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:

  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

Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents

You have your German genealogy document. You are feeling relatively confident with the handwriting. But those letters just don’t seem to be forming any word you can find in the dictionary. What could be going on?

As German spelling was not standardized until the end of the 19th century, the spelling of words in handwritten documents can often be rather “creative”, to say the least. In these types of situations, the trick to deciphering the handwriting is: Think like a German! (*For a simple chart of spelling variations, see the end of the article*). 

What does it mean to think like a German, you ask? Well, in the German language, even today, many certain letters sound the same to German speakers. Case in point: I was once in a book shop in Austria, and had placed an order for a book. The bookseller asked for my last name, upon which I replied with my maiden name, Portnoy. He looked at me and said, “Now, would that be with a hard P or a soft B?” Confused, I replied, “It’s just a P. You know, Puh, Puh!” 

Upon further inquiry, I found out that the Germans have a hard time telling the difference between their spoken P and B. They have therefore applied adjectives (hard and soft) to the letters to clarify which consonant they mean. For Americans, P and B are very distinct (although they are made at the same place in our mouth), but for Germans, they need that extra description to be sure which letter is meant. And this leads to the fact that many German writers of the past misspelled P words with B’s and vice versa.

K and G: For any linguists out there, you may now be recognizing a pattern. Just as B and P are spoken at the same place in our mouths, K and G are also formed in the same part of the mouth as one another (what differentiates these letters from each other is that the B and G are voiced, meaning our vocal cords vibrate when we make these sounds, while the P and the K are voiceless, with no vocal cord vibration). Again, English speakers make a bigger distinction between these sounds than German does, which means that our German ancestors often mixed up the K and the G in writing (in very creative cases, a K or a G may also have been used for a CH). 

T and D:  Just as  the above letter pairs, the only distinction between these letters is whether the vocal cords vibrate or not, meaning that that there is not a big difference in these sounds for German speakers. So if a word is not making any sense and you can’t find it in a dictionary, try replacing the T with a D or vice-versa.

F and V: In German, the letter V sounds like the F sound, meaning many German speakers often mixed up the two letters. Case in point: I once translated a letter from a German person living in America, written in German. The author was describing his occupation, and wrote the word “Varmer.” After puzzling what this random German word could be, I then realized that the author meant “farmer” in English, but had misspelled it with a V.

C and K: C is not a very common letter in German today, but in some words of the past, they did use a C where a K would be written today.

Extra H’s: You will often see many words in old German documents that have an H included where no H would be written today. Some examples include:

  •  verheirthat (verheiratet) – married
  • thun (tun) – to do
  • Thräne (Träne) – tears
  • Monath (Monat) – month

For further examples, see here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Rechtschreibung_im_sp%C3%A4ten_19._Jahrhundert

Umlauts: Most German writers did use the umlaut (two dots above A, O, and U) but some preferred to write this sound as AE, OE, and UE.  You can see this in the spelling of certain last names today. For instance, my German ancestors’ last name was “Müller”, but our family spells the name “Mueller” today. So if your ancestor wrote a word with “ae”, but you can’t find it in the dictionary, try typing “ä”.

 

EI and EY: Some words spelled with EI today were spelled with EY in the past (with two dots over the Y). Examples:

  • bey (bei) – preposition meaning many different things, depending on the context (http://dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/bei)
  • seyn (sein) – to be
  • Freytag (Freitag) – Friday

EU and EI: Depending on the region of Germany, Austria or Switzerland, some authors may have pronounced EU words (normally pronounced as the OY in boy) as EI (like the I in bike). Some examples:

  • eich (euch) – you all
  • Freind (Freund) – friend

ß and S: ß (Eszett, or sharp S, pronounced as S) is still used in German today, although the rules on when to use it have changed. This means that you may often see ß in words where an S or two S’s would be used in German today.

I and IE: In the past, German writers often substituted an IE for what would only be an I today. Example:

  • giebt (gibt) – to give (or Es giebt/Es gibt – There is…)

I and J: If you go centuries back into the past, you may see some words written with a J today that were written with an I back then. One example is:

  • Iahr (Jahr) – year

While there are many more spelling variations, these are some of the most common ones. So if your word is not appearing in any online dictionary, try substituting its German equivalent, and see what you can find! And if you don’t want to puzzle through the mysteries of German spelling, you can always contact me here for translation help. 

German Spelling Variations

Letter One (These Were Interchanged With One Another) Letter Two (These Were Interchanged With One Another)
b p
k g
t d
f v
The Below Letters Are the Standard Spelling Today: The Below Letters Were Used More Often in the Past (as substitutes for left column):
k c
no h additional h
ä, ö, ü ae, oe, ue
ei ey
eu ei
s/ss ß (also used in standard spelling, although not as often)
i ie
j i