Posted by Juliana Szucs on September 11, 2013 in Research

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.

Check Descriptions
If you’re researching a collection on, 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.

Translating Tools
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.

Swedish cheat sheet

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. 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 (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. has partnered with Rosetta Stone, the computer-based language learning system, to offer deep discounts to the 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 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.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 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.


  1. Margaret Bardes

    I wish there was a place to click on ancestry to translate info rather than having to keep another site open. And learning another language is a wonderful idea BUT it takes time & Rosetta Stone is expensive!
    I have multiple ethnic backgrounds that I am researching -America WAS a melting pot- not practicle while doing several countries. If you are going to do it you should always do it well.

  2. Michel Bryson

    Google Translate has some neat features beyond translation that can help as well. Google Translate lets you create Phrasebooks, which you can then sort by language. So, for example, you can look up “place of birth” in any number of languages, find out how to say it in each, add all of them to your Phrasebook and go back to them later when you need them. You can even export your Phrasebook to Google Sheets, which will allow you to sort and print it for off-line research.

    The Google Translate free app (at least, the Android version) also has a photo-to-text feature. Take a photo of the document, and you can highlight the text to highlight and translate it. I haven’t tried it with German script yet, but do have my grandmother’s Bible and might test with that. The app also has a phrasebook, but I haven’t seen yet that it integrates with the online phrasebook.

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  4. Nancy Gemmell

    Hi, as a retired translator/interpreter, I would like to offer a word of caution regarding the use of online translation websites. I am sure they are improving, but if you use one (often there is not another option), try the following:

    after translation of your paragraph (not just a word), have the site translate it back into the original language, then again into English. You might be surprised! If you just want the “gist” you may be ok.

    Nothing can beat the human brain…yet.

    If anyone wants help with French, I can do that.

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