Certified Document Translation for Estate Planning and Probate Attorneys, and Finding Intent in a Foreign Language Will

When a will is written entirely in a foreign language or uses foreign words, issues of determining the testator’s intent may arise. According to the decision of Lowenthal v. Rome, a mere foreign language translation of the foreign language term is not enough to determine intent as the court has a duty to determine the testator’s intent by “looking at the language in the light of the surrounding circumstances.” 57 Md. App. 728, 471 A.2d 1102 (Ct. App. 1984).

In doing so, the court held that testimony as to the intent is inadmissible, although testimony as to the meaning of the foreign language words is admissible. In other words, a foreign language translation of foreign terms found in a will can be used as evidence for meaning but not intent. In its ruling, the court concluded, “a mere translation of words from one language to another in isolation is not determinative, but that meaning can only be derived from context and surrounding circumstances, including other dispositive instruments” (emphasis added). The court based its decision on the reasoning that a pure foreign language translation disregards the nuances the speaker brings to the foreign words and thus is insufficient without the offering of additional evidence.

One common way to add this additional evidence to show intent is to have the witnesses testify. However, even this can be problematic in the case of a foreign language will. For example, in order to be able to testify as to the testator’s intent, the witness must be shown to have understood the testator’s language and the meaning behind the used foreign language words. In re Levine’s Will. 1 Misc. 2d 221, 149 N.W.S.2d 653 (1956).

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