A Translator’s Guide to Online Translation Tools: What to Use and What Not to Use for Your Genealogy Documents

Deciphering German records if you can’t speak the language can be a challenge, to say the least. While I am always here if you’d like the help of a professional, sometimes it’s nice to have quick and easy online resources you can turn to in a pinch. Below, find four popular online translation resources, and my thoughts on each:

1. Google Translate

Google Translate is perhaps the most well-known online translation tool. While Google Translate can work well for individual words (such as Bruder for brother) or very short phrases, you do need to be cautious when using it for anything else. In Six Reasons Why a Human is Better Than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents, I outline the shortcomings of this tool for genealogy. For the purposes of this article, however, the two most important factors working against this tool are:

  • Genealogy documents contain many old-fashioned words and idioms that this machine translation doesn’t recognize.
  • Google Translate can’t always tell the meaning of the word for the context that pertains to your specific document. 

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. How is Google to know exactly what definition your document requires?

That being said, Google Translate is continuing to improve, so feel free to use this tool – just try to stick to individual words or phrases to give the site less room for error. And if you can, verify the definition provided with a second source.

In the example above, I was trying to figure out what the Latin phrase “natus et renatus est” meant in my German document. Google, for some reason, came up with “buttocks and revival”. Not sure where that came from – the phrase means “born and baptized”. So always take Google’s translations with a grain of salt!

2. Deepl 

Deepl.com is a relatively new translation tool, and I like it better than Google Translate. While it does have similar shortcomings to Google Translate in terms of genealogy documents, I find it to be more accurate overall.  It’s actually helpful to use both together – copy and paste your phrase into Google Translate, and then copy and paste it into Deepl. Does one give you a better translation than the other?

If you are dealing with idioms, Deepl is definitely better than Google Translate. While Google Translate still tends to translate idioms word for word, providing you with a literal translation (cats and dogs are actually falling out of the sky, instead of it’s raining hard), Deepl will often provide you with the actual meaning of the idiomatic phrase.  

Below, I typed the German idiom “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” (I don’t understand anything at all) into both tools. Google translated the phrase literally, giving you the result “I only understand train station.” This would make no sense to you as an English speaker, and could completely change what you think your ancestor’s document means. Deepl, however, recognized that the phrase was an idiom, translating it as “It’s as clear as mud” and providing you with an alternative below that “It’s all Greek to me.” One point for Deepl!

 

 

 

 

3. Linguee.com

If you have a word or short phrase and want to be more certain of an accurate translation, then Linguee is the site for you. This tool shows you your German word or phrase translated into English by actual translators instead of machines. Upon clicking search, the site provides you with the word’s definition, as well as various sample sentences that include your word/phrase in a specific context (in both German and English). Scroll through the examples, and find which definition of the word best matches the context of your document. 

Usually, the translation that occurs the most on the right side is the accurate translation, but make sure that it makes sense within the context of your own document. 

4. Word Reference 

Word Reference is a great online dictionary that often provides sentence examples for the word in question. Again, this helps you to understand if your word is being translated correctly in context. Notice how it provides various meanings and examples for the word “married” below. 

In conclusion, we are lucky we live in an age where there are so many translation tools available on the Internet. However, it’s important to understand how each tool works, as this will allow you to make sure you are translating your German words as accurately as possible. 

Finally, if you’d like a bit of a boost with the German language, see German Language Insight for Genealogists. And if you do choose to go with a translator, see 5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Genealogy Translation.

Happy translating!

5 Tips for Deciphering Town Names on German Records

Your ancestor’s hometown is one of the most important finds you will make on your genealogy journey. Unfortunately, a town name can also be one of the hardest words to decipher on a historical record. Why? Because towns exist in the thousands, and, technically, the town name can be made up of any combination of letters that make sense within the German language. A bit overwhelming, to say the least!

So how do you go about deciphering the town name if you can’t read all the individual letters? Read on to find out all the tricks that I use when I am translating my clients’ documents:

1. take advantage of Google’s suggestion features

The first tip is the most obvious, but it is definitely worth mentioning. Try typing your transcription guess into Google Search, with the country or state where your document comes from after it (for example, type “Obertraun, Austria” into the search box). If an entry comes up, you then have verification that your transcription is correct.

If you are one or two letters off, however, Google’s “Showing Results For” or “Did You Mean?” features are very helpful. If you typed “Obertrun, Austria” into the search box, Google may correct you, saying “Showing results for Obertraun, Austria”. You can then double check the handwritten word on your document, along wit the location of Google’s suggestion, and verify that the suggestion is correct. If it is, mark it down, and continue transcribing. Nice when a search engine is so helpful!

 

2. use Meyers Gazetteer’s wildcard tool

If your town is in Germany (or used to be), then Meyers Gazetteer is the website for you. This collection of pre-WWI towns, villages, cities, estates, and more is a wonderful tool for deciphering towns – especially if you can’t read all the letters. Simply type the letters you recognize into the website’s search engine – and use an asterisk for the letters you don’t. Meyers Gazetteer will then give you a list of all towns with that letter combination.

Have a long list? Narrow your search by selecting the state (if known) where your document comes from (“Filter Results by Region”). You will then get a list of only the towns in that region, and can go back to your handwritten word and see if any of these towns match up with your word on your document.

3. Toggle the Meyers Gazetteer Map

No luck with the list? If you know another town name on your document (where the document comes from, the groom’s town name, etc.), then type that town name into Meyers Gazetteer’s search engine. Click on it, and it will take you to the entry for that town. Next, click on the map to the left of the entry, and the modern map will toggle to the historical map (pretty cool, right?). You can then drag the map around and see what towns are in the surrounding area. Does one of those nearby town names match up with your handwritten word? I have found a lot of town names using this historical map!

4. play with Google Maps

Just like the old-fashioned map on Meyer’s Gazetteer, Google Maps also works well for this trick. Type in the town you know related to your document, and drag the map around to see if any other towns nearby match up with your mystery word. (If you can’t find it on the Meyer’s Gazetteer map, try Google, and vice-versa – I sometimes have more luck with one, and sometimes with the other, depending on the town. Always good to have two options!).

5. Use the Record itself

Last but not least (although perhaps this should be first – it’s a good trick), use the record itself! More times than I care to admit, I have struggled and struggled over what a town name could be, only to find a stamp with that town name – in printed text! – at the bottom of the document. So before you start deciphering, scan your entire document, and look for other components of the document that might include the town name. These might include:

  • Stamps
  • Column Headings
  • Document Titles
  • Margin Notes (perhaps the town name is easier to read there)
  • And More – every document is different!

So there you have it! With these five tips, deciphering the towns in your German documents should become much easier and easier. And if you want more help reading the German handwriting, check out my new self-paced handwriting course here! You’ll be reading the script in no time.

Any other tricks that you use? Let us know in the comments!

15 Sneaky Latin Words in Your German Documents

As if it’s not enough of a challenge that you need to know some German to find your ancestors, the scribes of yore now want to challenge you just a little bit more – by throwing in some Latin words in your otherwise German document. Of all the nerve! Luckily, there are Latin words that appear over and over in the German documents of the past. Over my years of translating, I’ve collected the words I come across most frequently, now summarized in a table for you below with their English equivalents and and an example of the word in the old German script.  If you have any common Latin words to add, please say so in the comments!

For more Latin words in genealogical documents, see here for a great list.  

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!

 

 

 

Five Transcription Tips for When You’re Just Stuck

Author’s Note: If you want more help transcribing your genealogy documents, join our Premium group – weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers. 

It happens to all of us. We are feeling good about our transcription skills, happily deciphering our German document, when all of the sudden, a word appears that looks like this: 

Alright, maybe not that bad, but sometimes it sure feels like it. So what can you do with these words that make you want to tear your hair out? Below, here are some tried and true tricks of the trade for when you can’t read a word:

1. Keep reading.

It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that work the best. Make some kind of mark in your transcription to note that you’ve skipped a word (I always write —-), and continue transcribing from that point. Many times your illegible word will be repeated in another section of your document, and this second occurrence of the word will be much easier to read than the first one.  

2. Find a similarly-formatted record for comparison purposes.

For example, if  your illegible word is part of a church record, look at the many other records on that same page. These records are usually all in the same format, and many times a word that is scrawled in your record will be much clearer in another record (who knows, maybe the scribe was in a hurry on the day of your ancestor’s baptism, but was in a more leisurely mood the next day). If it is a marriage certificate, look for another example of a marriage certificate that is formatted the same way. 

Additional Tip: If you don’t have another record handy, try copy and pasting parts of your German transcription into Google Search Engine. Sometimes other genealogists will have posted their transcriptions and translations of similar records on forums or blogs, which Google Search Engine will then bring up. You can then check this transcription against your own record to see if there are any similarities, and, if so, if your difficult-to-read word then becomes clear. 

3. Look to the next line.

Our ancestors often divided up words between lines, without using any hyphens or any other indication to mark this. Oftentimes the rest of your letters will be one line down, and then your word will make much more sense.

4. If the word you can’t read is a city or town, check if there are any types of headings or even stamps on your document.

Sometimes the answer is right there on the page, in incredibly easy-to-read type! 

5.  If one specific letter is illegible, scan your document to see if you have already deciphered a similarly-shaped figure in another word.

Perhaps you sight-read the word “Vater” (father), and by looking at that “r” in “Vater”, you then realize that the illegible letter in your current word might be an “r” as well.  Another trick I employ is if a letter is written differently than the “normal” version of the letter, I will sometimes underline all instances of that strange-looking letter in my document. This then allows my brain to get used to the way this scribe writes the letter, making it easier to recognize in future words. Making a key for all these illegible letters can also be very helpful.

If you’d like more tips and tricks for deciphering German handwriting, check out my book with the same title: Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting or enroll in our brand new online German handwriting course. Best of luck with your transcriptions! 

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:

This post contains some  affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does helps support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content. That being said, I personally own – and personally love – all of the books I recommend, and hope that they help you as much as they have helped me. I couldn’t translate without them!

 

  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 book, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting – it contains everything I wish I would have known when I was first starting out.  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

Author’s Note: If you’d like more help transcribing your German documents,  join our Premium group today  – you get weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your tricky transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers.

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!

 

 

 

20 Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

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.

This post contains some  affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does helps support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content. That being said, I personally own – and personally love – anything I recommend, and hope that these resources help you as much as they have helped me. I couldn’t translate without them!

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

Update: If you want help transcribing your genealogy documents, consider joining our Premium group – weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your tricky transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers. 

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.

 

Behind the Scenes of Genealogical Translation

Happy International Translation Day! Today, September 30, is the feast day of St. Jerome, the first to translate the Bible into Latin and the patron saint of translation. On this special day, I would like to offer you a special glimpse into the exciting world of genealogical translation.

250px-jan_van_eyck_san_girolamo_nello_studio_detroit

St. Jerome (347-419/20)

 As genealogical documents are often hundreds of years old, translating historical documents is slightly different than translating “normal” documents. While modern-day texts can often present the translator with incredibly complicated sentences, genealogy translations are usually much more straight-forward and relatively simple – once you get the documents to the translation point. Getting there, however, is the challenge.

scriptorium-monk-at-work-990x500

 Just as my handwriting differs from yours, handwriting among our ancestors varied significantly, and some was much more legible than others! When I receive a text, therefore, the first thing I do is look at the legibility of that particular author’s handwriting.

The age of the document also plays a role in the appearance of the script. Seventeenth-century handwriting (top image below) looks very different than nineteenth-century handwriting (bottom image below). Although the older script is rather beautiful, it is more challenging for most genealogical translators.

1645 Death Cert     

19th-century

The quality of your document is also very important in genealogical translation. Most of the texts are sent as .jpeg images, and the ability to zoom in without the image becoming blurry is crucial. Why is that? As stated in Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, many old German letters are incredibly similar, making the ability to see each and every stroke even more significant. Notice the similarities of the letter e (left) and the letter n (right) below. Without the proper zooming tools, you may not be able to see the differences between these two letters when written in a word.

enmein

The word above is “mein” (my), full of similarly-formed letters m, e and n.

Once I’ve assessed the legibility of the script and the quality the document, I begin transcribing your text. Carefully analyzing each stroke, I start to decipher the script and type it in modern German. If I’ve worked with a particular author’s handwriting before, this process goes much more smoothly, as our brains are quick to recognize what they’ve previously encountered. However, if it is the first time I am seeing a certain person’s handwriting, the transcription process can take a little longer, as each person forms their letters slightly differently.

The transcription process can also be accelerated if I know certain words to look for. Before beginning each translation, I ask you if there are any names of people or towns that are relevant to your document. Names are the most difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no context clues to fill in the blanks. Many times, however, a client has already done extensive genealogical research and knows that this letter is from his great-great grandfather Diocletian from the town of Oberbetschdorf. Rather than spending 15 minutes trying to figure out if a letter is an n or an e, knowing this information ahead of time helps me to spot-read a word (that being said, I always double check – sometimes there are surprises!).

IMG_4405

Once the transcription is complete, the fun part begins – bringing the words your ancestor wrote to life! In translation, we need to know much more than simply the definitions of words in a dictionary. Translators must take into account the various shades of meaning of a word (for example, does the author simply mean “happy” or does he mean content, cheerful, delighted, pleased, etc.?), idiomatic expressions (translating “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally into German would lead to a great deal of confusion in Deutschland) and intended audience and style of the text (is this a casual letter written to a son or daughter or is this a formal certificate recording a life event?). Finally, we need to make sure the text reads well in the translated language. Staying true to the original while making the text flow in a different language can be a challenge in the translation field, although it is a challenge most translators enjoy!

quote-translation-is-like-a-woman-if-it-is-beautiful-it-is-not-faithful-if-it-is-faithful-yevgeny-yevtushenko-32-29-15While I do not agree with his view of women, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s take on translation is certainly true!

With the translation complete, I send it to you, the client. This often results in my favorite part of the job – hearing how this translation has broken down brick walls in your genealogical search or how happy you are to hear the words of your ancestor. I love a good puzzle as much as the next person, and helping you to learn about your ancestor is a rewarding experience that I truly enjoy.