Sworn translation

General information:

A sworn translation of a document is the legal equivalent of the original document for evidentiary purposes in a court of law. Sworn translators are people who have been accepted by the authorities as qualified to produce translations for official purposes, e.g. for emigration or immigration, documents that are used in court, educational certificates for purposes of study or work permits. The procedure for becoming a sworn translator involves being tested (either by a sworn translator of seven years’ standing in the relevant language combination or by SATI as part of its accreditation system), having a certificate in a specified form issued by your tester if they are satisfied of your ability, drawing up a set of specified documents for use in court, applying to the registrar at your local division of the High Court for a date and then appearing before a judge and being sworn in. One will then be issued with a certificate by the court, indicating that one has been accepted as a sworn translator; this allows one to practise as such and to have a stamp made that one can stamp on sworn translations.

Dispelling myths about sworn translation:

There is often a misapprehension, particularly among newcomers to the profession, that one has to be a sworn translator in order to work as a translator in South Africa. This is not true. Sworn translators do a particular type of work and sworn translations are required only for certain purposes. A sworn translation is sometimes informally called an “official translation” or a “certified translation”, but the correct term is “sworn translation”.

Simply having a document stamped and signed at a police station, by a commissioner of oaths or by a lawyer does not make it a sworn translation. A sworn translation must have been translated by a sworn translator. Even a translator who has been accredited by SATI cannot produce a sworn translation unless they have also been through the process to become a sworn translator. Although sworn translators do mostly legal translation, not all legal translators are sworn translators.

South African sworn translators do not have to be South African citizens, but do have to be sworn in in the High Court in South Africa. Sworn translations produced in South Africa are generally accepted all over the world. A South African sworn translator may not necessarily be able to work as a sworn translator outside South Africa, though they would need to ascertain what the local requirements are.

How to tell a sworn translator from an ordinary translator:

  • A sworn translator will ask to see the original documents or certified copies of the original documents. An ordinary translator will accept faxed or e-mailed versions of the original documents.
  • A sworn translator will provide the translation in hard copy. An ordinary translator might e-mail or fax the translation, or might provide only an electronic copy.
  • A sworn translator will stamp every page of the translation with an official-looking stamp. An ordinary translator will probably not stamp the translation at all.
  • A sworn translator will certify on every page of the translation that it is a “true translation of the original” and will date and sign each page. An ordinary translator might provide a declaration and signature on a separate page only, if at all.
  • A sworn translator will add their stamp and signature to a translation done by someone else only after having scrutinised it very, very carefully. An ordinary translator might be willing to certify a translation done by someone else based on the other person’s reputation alone or without careful checking of the translation itself.

Prospects for sworn translators:

The market for sworn translators is limited. Government departments require sworn translations of certificates (birth, death, marriage, divorce, etc.) when assessing migrants or adjudicating disputes between local and overseas companies. Courts of law may require sworn translations for various purposes. Sworn translations of wills are required in the settlement of estates.

The responsibility of hiring a sworn translator usually lies with the individual persons involved, and not with the departments or courts that require the translation. A freelance sworn translator’s clients are therefore usually private individuals with once-off translation needs.

Becoming a sworn translator:

In addition to the characteristics of ordinary translators, all good sworn translators have the following key characteristics:

  • A knowledge of the South African legal system.
  • A knowledge of the legal systems of countries in which the other languages in which they work are used.
  • Pedantic attention to detail.
  • Honesty and integrity.

Preparation to become a sworn translator:

The SATI manual on sworn translation is available for sale to SATI members only. Aspirant sworn translators can contact SATI to find existing sworn translators for mentoring. SATI also offers accreditation for purposes of becoming a sworn translator that is recognised by the High Court of South Africa. Both South Africans and non-South Africans may become sworn translators. The swearing-in ceremony must take place in the High Court in South Africa. A sworn translator is sworn for a particular language combination. A translator sworn for English-French is not necessarily also sworn for French-English. Translators wishing to provide sworn translation in both directions have to be tested and sworn for each language combination separately. Bear in mind that although many countries have sworn translators, they all have their own regulations, and South African sworn translators may not be recognised in other countries.

Sworn translation versus ordinary translation: 

The strategy used in sworn translation is different from general translation. General translations have a strong communicative function, and the translator must make the text more accessible to the reader. In sworn translation, however, the translator must not attempt to improve on the source document or try to adapt it to a specific audience.

Since a sworn translation is done for legal purposes, the translation should be clearly recognisable as the same document, with all the information as in the original, even if some of it seems unnecessary or repetitious. Sworn translators assume that every word and every nuance has a purpose, and reproduce the content, every signature, every stamp in the way they appear on the original.

Types of documents needed to be translated by a sworn translator: 

The list below gives examples of the types of documents that sworn translators may be called upon to translate. This is only a small selection, but illustrates the variety of work a sworn translator has to deal with.

  •     Birth certificates
  •     Death certificates
  •     Wills
  •     Marriage certificates
  •     Orders of divorce
  •     Educational certificates
  •     Contracts
  •     Company articles of association
  •     Patents
  •     Constitutions
  •     Affidavits
  •     Forensic reports
  •     Medical reports