February 28, 2011

Dealing with Language Problems as You Trace Genealogy

by Rebecca Garland, Guest Author

While it’s hugely fascinating to dig back through old records to make the connections in your family tree, there’s nothing more frustrating that hitting the snag of language. As immigrants moved from one country to another, they brought their language with them. Unless the native languages of your ancestors trickled down to you, you’ll be at a loss when you start to pull up old letters or journals written by your ancestors. Even official documents from the old country would likely be written in a language other than English, stopping your search dead in its tracks if you can’t come up with a way to get the information you need.

Ask Your Relatives to Translate

In some cases you may be able to find a relative that still speaks the language well enough to translate it for you. This would likely be true if you’re a recent immigrant with only a few generations of family in a new country. In some cases the old languages are remarkable similar to what is spoken today making it easy for the language to carry on. Castilian, or formal Spanish, is a perfect example. In other cases, languages have died out over the year, but you might get lucky and find a built-in translator, but if not, you have other options.

Use a Dictionary or Website to Translate
There is an auto-translate function of Google as well as any number of online language dictionaries and programs. In most cases, these programs will give you a very rough translation – nothing at all like the translation of actual people working through the old languages, but at least you’ll get a very rough idea of what the documents are saying. If you’re just looking for a gist of the message, a dictionary will give you enough words to understand the point of the list, even if it’s not enough to let you in on the full story. This would be perfect for a list of names that you don’t understand, but not as great for family letters.

Use a Translation Service
You genealogy documents might be in a language still spoken today, even if it’s not spoken around you. In this case you can easily find a translation service. Look online or through the listings in your area to find a professional. Don’t despair if you realize you’re dealing with a version of the language that isn’t spoken or read today. There are scholars who spend their entire professional careers working with the languages or forms of handwriting we’ve forgotten. Again, this detailed search can be done online to find professional scholars and translators. It isn’t a free service, of course, but when it comes to a hobby as impressive as genealogy, it can be considered money well spent.

About the Author
 Rebecca Garland is a veteran freelance business writer working hard to populate the internet with relevant, interesting content you can actually put to use. With advanced degrees and certifications in business, engineering, education and information science, Rebecca enjoys topics ranging from old handwriting and languages and genealogy to parenting and education.

1 comment:

Stefania said...

I worked as a translator from Italian for Ancestry's Expert Connect service. Though they decided to end the program, for me this was a wonderful experience! I translated old letters and marriage acts, among others, and it was both interesting and funny to help other people in their own research. I learned a lot of things that will be useful for mine!