5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Genealogy Translation

Genealogy can be an exciting journey, full of intriguing discoveries and amazing breakthroughs. But true genealogists know that the search for your ancestors can also mean long hours, brick wall after brick wall and months or even years of frustration. So by the time you finally get your hands on an ancestor’s document, you want to make sure to get the most out of your find. But what if this document needs translation? How can you make sure that your translator deciphers all that he/she can? Below, I’ve compiled my top tips for getting the most out of your genealogical translation: 

  1. Even if you only want a few lines translated, send the translator the entire document.

If you would like to have a part of a record translated (one church book entry, one section of a certificate, one page of a letter, etc.), you should still send your translator the entire document or all the pages you have on hand. Why? This provides a much greater sample of the scribe’s handwriting for the translator to work with. Just as my handwriting differs from yours, no two handwriting samples of the past are exactly alike – so the wider the handwriting sample, the easier the deciphering becomes for us translators. 

For example, I recently translated a record where I could not figure out the first letter of a last name – it looked a little like a V, but then had a strange cross through it. I scanned the rest of the record, but saw no more occurrences of that odd-looking letter. Fortunately, however, the client had sent me three pages from the same church book where her record appeared, and I finally found that odd-shaped letter in a first name, before the letters  “_osina”. As “Rosina” would very likely be the only name with that letter combination, I could now see that my mystery letter must also be an R – but it took three pages of handwriting samples to find it!

 In this last name, I could read the letters “eusch”, but that first letter was a mystery. After searching through other pages, I was able to identify it as an “R”, which the client then confirmed with additional records.

(Extra Tip: To save the translator time (and you money!), highlight or clearly describe which part of the record you would like translated).

  1. Scan your document in a high resolution.

Documents should be scanned in as high of a resolution as possible before you send them to your translator. Why? In the old German script, it is very important for us translators to be able to zoom in on the individual letters. Many letters look very similar to one another (see Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting for some clues on how to tell these letters apart), and we need to be able to zoom in to see the individual lines and strokes to distinguish certain letters from one another (without the document becoming blurry when we do this).  This allows us to provide you with accurate results and spellings throughout your translation, as well as finish the translation in a much more timely manner. We look at tiny little letters all day long – you, and you alone, can save our eyes!

  1. Send any genealogical information that you already know to the translator.

You have likely done a bit (or perhaps a lot) of genealogical research before sending your record off to be translated. If so, tell us what you know – it greatly helps! Names can sometimes be difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no grammatical context clues to fill in the blanks. But if a client has already done the research, and knows that this is a church record for his great-great grandmother Walburga Appenzeller in Unteraarmühle, this saves a lot of time in terms of letter-comparison and squinting at individual lines and dots! That being said, a good translator will always double-check a name and let you know if the word looks different from the word you provided – sometimes there are surprises!

  1. Tell the translator exactly what the translation is for.

Is your translation for publication? Are you making a family book? Is it a birthday or Christmas present? Or do you simply need the information on the record for your notes and research? Make sure you communicate with us translators exactly what your translation will be used for and how you would like the finished product delivered. For example, I often include footnotes in my translations if I find any additional information that you may find interesting (does your ancestor’s record mention a battle? I would then provide information about when and where that battle took place in the footnotes). People who have reviewed my work usually enjoy the footnotes, but perhaps you want this translation to be a bit more formal, and you don’t want my thoughts in your final product – which would be absolutely fine with me. A happy client equals a happy translator, so don’t be afraid to communicate what you want.

  1. Share your genealogy excitement with your translator.

We genealogical translators are usually avid history lovers and enjoy solving puzzles as much as you do – so that means that we are thrilled to hear about your genealogical breakthroughs once you receive the translation. I get so excited when my clients tell me that the translation helped them to find a name they’ve been searching for for years, or that their family member started crying when they opened the translated diary of their grandmother they never got to meet (well, not necessarily the crying part, but the fact that the translation meant so much to them!). These are my favorite e-mails to receive, and it makes my work feel so much more meaningful. This shared experience then helps to strengthen the client-translator bond, and we will both look forward to working together the next time as we fill in your family tree. Happy researching!

 

 

 

Six Need-to-Know “Letter Swaps” When Deciphering Your German Documents

“Why do you write your letters like that?” is a phrase that most of us have heard at some point in our lives. Just as each of us write our ABCs slightly differently from one another, so too did our ancestors – which can make transcribing their German handwriting rather difficult! Luckily, for those of us who work with the old German script on a daily basis, there is a great trick of the trade that helps with the daunting process of deciphering family documents: letter swaps. What is a letter swap, you ask? Well, some letters in the old German script look very similar to one another, and the way one person wrote one letter may be the way another person wrote its “swap” equivalent. So if a word isn’t making sense with the letter you think, trying replacing it with one of its “substitutes”, and see if you now have a plausible German word. Read below for the typical “swaps” in the world of German handwriting:

 

  1. h-s-f
               

While the lowercase letters h, s, and f above  are obviously different from one another in their proper form, they can often look similar to each other when quickly scrawled out by our ancestors.

s-c-h-r-i-f-t-l-i-c-h (“schriftlich”, or written)

Observe how the middle “f” and final “h” look similar (although if you look closely, you will see differences!)

*The letter “s” actually has three different forms, but this “s” is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or syllable. See Ten Tips for Deciphering German Handwriting for more information on the letter “s”.

 

  1. g-p

       

Lowercase g and p, with their circles above the line and their loops below, can often be confused for one another.

                                                                

g-e-n-s (the end of the word Morgens, or in the morning)                  s-p-ä-t (spät, or late)

  1. a-o

           

Lowercase a and o can look similar if the author does not bring his final line of the “a” down to the line, as seen in the word “amtlich” below. 

            

a-m-t-l-i-c-h (amtlich, or official)                S-o-n-t-a-g (misspelling of the word Sonntag, or Sunday)

  1. e-n-m-r

For the exact differences of e-n-m, see Tip #2 on my Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting. Basically, the “e” (first sample) is more narrow, the “n” (second) is more jagged and spread out, with three points at the bottom, and the “m” (third) has four points. The “r” (final letter) should look different from these three, but if you look at the “n” (second), you can see how the “n” and the “r”, and even the “r” and the “e”, might sometimes look similar in actual handwriting.

        

e-r-z-ä-h-l-e-n      m-ü-ß-e-n (erzählen müßen, or must tell)         s-c-h-r-e-i-b-e-n (schreiben, or to                                                                                                                                 write)

  1. N-ST

Uppercase N and St can look similar if the author does not clearly cross his “t”. See the example of Nachmittag (afternoon) and Stunde (hour) above.

6. B-C-L

Uppercase B, C, and L can also look very similar to one another, depending on the author at hand. See the examples of Brief (letter), Christine, and Liebe (love) above to see how similar the letters can look (especially B and L).

If you would like more tips on learning how to actually tell these letters apart, see my post on Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting. I would also recommend Roger Minert’s book Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, which was instrumental to me when getting started in the field. But if you are not interested in learning these minute differences, or if it just seems too complicated and overwhelming, the above “letter swaps” should help if you cannot figure out the German word your ancestor or the church scribe wrote on your document. For example, if a “g” is not making sense, try swapping it out for a “p.” If you know there needs to be a vowel at a certain place in a word, but the letter looks like an “n”, now you know it is likely an “e”. The same goes for all the above letter combinations. Best of luck in transcribing, and, as always, if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here.

5 Secret Transcription Tips from a German Genealogy Translator

You’ve climbed up your family tree. You’ve located your German ancestor in Germany. And you’ve finally gotten your hands on those German records. Excited, you go to work with them….only to realize they are written in old German script*, a script even most native German-speakers cannot read today. What to do? Well, if you don’t want to deal with the translation yourself,  you can always contact a professional (I’d be happy to be of service). But some of you may want to give it a go on your own first.  And for that reason, I’ve compiled a list of five of my favorite transcription hacks that I use myself when translating. Read below to find out more!

*For more tips and information on transcribing German handwriting, see Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting.

1. Change your Microsoft Word language to German (For instructions on how to do so, see here.)

Changing your “Spelling and Grammar Check Language” to German in Microsoft Word can be very helpful when transcribing German genealogy documents, especially if you don’t know German yourself – after all, the grammar check will actually tell you if your words are real German words or not!  For example, if you type in the letters you think you recognize from a word in your document, Microsoft Word will underline it in red if it does not exist in German. You can then right-click on the word to see suggestions of what the word could be. Type these into a dictionary, and see if any make sense within your genealogy document.

In the example below, perhaps the handwritten word looks like “G-e-b-u-r-l” to your eyes. You then type this into Microsoft Word, and see that it is underlined in red – meaning that it is likely not a German word. You then right-click on the word, and see five possibilities of what this word could be. You realize that it must be the first word on the list  – “Geburt”, which means “birth.” Satisfied, you continue transcribing!

Word of Warning: Our ancestors and other scribes often misspelled many words in their documents. Just because you have a red line under a word does not mean you transcribed it incorrectly. However, the “right-click list” can provide you with options for what the word could actually be (For common spelling mistakes our German ancestors made, see Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents). It is also important to note that many words that were common hundreds of years ago are no longer common today, and Microsoft Word may mark these as incorrect as well. Woerterbuchnetz.de is a great dictionary for old-fashioned German words. 

2. Let Google Search do the work for you.

Google’s search engine can make your transcription work much easier! Simply type your transcription guess into Google and see what happens. If many search results appear, this means you are very likely correct in your transcription (of course, it’s important to read the results to make sure that they correspond with your document’s meaning). However, if you have one or more letters wrong, Google may actually suggest the correct word for you. 

In a recent document  I translated with rather difficult handwriting, I was relatively positive that the handwritten word looked like “Mariengemeinde S-e-h-l-o-s-kirche” (Marien Parish Sehlos Church). However, since I knew “Sehlos” did not make any sense, I typed the phrase into Google to see what would come up. Sure enough, Google suggested “Mariengemeinde Schlosskirche” (The Castle Church of Marien Parish) which made much more sense and actually existed in that area. Thanks Google!

 

3. Use Wordmine.info.

Wordmine.info is my favorite website for transcribing.  Once you have identified as many letters at the beginning or the end of a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. Then go to Wordmine.info, and choose either or “Words beginning with” (Wörter beginnend mit) or“Words ending with” (Wörter mit Endung) and type in the first or last letters of the word you are deciphering. Press “Suche” (Search) and a list of German words with that beginning or ending will appear. Hundreds of results? Check the box “Anzahl der Buchstaben” (Number of Letters) and fill in the number of letters that you think are in the word (I always do one more and one less than I actually think, just to be on the safe side – you never know with handwriting!). Check the words against your handwritten word, and hopefully you find a match!

Above, I recognized the first letters as “Scheu”, but the final two were just a scribble. I typed these letters into WordMine, along with the approximate number of letters, and then realized that my word must be “Scheune”, or “barn”, based on the word and context of the letter.

4. For town names, use Meyers Gazetteer.

The Meyers Gazetteer website is a wonderful collection of pre-World War I German cities, towns, villages and more (so yes, for all of you with ancestors in present-day Poland, France or other areas that used to be part of Germany, your ancestor’s town is likely included!). If you know from the context of the document that a word is likely a town name, but can’t recognize all the letters, type the first few or the last few into Meyers Gazetteer’s search engine, using a * for the letters you can’t read. The website then provides a list of possible places with that letter combination – check their locations and spellings, and see if it matches your word and region. Hopefully you find a match!

Here, the beginning of a list of German locations ending in “tenheim”.

5. Skip the word you can’t read and continue transcribing.

This may sound simple, but it has helped me many times when transcribing documents. If I have spent a few minutes on a word and just cannot figure it out, I simply skip it, marking it with “—” in my document to come back to later. I then continue transcribing, and, more often than not, the word becomes clear in a few minutes – either from the context of the rest of the paragraph, or, if I am lucky, from another occurrence of the same word later in the document. Oftentimes seeing the same word twice or even three times will provide clarity to letters that looked unclear before. 

So there you have it! I hope these tips and hacks will help you in transcribing your genealogical documents. And if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here. Happy transcribing!

 

 

 

Before You Cross the Pond: Five Places to Find Your Ancestor in America

Number One Rule in Genealogy: Start with what you know, and document, document, document! Although you may think you know the name of your immigrant ancestor, expert genealogists say you should never start off with looking for him or her in Europe – instead, start with yourself (after all, who do you know better?) and go back from there,  generation to generation, documenting your sources along the way. 

Why all this work? Well, you may think your immigrant ancestor was Wilhelm Müller from Germany, but do you know how many Wilhelm Müllers existed? You need to be 100% sure you are looking for your Wilhelm – in the exact right time frame and geographical region – so as not to waste your time doing another person’s research! Even those less common names were more common than you might think. But where to start? Below, a list of 5 great places to find your ancestors in America before your cross the pond:

  1. Home Sources

Looking in your basement, your attic (or another relative’s basement and attic) can often turn up genealogical treasures. Letters and diaries of family members are amazing sources of information, and you never know what your grandma or grandpa ended up saving. Old photographs can provide you with clues – turn them over, and you may find names and ages of the subjects on the back. You may also find the studio where the photograph was taken, a great hint for where to continue your genealogy search. Family bibles can also be great sources – birth, marriage and death dates would often be written inside the front cover. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, people – go find your oldest living family member now and ask to interview them. Talk to them about their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles and their family stories. Besides giving you information for your genealogical search, hearing stories from the past is just plain interesting! I recently interviewed my own grandmother and learned about her life growing up in the 1930s. Check out her story Fly Soup, German Spies and Stolen Blue Jeans: A Glimpse into the 1930s with Grandma, here.

These photos were found in my grandmother’s house. If we turn them over, we can see the name of a photo studio on the back (This studio is in Germany, but the same could be true for American photos.)

  1. Vital Records and Church Records

 Vital records and church records can provide a great deal of information about your ancestors’ lives. Vital records offer birth, marriage and death dates, while church records provide this information and possibly more (sacraments). Where can you find these records? To name just a few places:

(If you are looking for a translation of the common vital records from Germany, I am now offering downloadable birth, marriage and death certificate translation templates, complete with the German transcription and English translation of all printed words on the form, in my online shop.)

  1. Census Records

The census has been taken every ten years in the US since 1790. Because of privacy laws, the most recent census available is the 1940 census. The census can provide you with treasure troves of information, including your ancestor’s name, family members’ names, ages in that year, immigration year, occupation, language spoken and more. Where can you find census records?

This 1920 census from Missouri offers information about my great-great-grandfather. It was found on familysearch.org.

  1. Ethnic Newspapers

When our ancestors moved to America, they often formed German-speaking communities in order to feel like they had a bit of their homeland in their new country. These communities often had their own newspaper, reporting on the events and stories relating to their community members. A newspaper from your ancestor’s community might mention your ancestor, along with a piece of information you might known have known about him or her – perhaps an address, a parent’s name, a siblings name, etc. Check out great collections of ethnic newspapers at:

Westliche Post was a German-speaking newspaper published in St. Louis. It can be found at the St. Louis County Library.

  1. Passenger Lists

New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore were all ports of entry for our ancestors coming to the US. Their passenger lists can provide you with your ancestor’s birthplace, the date they arrived in America, the name of the ship they traveled on, their occupation, a description of how they looked, their most recent place of residence, and more – a wealth of information for the interested genealogist. Where can these lists be found?

These are just a few ideas of where to start looking for your German ancestor. Other sources (naturalization records, military records, etc). can also help you in your genealogy quest. And once you make it back to your immigrant ancestor and are ready to cross the pond, feel free to contact me here for any German language translation you may need for those documents. Happy hunting!

Source: 

The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide, by James Beidler

Image Credit:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/5_2.html

What Did You Do For a Living, Ancestor?: Common Occupations in German Genealogy

“What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask someone upon meeting. Our occupation defines us, showcasing our interests and illustrating how we spend our time. And just as this is true in the twenty-first century, so too was it for our ancestors (although they perhaps had less choice in the matter than we do – there likely weren’t many Uber drivers back then). 

My ancestor was a “Pfarrer” (priest/pastor)

But where do you find your ancestor’s occupation? Luckily for you, it’s not too difficult. The occupation of your ancestor is almost always right before his name in a document (marriage certificate, death certificate, church book, etc.). For example, a certificate might read “The baker Johann Schmidt, born February 5, 1880…”, with baker (Bäcker) preceding the name of the person mentioned.  In the marriage certificate below, we can see the name Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt (beginning on the second line). If we look at the word before the name Friedrich (last word, top line), we see the occupation Schuhmachermeister, meaning that Friedrich was a master shoemaker.

This leads us to the levels of occupations, which were also important for our ancestors. 

Occupation levels included:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In his earlier life, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was likely a Schuhmachergeselle, or journeyman shoemaker.

So what occupations were common in the past? Below, find a list of the most common occupations (in my translating experience) for men and women in German genealogy. For an extensive list, Edna Bentz’ book If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records offers several pages of German occupations of the past, as well as a sample of how the occupation would have looked in the old handwriting (along with its English translation). 

Common Occupations for Men:

Arbeiter worker, laborer
Bauer farmer
Gastwirt (Gastwirth)/Wirt innkeeper
________händler __________ dealer/trader/merchant
Maurer bricklayer
Metzger butcher
Müller miller
Schmied blacksmith
Schneider tailor
Schreiner cabinet maker, joiner, carpenter
Schuhmacher shoemaker, cobbler
Tagelöhner day laborer
Tischler cabinet maker, furniture maker, carpenter
Tuchmacher cloth maker
Weber weaver

Common Occupations for Women:

Dienstmädchen maid, servant girl
Dienerin servant (female)
gewerblos/ohne Gewerb no occupation
Hebamme midwife
Krankenschwester nurse
Näherin seamstress

3 Reasons Why a Family Tree is Important for Your Children: Guest Post by Suzie Kolber

 

Suzie Kolber created Family Tree Templates to be the complete online resource for “do it yourself” genealogy projects.  The site offers the largest offering of free printable blank family tree charts online. The site is a not for profit website dedicated to offering free resources for those that are trying to trace their family history.

 

Tracing your family’s roots, even just a few generations back, can be a challenging experience. That being said, it’s definitely worth the effort – a family tree can profoundly impact your child’s life for years to come. Here are three reasons to create a family tree for your kids:

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in World History

For a lot of kids, history is just a boring subject at school. It’s a list of facts about things that happened a long time ago, and kids are all about now and the future. However, when you study your own family history, it helps put things in perspective for your children.

Perhaps you have a great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War or a great-great-uncle who was a soldier in World War I. Suddenly, these aren’t just stories about people who are long dead. They are stories about your own flesh and blood. The soldiers who marched through intense heat and freezing cold aren’t strangers; they’re family. Learning about American or world history is a lot more fun if you’re involved in some way – and knowing your family tree can help bring history to life. 

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in Their Own Background

When kids learn about their own family tree, it helps them understand more about who they are. They can see that their red hair and freckles go all the way back to great-great-grandmother Bonnie. Or perhaps your child is the only short person in the family – but so was great-great-great-grandmother Alice. Now they’re no longer alone.

Learning about their family history can help children develop a better sense of who they are and why they look and act the way they do. It also enhances their feeling of stability and security as they see they are part of something bigger than themselves.

  1. It Helps Them Remember People Who are Important to the Family

As children grow up, family members pass away. They may forget what great-aunt Anna looks like or how grandfather Bill laughed. While you can tell stories about family members who died when the kids were young or even before they were born, these stories become more meaningful if they can be placed in correct association.

For example, say your grandfather was one of eight children. Your child may only know or remember two or three of them. Without a family tree to help them keep track of who was who, other people’s names  lose their meaning and place over time. With a family tree, when Grandpa talks about Uncle Phil, your kids will understand exactly who he means and pay more attention to those stories. Instead of just words, they will be able to imagine their granddad as a boy, sitting on Uncle Phil’s lap and listening to his funny jokes.

You don’t have to create an extravagant or complicated family tree for it to be of value to the kids. A simple diagram will work wonders to help them make the right connections. However, the more information you can add (including photos!) will help them remember who this person was and why they are part of the family. 

 

 

Top 25 Milestone Words for Finding Your German Ancestor

Birthdays. Weddings. Funerals. While our German ancestors may have lived hundreds of years ago, the life milestones we deem important today held similar significance to our relatives in the past. For us family historians, using these milestones can be extremely helpful in piecing together our ancestors’ life stories. But what if you don’t speak German?

Below, I’ve gathered together a list of 25 of the most important milestone words in German genealogy. The German word is on the left, followed by the English translation on the right. An example of the word in the old German handwriting (Kurrentschrift) is also provided.* Knowing these German words, along with a bit of the old German handwriting, can be a great help in deciphering German records and discovering the mysteries of the past (and if you would like a professional genealogy translation, you can always contact me here).

* Keep in mind that handwriting varied by person, place and time, so the handwriting sample is only provided to give you an idea of how the word might look. See Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting for more information. 

25 Milestone Words in German Genealogy 

1. Geburt:                                              birth

2. geboren:                                           born; also means née when before a last name

3. Kinder:                                                children

 

4. ehelich:                                             legitimate

5. unehelich:                                       illegitimate

6. getauft:                                                 baptized

7. Taufe:                                                    baptism

8. konfirmiert:                                     confirmed

9. ledig (led.):                                        single, unmarried

10. verlobt:                                               engaged

11. Ehe:                                                      marriage

12. Hochzeit/Trauung:                       wedding

13. geheiratet/verehelicht/getraut:    married (as in the action “The man married the woman.”)


14. verheiratet:                                       married (as in the state of being married, “He is married”)

15. Frau/Ehefrau/Gattin/Weib*:      wife

*This word is related etymologically to our English word “wife.”

16. Mann/Ehemann/Gatte:              husband


17. Zeugen:                                              witnesses

18. Eltern:                                                 parents

19. Wohnort:                                            place of residence

20. geschieden:                                      divorced

21. Witwe:                                                 widow

 

22. Witwer:                                               widower

 

23. gestorben:                                       died



24. Tod:                                                      death

25. Begräbnis/Beerdigung:              funeral or burial

 

 

 

 

20 Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

Author’s Note: If you are interested in more tricks for deciphering old German handwriting, check out my new book on the topic, available on Amazon!

Researching your German ancestors? If so, I bet you have come across that spidery German handwriting, so beautiful yet elusive to our 21st-century eyes. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Below are 20 tips (combined, for your convenience, from my popular posts Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting and Ten More Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting) to help you put together the puzzle pieces of your past. And as always, if you would like the help of a professional German genealogy translator, contact me here. I would love to hear from you.

Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

1. Identify letters by the clues they offer. While deciphering old handwriting can feel like solving an incredibly difficult puzzle, the letters themselves often provide nice little clues for us. For example:

*   “h” has a loop both above and below the line. It is easily identifiable in the word “Tochter” (daughter) below.

h tochter

*   “u” has a little “swoop” (my non-technical term) above it and “i” has a dot above it. Word of warning: sometimes the swoop or the dot can be slightly to the right of the actual letter itself. Notice also how everyone’s “swoops” can be slightly different, as seen in the real-life example of the word “gut” (good) below.

u i Kurrentschrift, old German handwriting

*   A straight line above a letter can mean that it is an “n” or an “m” and that there should be two of them. For example, “kommen” (to come) would likely be written with one “m” with a straight line above the letter. Word of warning: Sometimes the “u-swoops” are written as straight lines. Umlauts can be written as straight lines as well.

denn es

This example reads “den es” with a straight line above the “n”, which results in “denn es” (because it).

2. Use your insider information to differentiate between the letters that are agonizingly similar. Although I’m sure the inventors of Kurrentschrift weren’t trying to cause problems for 21st-century readers, they made some of those letters very, very similar to one another. However, if you are familiar with their subtle differences, you can beat the system.

*   “e” and “n”: The “n” (left image below) is written as one unit in a single stroke, while the “e” (right image) is written with two strokes. The “n” is more jagged-looking than the “e”, while the “e” is usually written as a more narrow letter. Notice how the “e” is more narrow than the “n” in the real-life image of “denn” above.

n e

*   “n” and “m”: My trick for distinguishing between “n” and “m” in a word is to count the points at the bottom of the letter. The “n” has three total points at the bottom, while the “m” has four. This sounds obvious, but when you have a word with “en” or “em”, all these letters start to look the same. It helps me to identify the “e”, separate it off from the rest of the word with a line, and then count the points at the bottom of the next letter to see how many there are. In the example below, the word is “mein” (my). You can identify the “m” at the beginning of the word by counting the four points at the bottom and the “n” at the end by noticing the two points after the “i.”

n m mein

3 . Love your letter “S”. Although “s” can be quite tricky, as there are at least three different ways to write it, it is usually pretty easy to identify as each version is somewhat unique from the other letters in the alphabet (none of this e-n-m difficulty).

s

These three letters above are all “s”. The first letter shown is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or a syllable (i.e. in “schreiben” – to write). The second “s” is used at the end of a syllable/word (i.e. in “es”- it). The final is the capital “S”, used for nouns (always capital in German) and names. See the word “es” in the example of “denn es” in Tip 1.

4. Know your abbreviations. If you come across a letter or two all by themselves, it could easily be an abbreviation. This website allows you to type the German abbreviation into its search machine to see what the German word could be. A very common example in genealogical documents is “u.” for “und” (and).

5. Keep your mind in the past. By this I mean – don’t let your brain automatically read the letters as it would a modern-day document. Many of the letters in Kurrentschrift look similar to our cursive today, but are not actually the same letter. It is easy for your mind to simply read them as the letter you learned in school, but don’t give in! The most difficult for me at the beginning was constantly thinking an “e” was an “n”.

6. Play hangman. Once you have identified as many letters in a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. With your knowledge of the context or of the German language, see if you can figure out what the missing letters are. I also find this website, WordMine.info, very helpful. It allows you to type in either the beginning or end of the word and then provides you a list of all the possible German words with those exact beginnings or endings.

FullSizeRender

In this example, I filled in the letters I recognized one by one, until only the tricky letter at the beginning was left. It was then obvious that this word must be “Geburtsschein” or “birth certificate.

7. Forget all you know about writing rules. Punctuation? Who needs it? Writing one word on one line? Not for our ancestors! Many historical writers simply did not use periods or commas. While this usually doesn’t make handwriting transcription too difficult, the lack of line rules does. What do I mean by that? In a letter or document, a word may start on one line, and then, without a dash or any type of punctuation, simply continue onto the next line. So if the letters at the end of the line do not seem to be forming any type of word, remember to look to the next line to see if the word continues there.

8. Google, google, google. I can’t imagine translating without it. With the possibility of old fashioned words in historical documents, you may not recognize every word you come across. If you aren’t exactly sure of your transcription, try typing variations of the word into Google search to see which version most frequently appears in other texts and see if they make sense within your document and for your current transcription. The same can be true for last names. Deciphering names can be difficult because there is no context to tell you if you are right or wrong. Try typing the name you think it could be into Google and see if other examples come up. If not, you probably have a letter wrong. This website is also a great tool, showing you the frequency of a last name in the different regions of Germany.

9. Become geographically-inclined (or just use Google Maps). If you know from the context of the document that a certain word is a city or district, but aren’t sure of the exact letters, use Google or Google maps to see if you can find a city that matches your possible transcription in the area where your document is from. The Google auto-correct “Did you mean….” is often very helpful.

10. Always let the document be your guide (Jiminy Cricket’s second piece of advice).

jiminy

Everyone’s handwriting is different, and a certain letter from an 1890 birth certificate may look completely different from the same letter in a World War II military record. If you are able to identify a letter in your current document, remember it, and then look for other occurrences of the same letter throughout the text. I recently translated a letter in which the “s” looked like our modern “r” (I know, I know, I said the “s’s” were easy-they usually are). Once I realized this was an “s” based on my hangman type game, I was able to easily identify other “s’s” in the document and therefore many other words.

11. Get hip with the lingo. Letter writers of the past often used the same phrases over and over in writing, just as we do in English today (“Thank you for your e-mail”, “Attached please find”,  etc.). Being familiar with these common phrases helps in transcribing the old handwriting, as it allows you to better recognize the rest of the sentence. Some phrases that you might find in historical German letters include:

Ich habe deinen Brief erhalten/bekommen. I have received your letter.
Seid herzlich gegrüßt. Literally: Be greeted affectionately.

English: We send you all our warm regards.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. A German Saying: “What God does is well done”
Vielen herzlichen Dank. Many warm/heartfelt thanks.
Wir sind alle gesund. We are all healthy.

As discussed above, abbreviations also appear frequently in old German documents. The most common abbreviations include: “d.”, meaning “den” (the) before a date, as in “d. 2te February (the second of February), “u.” for “und” (and), and “geb.” for “geboren”, meaning “née.” For more help with German abbreviations, check out the post 19 Most Common Abbreviations in German Genealogy.

 12. Master the tiny details of the letters.  In tip number two, we discussed the minute differences between “e”, “n” and “m”. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only letters in Kurrentschrift that look almost the same. Other examples include:

*  “N” and “St” – These two letters are very similar and are often difficult for even a professional to tell apart. If you look closely, however, you can see that the bottoms of the two letters are (or should be) different. The “N” finishes with a swoop to the right, while the “St” finishes with the crossing of the “t” itself. However, in actual documents, this can still be difficult. The 1920s example of “St” in Stunde (hour)  on the bottom also finishes with a swoop to the right and thus even more strongly resembles an N. Here, however,  you can differentiate it from an “N” in the fact that the “t” is (slightly) crossed, as opposed to the “N” in “Nachmittag” (afternoon) above.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.56.21 PM   Nachmittag
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.59 PM   Stunden

*   “B”, “C” and “L” – If you look at the three capital letters below, you might be a little alarmed. They are incredibly similar. However, if you know the clues to look for, you will be able to tell them apart. The “C” (middle) is easy to differentiate  from the other two letters as there is no loop at the top. Just a simple stroke with a little downward hook at the top right. As for the “B” (left) and the “L” (right), the “B” is different in that it has a little straight line coming off the bottom swoop, much like our lowercase cursive b today.  Notice this line in the left word “Brief”  (letter) compared to the rather fluid finishing of the “L” on the right in the word “Liebe” (dear). “C” is not a very common letter in German, and is often only found in names, such as “Christian.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.35.44 PM
*   “v” and “w” –
These lowercase letters look similar, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. While they both have the loop on the right, the “v” only has one stroke before the loop, while the “w” has two.  Below, “v” is on the left, with a real-life example of the word “vielen” (many). “w” is center, followed by an example of the word “wird” (will). Finally, the last column shows both letters in the words “verkauft werden” (will be sold). Notice how the “w” has one more stroke before the loop than the “v” in this sample from an 1868 letter.

V

vielen

wwird verkauft werden

 

13. Understand the importance of occupations.  Just as one of our first questions for a new acqaintance is “What do you do?”, our ancestors also placed a great deal of importance on their occupations. Therefore, on any certificate, the occupation of a person was listed  before the person’s name. For example, a certificate may read that “the farmer Johann Schmidt appeared before the undersigned registrar”, with farmer (Bauer) preceding the name of the person involved.

The level of one’s occupation was also important. Occupation levels included:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In the examples below, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was a Schuhmachergeselle (first handwritten word, top image) before he was a Schuhmachermeister (last handwritten word, top line of bottom image).

Schuhmacher

Schuhmachermeister

14. Think horse-drawn carriage driver. Speaking of occupations, many occupations that were around in the past are no longer around today. Or, if the occupation is still around today, there may have been a different word for it in the past. This website provides an A-Z list of old occupations with their modern-day German translation. If you don’t speak German, you can find the old-fashioned occupation of your ancestor in the left column, and then use a dictionary to translate one of the modern day names in the right column. In my experience, one of the most common occupations for women seems to have been “Näherin” (seamstress), while one of the most common occupations for men seems to have been “Bauer” (farmer). Edna M. Bentz’s book “If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records” has a great list of old-fashioned occupations as well.

15. Expect the unexpected. By this, I mean that words may not be exactly as they are in the dictionary today. Just as our English speaking ancestors used words such as “thee” and “thou”, our German speaking ancestors used different words too. If you transcribe a word and have absolutely no idea what it means, it could easily be a word no longer in use. This website offers a great German-German dictionary (started by the Grimm brothers) for old-fashioned German words.

But what if you still can’t find your word? In that case, if you are certain of your transcription, it very likely could be a spelling mistake on the part of the author. As German spelling did not become widely standardized until the end of the 19th century, words in letters and other documents were often spelled “creatively.” While this can make deciphering certain words rather difficult, it is slightly easier if you are aware of some of the more common mistakes. Below, some examples:

*  a “t” might be substituted for a “d”

*   a “g” might be substituted for a “k” or a “ch”

*   an “f” could be substituted for a “v”

bad spelling

In the above example, the author of the letter writes “ich aich noch nigt” instead of the proper German spelling “ich euch noch nicht” (part of a sentence, literally “I haven’t…you yet.”) The “eu” is consistently replaced with “ai” in this letter and the “ch” with a “g”. Once you start to notice the common mistakes an author makes, you can identify these substitutions in other words in your document.

16. Keep on an eye on those Americans. If your German ancestors were in America, they might have included English words and place names in their letters. I’ve come across “Varmer” (farmer), “Kolorata” (Colorado), “daler” (dollar), and so on. So, if you cannot recognize a German word, take a step back and ask yourself if your ancestor could have been using some of their newly learned English.

17. Be street smart. The word for street in German is “Straße”, often abbreviated “Str.” If you know that a word in your document is a street, but can’t figure out which street it is, use this street-finder website to help you out. You type your ancestor’s city in “Suche im Strassenverzeichnis”, which then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this can help you recognize the correct transcription of the word.

18. Don’t be fooled by “normal” script. Names of people were often written in normal Latin script, just as the cursive script we use today. It is important to be aware of this fact – for example, you don’t want to see a letter “e” in a name and think that that is how an “e” is written in the rest of the document. Much the opposite – names were often signed one way, while the body of the document was written in Kurrent. This is especially true for church book registers.

In the example below, the author signs her name (Louise H) in “normal” script. You can see that there is no swoop above the “u” as in Kurrent, the “e” at the end of Louise is more like our cursive “e” than the Kurrent “e” that resembles our modern “n” and the “H” is nothing like the complicated Kurrent “H” that goes both above and below the line. However, in the rest of this document, the author would have used the Kurrent letters.

Louise H

19. Understand the system. If you know the information that should be on a document, transcribing is much easier. Luckily, certificates from most regions of Germany/Austria have similar formats, providing the same information for the people involved. Some information you can expect on birth, baptismal, marriage and death certificates include:

*  City, date

*  Person’s name, occupation, city of residency, religion

*  How the person was identified if previously unknown to the registrar (passport, baptismal certificate, military pass, birth certificate)

*  Parents’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, if they are deceased

*  Witness’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, age

*  Signatures of those involved, witnesses and registrar

FredMarriageCert

The First Page of a Marriage Certificate, Berlin 1888

For more information on marriage certificates in particular, check out 7 Tips for Reading German Marriage Certificates.

20. And finally, and most importantly, know when to take a break. You’ve almost finished your transcription, but there is  still one frustrating word that you cannot figure out for the life of you. You want to persevere and finish, but my advice is: don’t. Take a break, and things will often look much clearer if you stop and come back later. I’ve experienced this a number of times: The transcription is just about finished, but that one last word is baffling me. I take a break, come back  later or even the next day, and all of the sudden, the word is perfectly clear and I wonder how I didn’t see it before.  As a linguist and not a scientist, I can’t explain how that happens, but it amazes me every time!

With these twenty tips, you should be well on your way to finding your German ancestors. And if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com. Until then, best of luck in your genealogy search!

 

Unbenannt

Image Credit: All original samples have been published with the permission of the client.

All Kurrentschrift letter samples are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page, except for “N” and “St”, which can be found here.

Six Reasons Why a Human is Better than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents

*This blog post originally appeared as a guest post  I wrote for Geneabloggers in 2016. Thank you to Thomas MacEntee for letting me repost it here.*

 

 

In this day and age, we have everything at our fingertips. Want to know the score of a baseball game? Google it. Curious about a new restaurant in town? Look it up online. Want to know a word in a foreign language? Google Translate.

While it’s wonderful that everything is so easy nowadays, sometimes we need to be a little more careful. With the Google Translate tool in particular, you must ask yourself if it can really provide you with the information you need. Although the site is relatively decent at translating individual words, Google Translate is not recommended for anything more than that, especially in the field of genealogy. Why not? Check out these six reasons below:

#1: Many genealogical documents are handwritten.

This first point is rather obvious, but it should nevertheless be discussed. While the technology behind Google Translate is advanced, the site is simply unable to turn handwritten documents into translated text. “Well,” you might say, “why can’t I just type everything from the document into Google Translate?” My answer: In addition to the problematic translation results you may receive (see below), the handwriting in old documents is often very difficult to read. In German, for example, the script used in documents pre-1950 is completely different from the handwriting used in Germany today (so different, in fact, that most German-speakers themselves are unable to read it!).

 

#2: Many genealogical documents contain outdated words that Google Translate does not recognize.

Just as English speakers don’t walk around exclaiming, “Thou art lovely!”, words in other languages have evolved as well. Unfortunately, Google Translate is simply unequipped to deal with the old-fashioned foreign words so common in genealogical translations. This is also true for occupations that no longer exist. I recently translated an 1882 marriage record in which the father was listed as a “Wagner” (the German word for ‘wagon-maker’). Type “Wagner” into Google Translate, and it simply remains “Wagner,” leaving you merely guessing at your ancestor’s profession.

#3: Google Translate often translates idioms and phrases literally, leaving you wondering what in the world your ancestor could have meant.

Some Google-Translate Examples of Idioms:

German Idiom English Meaning Google Translate
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. I don’t understand anything. I understand only station.
Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen In the middle of nowhere Where fox and hare say goodnight
Mit der Kirche ums Dorf fahren To make something more complicated Take the church around the village

You can imagine your bewilderment if you are trying to translate a letter and believe your ancestor was somehow trying to accompany a church around an entire village while cavorting with polite woodland creatures. Makes no sense!

#4: Many genealogical documents contain obscure abbreviations that Google Translate ignores.

I recently translated a 1940 list of documents a bride needed for her wedding. As this was a list that she simply wrote for herself, she used many abbreviations throughout the text. When I type one such example into Google Translate, it looks like this:

German Document English Meaning Google Translate
Abstammungsnachweis b. Großelt. Certificate of Heritage from both grandparents (beider Großeltern) Pedigree certificate b. Großelt. (does not translate the two abbreviations)

Again, if you did not speak German, Google Translate would leave you guessing at what your ancestor had written down.

#5: A word in your document can have multiple meanings and Google can only pick one of them.

Take the English word “run.” “Run” can mean jog quickly (She runs in the park), manage (She runs a business), a tear (a run in your stockings) and so on (English With a Twist). How is Google supposed to pick the exact right meaning of the word for your document? Just as English words have multiple definitions, other languages do as well. One such word is the multi-meaning German pronoun “sie”, which, if Google chooses the wrong translation, can either change the meaning of your document or simply cause you a great deal of confusion. Such confusion is (correctly) illustrated by Mark Twain in his essay, “The Awful German Language“:

“the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them…think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.”

#6: Google Translate can make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Here are real examples of what Google Translate did with actual sentences I’ve translated from old letters:

German English Meaning Google Translate
Wenn ich Zeit zum schreiben hatte, so musste ich nach Frankfurt zu meiner Schwester, die mir Vorwurfe macht dass ich sie so wenig besuche. When I did have time to write, I had to go to Frankfurt to see my sister, who accuses me of not visiting her enough. If I had time to write, so I had to Frankfurt to my sister to give me reproach visit from me following so little.
Noch musste ich bemerken das in Ostpreussen eine Hungersnot ist, wofür in allen Städten und Dörfen Geld und Nährungsmittel gesammelt werden. I still need to mention that there is a famine in East Prussia, for which money and food are being collected in all cities and villages. Yet I had to remember this is a famine in East Prussia, are what is collected in all cities and villages of money and Nährungsmittel

If you only look at the Google Translate column, these translated sentences often make no sense or provide the completely wrong idea. For example, “this is a famine in East Prussia” sounds like the writer is part of the famine, when in fact she is just explaining that there is one in another part of the country. Not to mention the “villages of money.”

In conclusion, I do believe that Google Translate can help you with the meanings of individual words here and there. However, if you are serious about your genealogical research, value accuracy and want to learn as much as you can about your ancestors from the documents in your possession, hiring a translator is the way to go.

 

The Magic of German Church Books

German church books can be a gold mine of information for family historians. Before the 1870s, the churches, not civil authorities, meticulously kept track of their members’ births/baptisms, marriages, deaths and more (In 1876, five years after German unification, a law was passed legally requiring civil registry offices to keep records – the church then kept records only for their own interests and no longer for civil reasons). 

Before locating a church record, it is important to know the town where your ancestor came from, and ensure that you are looking for this town in the correct German state. Many towns in Germany have the same name, so knowing its exact location is important. You don’t want to waste time looking in the wrong church’s records!

Once you have verified the town, it is important to know where exactly you can find these church books. Their records, which can go back as early as the sixteenth century, can be found on familysearch.org, on microfilm at libraries with genealogy/history departments and on Archion.de (Protestant archives with over 200,000 church books being digitalized), to name just a few sources. And once you locate them, they offer a plethora of information. Below, see what you can hope to find in each of the various books:

  • Baptisms (Taufregister): Name of child, dates of birth and baptism, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, legitimacy of the child, occupation of parents, town of residence, pastor’s name, midwife’s name, godparents’ names, etc. The baptismal register may also list the corresponding family book number.
  • Marriages (Eheregister): Name of person married, their occupation, age, parents’ names and occupation, whether the parents are still living, town of residence, spouse’s name, occupation and age, spouse’s parents names, occupation and whether they are still living, dates of marriage banns, date of marriage,  witnesses’ names, ages and occupation, etc.
  • Deaths (Totenregister): Name, occupation, residence, age,  cause of death, date of death, date of burial, surviving relatives, etc.

 

 

 

1851 German Church Book Entry

Of course, these records are usually written in the old German handwriting. If you need help with the transcription or translation, feel free to contact me here. Or check out Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting to try some transcription yourself!

Some records, depending on the region and the scribe, may have more or less information than others.  Confirmation and general family records may also exist in some parishes. 

Additional Information You Should Know about Church Records:

  • The entries were usually written in chronological order. 
  • Dates were written in Day-Month-Year format.
  • Some church records were written in Latin instead of German. Some use both languages. 
  • “-in” was sometimes added to the last name of women. For example, “Müller” could be “Müllerin” when discussing a female.
  • Spelling of names was not always standardized. A name could be spelled one way in one record and a different way in another record. Common letter variations include:
    • K/G 
    • B/P
    • F/V
    • D/T 
    • Vowel changes (ey – ay – ei, for example)

Now that you know where to look, go out there and start researching. There’s a wealth of information waiting for you!

Sources:

http://www.ancestry.de/kirchenbuch

https://www.archion.de/de/familienforschung/kirchenbuecher/

http://narafriends-pittsfield.org/gechurch.htm

Kathy Wurth at Family Tree Tours: https://familytreetours.com/