations are mandatory, the term ‘certified translation’ may still be used, because the sworn translator is the one who supplies a certificate with the translation!

In some countries, it is the translator who signs a ‘certificate’ that states that the translation they have supplied is a true and accurate version of the original. The onus is on the translator to be honest, as it is unlikely that any government official who gets a copy of the certified translation would know whether it was a genuine translation or not. In countries, like the U.S., which permit translators to certify their own translations, there are usually stiff fines or even imprisonment for translators who are found to be dishonest.

In other countries, like Australia, all legally significant translations must be translated by professional translators who have been accredited to the national accreditation body, NAATI. Like sworn translators have to do in Spain, there are exams that have to be passed before accreditation is achieved. All translations by a NAATI accredited translator must also be certified by the translator.

In a notarized translation, the translation, once completed, is taken to someone called a notary, often a lawyer or another person of standing in the community who is trusted. The translator signs an oath in front of the notary to say the translation is a true and accurate version of the original. In this case, the notary just relies on the honesty of the translator and has no idea whether the translation really is genuine. Again, there are likely to be severe repercussions for any translator who tries to ask for notarization for a badly translated or false translation.


When is a sworn or certified translation not needed?

Translation is an important and growing industry. Professional translators tend to specialize in one or another field of translation. Many translators do not necessarily have anything to do with documents that have any legal significance at all. For example, the following do not need to be authenticated and so do not need to be dealt with by sworn or certified translators. 

  • literary translation;
  • marketing translation;
  • audio and video translation;
  • app translation;
  • much business translation (except for things like business registration; certification; patents, etc.)
  • medical translation;
  • scientific and technical translation.

That does not mean they should not be translated accurately. It just means that the same level of trust and honesty isn’t necessary.


When are sworn or certified translations needed?

1.  All documents for immigration purposes 

Just about every country in the world makes foreigners fill in application forms if they want to visit, work or permanently migrate to their country. There is usually a raft of personal documents needed to support the visa or residence permit applications. These vary depending on the type of visa or permit. Examples of such documents may be passports, other i.d. documents such as national identity cards, birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates, criminal record clearance checks, character references, medical reports,

2. Documents for employment, e.g. qualifications, technical and /or professional accreditation, employment record, references, testimonials.

3. Documents for study

These may include ID documents (as for immigration above, proof of educational suitability for starting the course, such as previous qualifications attained, financial resources, proof of language ability.

4. Corporate and financial documents, such as patent applications, registration applications, balance sheets, business correspondence, business profiles, insurance appraisals, etc.

5. Administrative documents, e.g. drivers’ licenses, medical documents.

6. Court documents, such as sentences, appeals, court proceedings, etc.


The format of a sworn translation

The format of a sworn translation depends partly on the country where the sworn translator is based. Remember that not all countries require a sworn translation of an important legal document. For example, if you are Indian and are applying for a U.S. visa of some type, you wouldn’t use a sworn translator, because these are not the system used in the U.S. You would probably get any of your legal documents that have been requested that are in Hindi, or a regional Indian language to be translated by a professional translator in the U.S. who would certify the translations personally. If intended for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) the translator would probably get the translations notarized as well. 

If the same person, however, was applying for a Schengen visa for Italy or the Netherlands or a specific national visa, then the government would expect that a locally based sworn translator would translate all required documents. 

The sworn translator would first ask for the documents to be uploaded and sent to him / her. Then, the translation would be completed, and a certificate attached with the seal and signature of the translator. If the translated documents are to be used anywhere else in the E.U., an Apostille might also be attached. The translations would not need extra legalisation as they have been completed by an approved sworn translator.


Some examples of countries that require sworn translations:


How you should choose a sworn translator

You can see that getting legally significant documents translated for use by foreign entities is not a simple matter. It may be a mistake to rely on using a translation agency that has little experience of sworn translations or the requirements of specific countries. Many professional translators may be entirely suitable as translators and convert your documents into perfectly accurate translated equivalents, but if they are intended for use in another country there is no use ignoring that country’s legal requirements for translated documents. You can hardly blame the poor government officials or other office personnel who gets sent a whole bunch of translated documents. How do they know they are genuine and not complete fakes or have been ‘subtly adjusted’? Many countries have solved this problem by insisting on the use of sworn translators and the system certainly works. 

Do yourself a favour. If you have to get documents translated and you realize they are important, get in touch with Translayte. Translayte is a U.K. based translation agency that understands the importance of sworn and certified translations and has immediate access to a list of approved sworn translations in any country you need translations for. This will save you time and money and guarantee that your translations will meet the approval of the department or organization they have been requested for.

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