I speak English. But I’ve spent 3/4 of my life learning–or at least dabbling in–other languages, including:
- a feeble attempt when I was a kid to learn French from some phonograph records we had around the house
- Latin, as a study hall elective in 7th and 8th grade (thank you, Mr. Rash, it DID help with learning Spanish!)
- Spanish–four years in high school, then two level 3 classes in college. I still periodically think to myself in Spanish
- German–three semesters in college, so I would know something of the language for genealogy. One semester, Spanish & German were back-to-back, so my Spanish prof heard “Ja!” and “Danke!” and the German prof heard “Sí” and “Gracías.”
- Italian–I have a MOOC class series that I need to find time for, but mostly I muddle through from the similarities with Spanish
- Gaelic–from a MOOC class. It’s beautiful, but even more annoying than French! Definitely still a work in progress
With German and Alsatian (which is its own language, and I do have a book for it) ancestors, German and French get more of a workout than the others. Sometimes Latin pops up in older Catholic records.
Unfortunately, the foreign language documents I find are not just in another language, they are in script in that language, so I have to struggle with the handwriting, as well as the translation. Remember the Kreuzebra, records? (Mother’s Day) There was a first name I could not decipher–until records a couple of years (pages) later, when the first letter was written differently. Then I realized it was my own first name I couldn’t read! That was embarrassing–and humbling.
Occasionally I play quick and dirty, merely picking out the name(s) and date(s). Since I already know what kind of record it is, extracting that basic information seems like an easy answer. It’s not always the best choice, because I risk missing important information. So I’ve learned (forced myself?) to go slower, just in case. I also make a point now of transcribing the original language, so I have that retyped, and the translation typed to correspond with it. With handwriting, it’s difficult enough to get through once. I’ve learned that the more I look at it, the easier it gets, but if I take a break and come back to it the following year, I am starting all over again. So the transcription saves me from redoing my work.
I like to save the entire page, rather than just the entry I’m looking at. Frequently there is a “formula” to how the information is recorded in the record. While the word in my record might be smudged, sloppy, or somehow unreadable, that same word in the entries before or after may be clearer, helping me transcribe (and then translate) mine. The same person usually wrote all of them, so it helps in getting used to their handwriting style.
If I had any doubts about whether it was worth all that work, those were put to rest with my 5th great grandfather, Georg (no “e” in the German name) Amberg (1723-1807). He was the great-grandfather of Catharine Gaertner (In the Census) and great-great-grandfather of my great-grandmother (Catharine’s daughter), Sophia (My Favorite Photo). It was 2015, and my 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Bell, and I were tag-teaming our way through Georg’s death record from 21 Dec 1807.¹
She found the record and started the task, smartly deciding to type it up so each line of translation ended when the handwritten line ended. It made keeping track of where we were MUCH easier! I think we inserted underscores where there was a word we didn’t know. She “picked the easy fruit” (same as I would have), and batted it over to me. I pulled out more words (colored type is a blessing) and sent it back. We ping-ponged the translation, layering more words on, and it started to make more sense.
It also became clear that I did NOT want to have to decipher the handwriting again, so I needed a transcription (a copy of the original) as well as a translation. I opened a blank Word document and started typing the actual text, continuing Donna’s idea of stopping at the end of each handwritten line. Below the German I typed the translation we’d arrived at, lining the words up with those above.
One concern was not seeing some form of the word “sterben”–German for “die”–or “toten” (“kill”). Those are the words I most often see in death records. Even with the difficult handwriting, those word shapes are pretty identifiable–and they were not there. There was an unrecognizable word, long, starting with a “v”. I tried guesses in Google Translate. I pored over my German dictionaries (yes, two!). I pulled out If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna M. Bentz, to unravel what the letters were. I looked at the other records that year, in case one was more readable than mine. Still no luck.
Finally I tried reverse engineering. I looked up “die” to see my options. Google had a lot of choices–none of them close. Back to the paper dictionaries. BINGO! The mystery word was “Verscheiden ist”–passed away, or deceased. Persistence finally paid off.
Was it worth all the effort to translate the entire record? I think so. We now have a document showing what we believe the German to be, and how we think that translates to English. And I threw notes at the end to explain a bit of how we arrived at our conclusions. If someone has a question or concern, it’s a good starting point, and we don’t have to start from scratch. I’m pretty sure next time I will start with the transcription document, just to save myself time, later on.
Are there people who do translations for you? Yes. But I like the exercise of working through it myself. I learn so much more. I might send my final translation to a native-speaking person to see if I got it right, but if I’ve made it easier for them, they may be more likely to take the time to check my work.
Foreign language records? Bring them on!
¹http://archives.bas-rhin.fr/detail-document/ETAT-CIVIL-C273-P1-R179131#visio/page:ETAT-CIVIL-C273-P1-R179131-1277382 [you need to scroll down and hit “accepter” to accept the terms of service to see the record(s)]