The genealogical translator acts as a historical sleuth, using language and cultural knowledge to aid those trying to unlock the clues to shed new light on old documents.
(Top photo: France, diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranche, registres paroissiaux, 1533–1894, Cherbourg – Sainte-Trinité)
Genealogical translation is a growing market niche that supports the popular pastime and profession of tracing ancestors. Like many other specializations, genealogical translation demands a special skillset that can only be developed through study and experience. However, you’ll find the hard work will pay off with opportunities in a rewarding and academically intense field.
Genealogy and Genealogical Translation
Genealogy is defined as a research field employing the practice of “accurately reconstructing forgotten or unknown identities and relationships.”1 Genealogy is a growing profession. In addition to tracing ancestors for their clients, genealogists can serve important business and legal needs. For example, attorneys working on heirship court cases often call in genealogists to prove family relationships and search for missing heirs. Governments seek the assistance of genealogists to help locate relatives of soldiers killed in action or to identify unidentified remains using DNA and more traditional genealogical methods (e.g., military and hospital records, personal letters).
What ties the branches of the genealogical profession together is the need to uncover relationships through analyzing evidence drawn from documents, personal recollections, artifacts, DNA, and more. Key to this analysis is the ability to understand the historical conditions and context in which the source document was created. Even more basic is the need to be able to read and understand the languages in which these documents are written. For U.S. citizens tracing their roots, it doesn’t take long before the research jumps to the “old country” and to a foreign language. This is where the genealogical translator steps in.
Genealogical translation involves the translation of historical and modern-day documents, such as records pertaining to birth, marriage, divorce, and death, as well as court records, deeds, academic records, and more. The work of the translator might also extend into research, such as searching foreign-language websites and communicating with foreign archives, parishes, and libraries. The genealogical translator can provide a simple translation of a historical document, such as a birth or baptismal record, or a more detailed analysis. For example, why and how was the document created? Is it typical of the time and place in which it was recorded? Does it include boilerplate language? Are there any peculiarities that make it unusual? Are there any clues, such as notes in the margin, which would lead the researcher to other documents? In this sense, the genealogical translator can often serve as a research guide.
Figure 1 below shows an example from a book of church records with clearly written French script.2 Note that there are several records on the two-page spread, some apparently written by different scribes. French readers will observe the formulaic or boilerplate language (e.g., signatures, titles, or phrases that are reused throughout the document).
Figure 1: France, diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranche, registres paroissiaux, 1533–1894, Cherbourg – Sainte-Trinité)
Figure 1A: An enlargement from Figure 1.
Figure 2: France, diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranche, registres paroissiaux, 1533–1894, Céaux
Figure 2 shows an image from an older French church book that’s very difficult to read due to its condition.3 It’s included here as an example of the type of nearly illegible document a translator in this field might encounter. Trying to read a document is particularly difficult when viewing it on microfilm or as a digital image, as is the case with the document shown in Figure 2. Being familiar with the formatting of historical documents and recognizing boilerplate language (e.g. “I, the undersigned priest…”) will serve the translator well when attempting to decipher the writing contained within. For example, by observing the writing in the left margins of the document in Figure 2, the translator will note that there are several records on each page. The writing in the margins indicates the type of record, such as a baptism, and the name of the person. Fortunately, the dates of these records are included in each entry in this document, and some are even legible (e.g., mil six cent quatre-vingt douze, or 1692). In such cases, if the date is unknown or illegible, a skilled translator might be able to estimate a broad timeframe based on the handwriting and prose style.
What Do I Need to Know?
Genealogical translation requires intensive study, but skills can be sharpened by focusing on a few key areas.
Language Competency: A thorough knowledge and level of fluency in the chosen language is an obvious necessity. Also important is a targeted understanding of additional languages that might be included in historical documents. For example, Italian records might include Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. These records might also include French or Spanish, the languages of nations that once occupied parts of Italy. If written during times of transition, the records might include a mix of all three languages. Building a word list in these languages will help the translator with the task at hand.
Historical and Geographical Knowledge: Shifting boundaries can greatly affect the documents in terms of how they’re written and where they’re kept. For example, France currently has 101 jurisdictional districts called departments, including its foreign territories.4 The number of departments has varied over time, meaning the translator will need to know in which department to search during the time the document was written. This extends to France’s foreign holdings. For example, the Department of Gênes no longer exists. It covered Genoa and its surrounding area in what is now Italy. Genoa and the Liguria area were taken by Napoleon in 1805 and remained part of France until his defeat in 1814.5 Many of these records—mostly written in French, but sometimes in a mix of French and Italian dialect—can be found in Genovese and Italian archives.
Paleography: The ability to read handwritten, difficult-to-read script is a must for every genealogical translator. Scripts vary greatly depending on the time period in which the record was written, but also depending on the scribe. A good practice of genealogical translators is to study the scribe’s handwriting (if possible). For example, if the translator is working on a baptismal record, the record might also be found in a book of baptisms that’s accessible online or on microfilm. Viewing several entries will help the translator with difficult words or letters, or to clarify abbreviations. Abbreviations and symbols were often used to save space on expensive paper, and to save the scribe’s time.6 A genealogical translator will often follow a scribe over time, learning his style through the years of service.
Genealogy Standards: Much of the genealogy field adheres to some sort of standards in research and reporting. Many follow guidelines outlined in Genealogy Standards, a book published by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.7 Many of these standards apply to translators, such as the need for source citations (Standards 1–8), the requirement for the careful handling of images and original materials (Standard 20), and the necessity to read handwriting correctly, which is a given in the translation field (Standard 23). Following these standards will help ensure that the client receives a quality product.
Where Do I Look for Training?
Training for genealogy research is plentiful, including intensive programs through Boston University, Excelsior College, Brigham Young University, and the University of Strathclyde. (Please see websites listed below.) Learning institutes, such as the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, and conferences, such as the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference, offer quality genealogical training. Paleography, word lists, and genealogy lessons are also available online through FamilySearch.org and The National Archives U.K. In addition, FamilySearch offers paleography tutorials in many languages. (See Figure 3.) You can also search for paleography books in your language.
Figure 3: One of the many language-specific paleography tutorials available online from FamilySearch (“Research Guide, Handwriting Guide: German Gothic”).
Volunteer work can also provide helpful experience and education. National or local genealogy, historical and cultural organizations, or libraries may offer opportunities to practice reading and translating old documents. FamilySearch, a website offering free access to millions of genealogical records, has a well-organized program in which volunteers can index records online, spending as little or as much time as they desire. Choosing records in your language of study can help build your skills.
Where Do I Find Clients?
The Association of Professional Genealogists is one of the organizations that offer member directories where you can list your specializations. Consider joining or at least looking for professionals who may need translation help. Many embassies and consulates also maintain lists of interpreters and translators. Those seeking citizenship or dual citizenship through these offices may need assistance in translating their vital records.
Challenging but Rewarding
Genealogical translation can be a challenging and rewarding specialization. Clients can range from those wanting to learn more about their ancestors to attorneys searching for heirs. Formal and/or self-education are important to building a deeper understanding of the documents. Learning the paleography of various time periods will help, as well as reading multiple examples from the same scribe, if possible.
- Jones, Thomas W. Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), http://bit.ly/genealogy-mastering.
- “France, diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranche, registres paroissiaux, 1533–1894, Cherbourg (Sainte-Trinité),” from the FamilySearch image database (Coutances et d’Avranche Diocese Archives, Normandy), http://bit.ly/family-search-Cherbourg.
- “France, diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranche, registres paroissiaux, 1533–1894, Céaux,” from the FamilySearch image database (Coutances et d’Avranche Diocese Archives, Normandy), http://bit.ly/family-search-Céaux.
- Annex A. Liste des départements français, www.francogene.com/rech-fr/dep-fr.php.
- Louis-Pierre-Edouard baron Bignon. Histoire de France depuis 1799 jusqu’en 1812, Volume 5 (Paris:Firme Didot Freres, 1830), 76, http://bit.ly/Histoire-De-France.
- How to Decipher Unfamiliar Handwriting, A Short Introduction to Paleography (National History Museum Archives, 2014), 11, http://bit.ly/deciphering-handwriting.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition (Turner Publishing Company, 2014), www.bcgcertification.org.
Resources for Genealogy Translators
Brigham Young University
Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh
Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy
University of Strathclyde
National Genealogical Society Family History Conference
Paleography, Word Lists,
and Genealogy Lessons
The National Archives U.K.
Where to Find Clients
Association of Professional Genealogists
Corey Oiesen works as a genealogist and genealogical translator, with emphasis on France, Canada, the U.S., and Italy. She serves as a facilitator for Boston University’s Genealogical Certificate program. She has a BA in international studies and French and an MBA in international business. Contact: email@example.com.
Bryna O’Sullivan works as French> English genealogical translator and professional genealogist specializing in Connecticut, Luxembourg, and U.S.-Canada research. He has a BA in French literature from Tufts University.