Friday, April 1, 2016

Guest Post: Translating the Past

When I was eight years old, my family was given an amazing gift by our distant relatives in Germany: an enormous green book, full of our family history, dating all the way back to 1610. However, there was one problem - the entire book was written in German, a language no one in my family spoke. The mysteries of our family history would have to wait.

Source: Katherine Schober of SK Translations
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When I began high school seven years later, I was thrilled to discover that one of the foreign languages they offered was German. Along with my cousin, I began studying the language, with all of its confusing grammar, male and female nouns and funny little umlauts. Despite its difficulty, I soon began to love German's intricacies, and, slowly but surely, I was able to read more and more of our family's "big green book." As I went on to get both my Bachelors and Masters degrees in German in the following years, I was excited to be able to read even more stories from our family history book, learning exactly which relative came to America from Germany and when. I share my family story in a post on my blog, From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story.

Today, I have turned this passion into a career, helping other people discover their ancestors by translating old German documents and handwriting into English.

As a German-English genealogy translator, I work with all kinds of documents, including old letters, newspapers, church registers and various certificates (baptismal, marriage, death). While some people might be tempted to use Google Translate for their translation needs, the tool unfortunately doesn't cut it for genealogy documents. In addition to the obvious reason of Google not being able to read handwriting, genealogy documents often contain old-fashioned words and abbreviations that Google isn't capable of translating. Plus, if Google is confronted with difficult grammar or certain idioms, the translation output simply doesn't make sense. My guest post on Geneabloggers explains in detail the Six Reasons Why a Human is Better than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents.

That being said, Google Translate can be used for translating individual (modern) words. If you want to know that "Bruder" means brother, for example, the tool can be quite helpful. However, if you want to be able to read a baptismal certificate, or the contents of a love letter from your great-grandmother to your great-grandfather, a translator is the clear way to go. How does this translation process work, you ask? Check out my steps below:

Step 1: Transcription

The first part of the translation process is to transcribe the old handwriting into actual text. In Germany, for example, our ancestors used a type of Gothic-style writing called Kurrentschrift, which is a script very different from the “normal writing” used in Germany nowadays. As you can see below, an “e” looks like a cursive “n”, the lowercase “p” and “g” are almost entirely the same, and there are three different types of the letter “s”. Combine these differences with various styles of handwriting, and it can be quite a challenge!

Source: Katherine Schober of SK Translations
All rights reserved

Using a sample alphabet, called a key, can be helpful to identify each letter until words begin to emerge. These samples can be found online for a variety of languages, including German. The one on the left is a Kurrentschrift sample from 1865, and is available to download from Wikipedia.

Every now and then during the transcription, a word in a letter or document might give me pause. When this happens, I play a sort of hangman game with myself, filling in the spaces of the letters I recognize in order to see what that one indecipherable letter in the middle might be. When I figure it out based on the other letters and the context, I feel an immense sense of satisfaction. For me, these words are a key to the past, and I enjoy unlocking them for my clients.

Step 2: Translation

Once I finish transcribing the handwriting into typed German text, the translation part of the job begins. This is usually the easy part, as the documents are often straightforward and fun to translate. An avid history enthusiast, I am just as curious to see what your ancestors were like as you are.

One of my most interesting jobs was translating a series of letters from a family in Germany to their relatives in America between 1943 and 1956. In the first few letters, the German family, stuck in the horrors of World War II, wrote to their cousins in America begging for support. After initially sending a letter stating the items they needed (shoes, clothes, flour, etc.), they then sent a rather insulting letter a few months later as to why the rich American relatives hadn't sent any provisions to help their family in their time of need. The third letter a week later then offered an extremely embarrassed apology, explaining that the American care package must have crossed in the mail with their “insulting” letter, and that they did receive the goods and were ever so grateful.

This one sided-exchange was like watching a story unfold, and it is all the more interesting when you know that the story is true. Every family has such stories waiting to be told - don't let yours get lost to the depths of history!

Step 3: Delivery

My favorite part of the translation process is sending the finished project to the client. People are very excited to be able to "get to know" their ancestors more deeply, and I love being a part of this process. Whether it be reading the very words that their great-great-grandmother wrote about starting life in a new country, or finding out exactly where their great-grandfather was born so that they can make a trip to see his hometown, the genealogy translation process is very special.

Although the genealogy search can be overwhelming, understanding where you come from and reading the words of your ancestors is an incredibly rewarding experience. Through translating documents from the past, I have learned that our ancestors, although they lived in different times, are not so different from us. They too had worries, hopes and dreams, and it is an incredible gift to be able to learn what these dreams were. It is important for us, as the younger generation, to take advantage of that gift, keeping the words of our ancestors alive today.

Katherine Schober is a German translator, specializing in genealogy. After living in Austria for four years, she recently moved back to the States with her Austrian husband. She works with old German handwriting in letters, certificates, church registers and other documents. Contact her at for more information on her services, or follow her on Twitter @SK_Translations

 © 2016 Katherine Schober
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