Raising the Stakes: Why You Should Use a Certified Translator

certified translator

To get the most accurate translation on your legal documents, you should get a certified translator.

But the word “certified” can mean different things in different jurisdictions. In the U.S., it becomes even murkier. Let me explain.

Just as someone who can cook doesn’t mean they’re qualified to be a chef, someone who is bilingual doesn’t mean they are qualified to be a translator (Inc., 2011).

Let’s take this a step further: just because translators are qualified doesn’t mean they are certified.

What Is a Certified Translator?

A certified translator has the credentials to render a professional translation. To get certified, a translator needs to pass a rigorous examination that tests their understanding of the complex linguistic and cultural disparities between specific language pairs.

It is also important to understand the distinction between a certified translator and a certified translation. A certified translation is a translated document that has a signed statement attesting to the accuracy and correctness of the translation. At minimum, that signed statement should include the following (ATA, 2020):

  • Statement showing the translator’s qualifications.
  • Statement affirming the accuracy of the translation.
  • Identification of the translated document and language.
  • Translator’s name, signature, and date.


Now, here’s the plot twist:

In the United States, anyone can certify a translation! There is neither such thing as a government-certified translator, nor an official certifying or accreditation body in the U.S.

Yet, many courts and legal proceedings require a translation to be certified by a professional translator. So how would a translator obtain the credentials to translate legal documents in the U.S.?

This is where the American Translators Association (ATA) comes in.

American Translators Association

While not a government organization, the ATA attempts to fulfill the role of an accreditation body in the U.S. They provide stringent certification exams with an average pass rate of 20%.

When working with an ATA-certified translator, you may request to receive translated documents accompanied by a certification statement stamped with an ATA-certified translator seal. This seal allows you to verify the certification status of the translator in the ATA directory.

According to Kevin Hendzel, the ATA spokesman, the “ATA certification is important as it constitutes validation of a translator’s skills by other top translators working in the same language pair.” (ATA, 2020).

Why Would You Need a Certified Translator?

There are several reasons you would want to get a certified translator—or at least, get your translations certified with an ATA seal.

The single most important reason to use a certified translator is to ensure your translated documents are accurate. Plus, legal proceedings and government agencies may require your translations to be certified.

The second reason is that both parties to a high-stakes dispute may agree to use only certified translations. One party might attempt to “raise the stakes” by using only ATA-certified translators, which would force the other party to use them as well. Some judges or arbitrators may even give more weight towards certified translations over those that aren’t certified.

Finally, what if you don’t use a certified translator?

You might find inconsistencies across your legal documents in terms of specific terminology, word choice, and shifts in tone. However, the consequences of a mistranslation can potentially be disastrous. In the extreme cases, mistranslations may actually influence outcomes of high-stakes disputes, as had occurred in a 2012 arbitration involving the Government of Ecuador.

When Certified Translations Are Required

Some government agencies will also require certified translations for procedures such as:

  • Applying for a visa
  • Obtaining a driver’s license
  • Claiming public benefits


There are some specific cases or documents that would require a certified translation in the U.S.:

  • Civil proceedings: divorce decrees, adoption documents, wills, trusts, contracts, and power of attorney documents.
  • Immigration proceedings: birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other documents required by the USCIS.
  • Criminal proceedings


Other documents below may also need certified translations:

  • University diplomas and transcripts
  • Bank statements
  • Insurance documents
  • Tax returns
  • Business documents including articles of incorporation, company contracts, and memorandums.


At this point, you might be wondering if it’s enough to notarize a translation done by someone who isn’t certified by the ATA. Unfortunately, translations themselves cannot be notarized. The notary can only legally acknowledge the identity of the translator signing the document, and is in no way qualified to check the quality of the translation itself.

This is why a certified translator is often necessary, even if you intend to notarize the translated document. A translator signing the certification statement in the presence of the notary would produce a translation that is both certified and notarized. However, it may be your choice to notarize the document or not, depending on your case’s requirements.

As you can see above, the list of legal proceedings and types of documents where certified translations are required is extensive, and continues to grow by the year. For this reason, we foresee certification statements of quality signed by ATA-certified translators as becoming the norm in the near future.

How to Find a Certified Translator

It can be difficult to find a certified translator or agency if you don’t know where to look. The most reliable way to get a certified translation is to use a translation agency that employs ATA-certified translators.

When looking for a translation agency, make sure you vet them properly using the following steps:

1. Ask them about their quality control processes and whether they employ editors or proofreaders. At least two or three linguists on a document will drastically reduce the chance of errors or typos, especially for legal and medical documents where accuracy is paramount.

2. Check whether they have the credentials, background experience, and subject-matter knowledge relevant to your specific case.

3. Finally, if you’re not sure about a particular vendor, ask them for sample translations and client references.

For more information about getting a certified translation on your legal documents, talk to us and get a custom quote.

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