Newcomers to the Polish Genealogy group are often intimidated by the prospect of translating records in foreign languages. Poland’s complicated history has dictated that vital records may be found in Latin, Polish, German, or Russian. However, fluency in these languages is not required for successful genealogical research. Vital records tend to be very formulaic, and with practice, one can learn to translate them with relative ease. The very best translation guides that I’ve found are not online. They are a series of books written by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, entitled, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide for Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents. Volume I: Polish, Volume II: Russian, and Volume III: Latin have already been published and purchasing information can be found here at the authors’ website.
Less comprehensive assistance can be found online. Although machine translators (e.g. Google Translate) can be useful from time to time, their use is often best limited to individual words or short phrases, particularly when dealing with old texts which may be written in an old-fashioned, “wordy” or flowery legal format. There are a variety of websites that can assist, in a pinch, with translating documents. I made a list of some that I’ve found most helpful for the Polish Genealogy group, grouped by language.
Multi-lingual translation aids (these pages provide assistance with translation of Polish, Russian, German, and/or Latin, to English):
The entire article in the above link is very informative, but scroll down about ¼ of the page to get to the translation examples.
A word about given names: A common problem with “translating” Polish given names into English is that some old Slavic names simply have no exact translation. By “exact,” I mean that typically, if there is a Christian saint with a particular name, that saint’s name is the basis for translation. So the traditional Slavic name Wojciech is commonly translated as Adalbert because St. Wojciech took the name Adalbert at his confirmation. Names like Władysław, Stanisław, Bronisław, etc. commonly use the Latin form as the “correct” translation (e.g. Ladislaus, Bronislaus, Stanislaus). People with those names who immigrated to English-speaking countries often assumed names that were similar visually or phonetically to their original names, but there were no hard-and-fast rules about these things. So Władysław often became Walter, Stanisława often became Stella, and Pelagia often becamse Pearl — but other choices were possible, and ultimately it was up to the individual what name he or she decided to use after immigration. I have two individuals on my husband’s side of the family who were baptized as “Stanisław,” but became “Edward” in America. So it’s best to keep an open mind about given names when researching.
The above link is for a Latin tutorial that might suit those who really want to learn Latin, but may be more comprehensive than necessary for those who only want to know enough to translate church records from Polish parishes.
The above link is for a helpful list of ecclesiastical abbreviations, which are very common in Catholic church records.
The preceding three links are all for Latin genealogical word lists, so there’s some overlap among them.
This link (above) includes additional Latin links to dictionaries and word lists.
The above link is specifically for German to English translations of illnesses and causes of death.
The preceding two links provide assistance with recognizing “old German” Suetterlin script.
I hope these links are helpful to you in your research. If you know of some great sites that I’ve missed, please let me know! Happy researching!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016