Translating Documents (Part Two)
Translating your genealogy finds can be rewarding. You can uncover new information to support prior research documents. As you continue your family research, you will find documents that you are unable to read because of the language or the handwriting style. Let’s look at ways to tackle deciphering older documents.
Sooner or later in your research, you will find yourself confronted with a key record of your ancestor, written in a language that is not familiar to you. If the information is typed, you are extremely lucky and can transcribe the information directly into an online translation tool. If not, then you will need to apply some additional translation tips.
Recently I’ve been working on translating documents written in French, German, Latin and Polish. Whew…thankfully not on all one document. Not a native speaker of any of these languages, it is a time consuming but rewarding effort. My first tip is to pick out the words that are easy to read as well as those names and dates that you can readily identify. Once you've done this, perseverance is needed to identify the rest. It becomes a word puzzle...the most words you can identify, the more information and understanding you'll garner from your document.
Regardless of the language you’re trying to translate and transcribe, there are resources available to help you. Enter the words you can identify in the language of the document in a translation program and have them translated to English. The context of the words will help you to better understand the content. It may not be perfectly translated grammatically since each language has its own nuances. I’ve used the Microsoft Translator but there are others. Here are a few that you may find useful.
If your document is handwritten, rather than printed text, the type of cursive used will make your translation a bit more challenging. There are many sites online that provide context and examples. Even English written in the 16th and 17th century is different from today’s English so researchers in those areas of the world have similar challenges.
Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting: A Translator's Tricks of the Trade for Transcribing German Genealogy Documents by Katherine Schober. I met the author and purchased this book at the National Genealogical Society Conference and have found it to have excellent suggestions and examples. It is available online at Amazon.
Check used bookstores local and online for other reference books such as this. A German/English dictionary (the languages of your choice) is also helpful. With so many resources available online here are a few.
Sutterlinschrift – Site with information on historic German writing styles and examples.
BYU-script –This website provides guidance on deciphering handwriting, alphabets and styles in documents.
Cyndi’s List - Handwriting –As always Cyndi’s List provides a quick way to find additional resources on languages and handwriting.
Norwegian Genealogical Word List - This site from FamilySearch Research Wiki provides Norwegian Genealogical Words as well as Norwegian handwriting.
English Languages –FamilySearch Research Wiki provides another wiki page with information on paleography with the history of how English has changed over the years.
Understanding Documents in the country your researching
A la French Genealogy –This site has many helpful tips if you have French ancestry. This specific page provides understanding French marriage records. I found it especially interesting because it breaks down the sections of a typical document and what information is included that as genealogists, we would find useful.
Understanding a German Church Entry Record –You can view labeled examples of Marriage and Birth records found in German records. Understanding the format helps you transcribe as you educate yourself on what to look for within specific documents.
Calabrian Genealogy –Here is an example of an Italian death record with the basic form translated and information related to the details you would usually find on such a record.
You can find similar sites dedicated to other languages—a quick Bing or Google search will provide you with options.
Ask for Help.
Sometimes a friend or a professional translator may be your best bet on a particularly tricky translation. As with most things, another pair of eyes is useful in transcribing hard-to-read documents regardless of the language.
I’ve heard that as writing cursive is no longer a requirement in many of our schools. Most children grow up typing on devices and some cannot read or write cursive. Whether this is widespread issue or not is up for debate. Perhaps in the future, those of us who can read and write in cursive will become the translators of great-grandma’s diary or letters home from the Civil War or even a thank you note from the twentieth century. As genealogists we might have an advantage as we continue to build our skills, reading and transcribing records from past centuries. Enjoy the challenge of deciphering those records!
“Words travel worlds. Translators do the driving.”
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.