Your family tree has roots beyond America’s shores. For many of us, crossing the pond with our research can mean language challenges, but with a little help, it’s possible to make sense of foreign records. It’s just a matter of using clues and translation tools to puzzle things out. And who doesn’t like a good puzzle? Here are some tips.
If you’re researching a collection on Ancestry.com, check the database description for search tips and links. Collections like Sweden, Indexed Birth Records, 1880-1930, have helpful information for finding your ancestors in the collection and also include links to our Swedish Research Center, where you can find word lists to help you translate records.
The browsable collection of Sweden, Church Records, 1500-1941, even has a link to a more in-depth article (found in the More Help section on the right of the page) discussing what records are included and what you’ll need to know to best use them.
Online translators like Google Translate and Yahoo! Babel Fish can sometimes help you decipher words in record headings and elsewhere. In some cases, you may run into words with more than one translation so you’ll need to put it into context. For example, one translator interpreted the Swedish word stift as “pin”—probably not something you’ll find in a vital record. But looking at the other terms in the top line of the example below, it’s clear that the other terms preceding it relate to religious jurisdictions (i. e., parish, deanery). The translator displays a list of similar words below the initial results, among which was diocese with the Swedish words stift, biskopsdöme.
Creating a Cheat Sheet
It can be helpful to take an image of a record you’re trying to interpret and create your own “cheat sheets” like the one above. Even when forms varied somewhat over different years, a master copy including translated terms and headings is a real timesaver. You can use a screen capture program to add translations (like you see in the example), or you could photocopy or print the header of a record and write over or paste labels on the copy.
Foreign Alphabets and Script
In some cases your foreign language challenge may be compounded by old or unfamiliar scripts, but searching for websites with examples can help you create a version of your ancestor’s name in that script so you can recognize it in records. After you’ve located a record, make copies and use the tips already mentioned to help interpret the record.
When you’re working with antiquated or hard-to-read script, it’s helpful to take it one letter at a time. Compare the letters in the word you’re trying to read to other letters on the same page. Ancestry.com has a guide to German script in the German Research Center that can help you interpret letters used in various German records. Even if your European ancestors weren’t German, you may find this form useful if they traveled through the port of Hamburg. The Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934, available on Ancestry.com (in German) include names of more than 4.6 million people passing through that port.
Other Translation Guides
Regardless of the language you’re working with, there’s a good chance you’ll find guides and translation aids online. A good place to start looking for genealogical language aids is Cyndi’s List.
And don’t be shy about asking for help. There are many wonderful individuals on message boards or mailing lists associated with your ancestor’s ethnic background who may be willing to help. There are also professionals who have experience working with genealogical records from all around the world. You can search for professionals through the directory of members of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).
Take the Plunge and Learn the Language
If you’re going to be working with a lot of records in a particular language, or you’re fortunate enough to be planning a trip to your ancestor’s homeland, maybe it’s time to take the plunge and learn the language. Ancestry.com has partnered with Rosetta Stone, the computer-based language learning system, to offer deep discounts to the Ancestry.com community. If you’ve been thinking about learning a new language, you can learn more about Rosetta Stone on their website.
Whether you choose a professional to help you decipher them or give it a go yourself, more international records are becoming available through Ancestry.com and other websites. Like their English counterparts, these records contain the stories of your ancestors waiting to be discovered. Don’t let the language barrier keep them buried in the past.
About Juliana Szucs
Juliana Szucs has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.