Christmas came early this year! While I was at the biennial conference of the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast last weekend, I had the opportunity to purchase one of the very first copies of In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume IV: German by William F. Hoffman and Jonthan D. Shea. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book for several years now, because I found Volumes I, II, and III (for Polish, Russian, and Latin translations, respectively) to be absolutely indispensable research aids. My family is all too familiar with these books, because they’re the ones that never seem to make it back to the bookshelf. Instead, they’re usually found lying on the kitchen table or coffee table, next to my laptop, because I refer to them so often for a quick look-up of an unfamiliar word or review of grammatical case endings.
So why are these books so great?
I’ve always been one to do genealogy on shoestring budget. Raising four kids meant that I couldn’t afford to pay for professional translations of each and every genealogy document I found. Although we have Facebook groups nowadays that offer translation assistance, such groups didn’t exist when I made my first foray into Polish records. Moreover, I’ve discovered a profound satisfaction in learning to read records about my ancestors in the original language, and having someone else translate the record for me just isn’t as much fun. So, I realized early on that this was sink or swim. If I wanted to make progess in genealogy, it was up to me to learn to read documents in Polish, Russian, Latin, and German.
It’s very true that learning to translate foreign-language records can be intimidating. As genealogists, we often have to contend with grainy or fuzzy microfilms of original records that may have been faded, smeared, torn, taped, or exhibit bleed-through from the other side of the page. We’ve all seen plenty of examples of the illegible chicken-scratch that passes for handwriting on certain documents pertaining to our ancestors. Throw a foreign language in there — or worse, a foreign language written in a different alphabet, like Cyrillic — and it’s enough to make us want to give in to frustration and take up a different hobby. But in reality, learning to read foreign-language records is very doable. Most vital records tend to be pretty formulaic, so it’s not necessary to be fluent in a language in order to read genealogical records written in that language. It’s necessary to have the right tools, however, and that’s where the translation guides by Hoffman and Shea come in.
These books were game-changers for me, allowing me to gain confidence and develop proficiency with translations in Polish, Russian and Latin. They provide numerous examples of an impressive variety of genealogical documents with transcriptions, translations, and discussions of the grammar and vocabulary used in each. They offer historical insight into obscure and archaic words that you’ll never find in a modern dictionary, and they provide multiple examples of the forms that each letter of the alphabet can take in print and cursive. One could even argue that their books have driven the course of my research. Like many of us, I often choose the path of least resistence when it comes to my genealogy research. Since Polish, Russian and Latin records are pretty comfortable for me at this point, I’ve developed a preference for research using documents written in those languages, and I’ve been putting off research that involves German-language records, for both my own family, and for my husband’s ancestors from Prussian Poland. But no more! Now that their German guide has made its way into my eager hands, I have no more excuses. Onward and upward!
So my next post will include my very first German translation, but I admit, I’m on a sharp learning curve right now. The old German cursive (Kurrentschrift) in this 1857 marriage record that I’ve chosen is making my head spin, but hey, practice makes perfect. Stay tuned. And if you’re interested in reading more about Hoffman and Shea’s German translation guide, or you’d like to purchase a copy, you can do so at the authors’ website. I should mention that I have no commercial interest in the sale of their books. I recommend them because I happen to think they’re wonderful resources. However, in the interest of full disclosure, Jonathan was kind enough to give me a “speaker’s discount” and sell me a copy of the book at $9 off the cover price.
Time to get back to work on that record. It’s not going to translate itself. 😉
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz