If you have tried to read Latin vital records, you know that it can really become a tangle. Not only are you dealing with a ‘dead’ language, but you also need to decipher old script, poor handwriting, and unfamiliar abbreviations. Let’s look at some ways to tackle this.
While Latin is still spoken in some situations today, there are no longer any native speakers of the language. It is likely that you will need to decipher Latin in vital records that were recorded by clergy. The good news is that there are sites that can help you to decipher. Here are a few:
Latin Genealogical Word List from Thoughtco
Latin Genealogical Word List from FamilySearch
Latin Numbers and Phrases from the manuscripts and special collections at Nottingham, UK.
Months and days in several languages is available on this page from Princeton University.
My Luxembourg ancestors have records that are written in Latin, German or French, depending on the timeframe of the record and who had control of Luxembourg at that time. I thought it would be fun to go through a record today to try to figure out what it is saying. I am not an expert on Latin by any means but perhaps my method will help you.
Here is an example of a record from the late 1700s written by the local parish priest.
At first glance there are not many words that jump out at a non-Latin speaker except for the names of the people involved. Like many records, we seem to have an eye for the names of our ancestors, no matter how garbled or hard to read the record can be. In this case I know that I’m reading a Roman Catholic death record and I recognize the names John Keyser and Susanna Huss, his wife. Death records tend to have a pattern. They usually include the date and year –all spelled out and the day of the week and hour and even morning, afternoon, or evening. In this case the priest is stating that he provided the last rites.
While I usually use Google translate or Microsoft translate, only Google has a specific Latin translation and frankly it wasn’t too helpful with entire sentences, but I did use it for individual words. The sites I listed with Latin genealogy words were quite useful for deciphering this document. Again, it depends on the document.
It is trial and error to see if you have spelled the Latin word appropriately so you can find the translation. I find that it helps to write out each word and fill in the blanks as you translate the words. It becomes a bit like a crossword with your hints being anchor words that you do know like the people involved, the place and the type of document.
Here is the result of doing that. Does it mean that the grammar is exact? No but you get the general gist of the document. I didn’t just look at this document but also the documents before and after it. This allowed me to decipher particular words where the writing was clearer, and the letters were easier to see. This is a good idea no matter what language the document is written in.
My next step will be to see if I can find this record in the Civil registrations. They are not always available in these early records but if they are, compare the information to see if there are differences or perhaps a troublesome phrase will be clarified. Hope you have fun deciphering Latin. It possible one word at a time!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.