In my last post, I wrote about my excitement over my brand-new copy of Hoffman and Shea’s recently published German genealogical translation guide, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents: Volume IV: German. I decided to test-drive it using a marriage record from the Bischöfliches Zentralarchiv Regensburg that my friend Mente Pongratz obtained for me a while ago. While most of the documents he obtained were in Latin, there were a few that were in German, and I’ve been saving the German-language ones for this moment. These documents pertain to my Meier family from the village of Obertrübenbach, presently located in Cham County, Oberpfalz, Bayern (Bavaria),. I’ll have to introduce you to my Meiers in the next post, but right now, I want to focus on the process I use when I begin to learn to read genealogical records in an unfamiliar language.
The marriage record in question is for Johann Meier/Maier and his bride, Anna Maria Urban, who were my great-great-great-grandparents, and it comes from the Catholic Church in Roding, Bavaria. Let’s start by looking at the entire document (Figure 1a and b).
Figure 1a: Left page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.
Figure 1b: Right page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.
Remember that I’m starting from the same place as many of you. I have no prior experience with reading, speaking, or writing German, and I’ve never made any serious attempt to decipher records in that language until now. I do have some prior knowledge about the names of my ancestors, and I’m going to leverage that advantage as far as possible. As I looked at this for the first time, my first thought was that learning the cursive letter forms is going to be almost as bad as learning Cyrillic. The letter forms used are an old German cursive script called Kurrent which is sufficiently different from our cursive script that it’s not just a matter of reading bad handwriting. The printed text at the top is in a typeface called Fraktur, which is sufficiently similar to our “Old English” Gothic typefaces that it shouldn’t pose too many problems. That said, one of the first things I should have done when I obtained this document as a hard copy from the archive was was to scan it immediately and open it up on my computer, in order to zoom in on the text, rather than trying to work from the hard copy. Since I didn’t do that, I struggled for a bit with the fact that the Fraktur 𝕭 (B) is almost identical to the Fraktur 𝖁 (V), especially when viewed at a small size. This made it difficult to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.
Take It From the Top
Let’s start with looking at the column headings on the left page:
The first thing I did was to check Hoffman and Shea’s section entitled, “Marriage Entries and Certificates: Columnar-Form Original Entries in Registers” to see if this exact form was reproduced. Unfortunately, it was not. However, this section provided a good starting point for me to decipher many of the words found in the column headings without having to resort to the glossary in the back every time. The first column reads Trauung-Tag, or wedding date. The second column is Bräutigame Tauf- und Zuname, Bridegroom, given- and surname. Easy enough so far. In the third column, you’ll notice that the Fraktur 𝕾 looks rather different from our S, and the final 𝖉 in the first word looks almost like a 𝖇, and I found myself referring frequently to Hoffman and Shea’s handy German alphabet chart on page 1, where they show Fraktur, Cursive, and Roman letters all side by side for comparison. However, it’s clear from the examples in the book that the first word in the third column is Stand. and then Religion is easy to read.
The glossary at the back of Hoffman and Shea’s book defines “Stand” as “position, class; (marital) status; occupation; state,” making it clear that the word could have multiple meanings. Moreover, there’s a period after Stand. in this document, so I briefly entertained the idea that perhaps this was intended to be an abbreviation for Standesamt, which is the civil registry office. Now, as it turns out, Hoffman and Shea spell it out on page 232 that, “What we see under Stand will usually be occupation.” However, since I was skipping around in the book, I managed to miss that part initially, so I had to prove this for myself. To rule out the possibility that maybe Stand. meant Standesamt, I checked the Meyers gazetteer for Obertrübenbach, which reported that the Standesamt was in Obertrübenbach itself. I knew I should be able to locate this word in this document, since I knew that Wenzel Meier’s family came from Obertrübenbach. Sure enough, in the entry for the marriage of Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban (second from the bottom), “Obertrübenbach” appears in the 4th column on the left page. Since the writing in the 3rd column is completely dissimilar, we know that Stand can’t mean Standesamt in this context.
Further examination of the entries in this third column reveals that only one word was recorded in most cases (sometimes hyphenated), and the word katholisch does not appear to be written in any of the columns. This makes sense; in a register from a Catholic parish, presumably all or most of the brides and grooms would be Catholic, so perhaps religion was recorded only in cases where one party was of a different faith. I spent a few minutes wondering whether any of the entries in this column could possibly be ledig (single, unmarried), but then I skipped ahead to the column heading a few columns over, and realized that it reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib, or “single, or widower whose wife is deceased (or separated).” Although the glossary defines geschieden as “separated,” in this context I think we can understand it to mean “divorced.” This column heading is interesting in light of the fact that this is a Catholic parish register and the Catholic church does not permit remarriage after divorce. Taken together with the previous column heading that mentioned stating the religion of the bridegroom, I wondered if this might imply that this form was created for use by a variety of religions in Germany, in an era when church records were recognized as legal documents, and I made a mental note to look up the date when civil vital registration (independent from church registration) began in Bavaria.
Since marital status was covered in Column 6, I finally arrived at the conclusion that “Stand” in column 3 must refer to the bridegroom’s occupation. After much back-and-forth between the alphabet chart showing the letter formations in Kurrent, and comparison of all the other entries, I concluded that Johann Maier must be a Häusler, which Hoffman and Shea define as, “cottager, peasant with a small house and garden and a livestock (e.g., a goat), but not enough to support a family.”
The next column heading is Landgericht, Aufenthalts-Ort, meaning, “District Court, place of residence.” This is where the word Obertrübenbach was recorded, which helped me determine the context for Stand in the previous column heading. Next comes Eltern. Bei der Mutter auch der Geschlechts-Name. This is translated to mean, “Parents. With the mother, also the Family Name.” So what we should see in this column are the names of the groom’s parents, with his mother’s maiden name specified. I was able to make out Johann’s father’s name, Christoph, and his mother’s name, Walburga gb. (geboren, i.e. née) Meinzinger. Did it help that I already knew what these names should be? Absolutely. But when you’re just starting out, using every scrap of information available to you is fair game.
The next column heading was also discussed previously, as it’s the one that reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib. In this case, Johann Maier was recorded as ledig, single. After that, the column heading is Geboren wann? wo?, which we understand to mean, “Born when? Where?” Apparently the priest saw no need to record any of the wheres, but he did record Johann’s birthdate for us, 27 July 1827.
Here Comes the Bride
The next columns pertain to the bride, starting with the column that reads, Der Braut Vor – und Geschlechts-Name, which is, “The Bride, given and family-name.” In the relevant entry, the bride’s name is recorded as Anna M. Urban, but her Stand doesn’t make sense to me. The first part of the word looks exactly like Häusler as it’s written in the groom’s column, but it looks like it ends in “𝖘𝖙,” i.e., “Häuslerst.” This isn’t possible. Häuslerin would be a female Häusler, but those final two letters clearly aren’t “𝖎𝖓.” I left this alone for a while and moved on, but after further consideration, I’m wondering if perhaps those final letters really are “𝖘𝖙,” and this was intended to be an abbreviation for Häuslerstochter, “daughter of a Häusler.”
Having completed the first page, I anticipated that the second page would be a little easier since many of the column headings are the same for the bride as they were for the groom. The first column on the right page is Landgericht Aufenthalts-Ort, although this time the word bisheriger, meaning “previous” or “up until now” is inserted after Landgericht. Anna Maria’s residence prior to her marriage was noted to be Kalsing. Her parents, described in the next column (identical column headings to corresponding column on groom’s side), were Johann and A. Maria gb. Ederer. The next column, which reports whether she was single or a widow, states, led. — possibly abbreviated because by now, the priest’s hand was no doubt cramped from the effort of writing such tiny letters with any degree of precision. Anna Maria Urban was noted to have been born on 11 October 1832 in Kalsing.
We’re in the home stretch, with just four columns to go. The next one up has the heading, Pfarrer Stellvertreter, “Parish Representative,” implying that this column should name the priest who performed the marriage (who might not be the pastor himself). At this point, I had no more lifelines, in that I didn’t know in advance what the name should be here. My best guess was that the first letter is a P, and the last two letters are “-it” or possibly “-is.” Poppit? Poppis? The middle two letters that seem to be repeated contain a downward stroke that suggests either the letter p, g, or z; it doesn’t look like y, f, or h. I tried playing with versions of this surname on a German-language surname distribution site, and even on Google. My new best guess was that the surname might be Kappis, but the fact that this surname does not exist in Cham County today doesn’t bode well for that hypothesis. There’s also the fact that the capital “K” in “Kalsing” and in Klessing (3rd entry from the top in the first column on the second page) is formed quite differently from the first letter in the priest’s name. At this point, I decided to move on again and maybe come back to this name.
The next column is for the witnesses, with given name, surname, occupation, and place of residence. Again, I was without a safety net. The first witness was easy, Georg Maier, but the next line was not so easy: F???? m. (?) and then a word that looked like it might be “Obertrübenbach,” but with half the letters randomly omitted from the middle. Sigh. My guess was that the word beginning with F was an occupation, and maybe what looks like “m.” was actually im (in), so this phrase might describe Georg, rather than indicating the name of a different person. The third line in this column appears to be “Math. Pongratz,” and as this realization dawned on me, I realized that the first letter in that priest’s name really must be P, although I still can’t find a valid German surname that seems to fit that pattern.
The next column, Weltliche Heiraths-Lizenz, refers to a secular marriage license. I had no idea what the initials here are supposed to indicate; they seemed to be “L.R.” in most cases. It would be interesting to know if a secular marriage license could be obtained for further documentation of this marriage. I made a mental note to ask one of my friends who is an expert in German genealogy for more information on the entries in this column and their implications for further research.
The final column, Getraut mit oder ohne Dispens in den Graden, mit oder ohne Denunziationen, seemed to translate as, “Married with or without dispensation in degrees, with or without denunciation,” and some Roman Catholic canonical context is needed to understand this. My sense is that it relates to the need, or lack thereof, for a dispensation for the marriage due to consanguinity, since this need is determined by the degrees of separation in the relationship between the bride and groom. Denunciation in this context seems to refer to the reporting of known impediments to the marriage to the priest beforehand, in response to the announcement of the marriage banns (see “Denunciation of impediments,” here.) So in the case of most of the marriages recorded on these pages, there were no impediments to the marriage that were reported, and therefore there was no need for any dispensations. The one exception to this is the 8th marriage record down from the top (immediately above the record for Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban), for Wolfgang Niklas and Elisabeth Niklas. Given their shared surname, they were probably relatives by blood or marriage, whose marriage would necessitate a dispensation. I considered trying to decipher the script pertaining to the dispensations, but I felt that I’d banged my head on a wall long enough for one day.
That’s a Wrap
So after all this, my best (first) attempt at translation can be summarized as follows:
- Wedding date: 27 October 1857
- Groom’s Name: Johann Maier
- Occupation: Häusler (cottager)
- Place of Residence: Obertrübenbach
- Parents’ Names: Christoph and Walburga née Meinzinger
- Marital Status: single
- Date of Birth: 27 July 1827
- Bride’s Name: Anna M. Urban
- Occupation: Häuslerstochter (daughter of a Häusler)
- Place of Residence: Kalsing
- Parents’ Names: Johann and A. Maria née Ederer
- Marital Status: single
- Date and Place of Birth: 11 October 1832 in Kalsing
- Parish Representative: Pa??il or Pa??it (?)
- Witnesses: Georg Maier, ?? in Obertr???h, Math. Pongratz.
- Secular Marriage License: LR (whatever that means)
- Marriage dispensation with or without denunciation: Not applicable
I never did come to any resolution with bits of it, but I can always ask a German friend, or post the record in the Genealogy Translations Facebook group to get help with those little bits, and to have them correct my translation. Even without those options, it’s okay to have small bits remain unresolved. I used to do this all the time when I was translating Russian records, before I discovered Facebook genealogy groups. Now, with a few more years of experience in reading Russian records, I sometimes come across those early translations in my research notes and fill in the little bits that I couldn’t decipher the first time around. Now that I have my first German translation behind me, I know that it can only get easier from here!
If I Can Do This, So Can You!
So what are some general tips to keep in mind when learning to translate documents in a foreign language? Here are seven pointers:
Always look at the entire page, not just a single record.
I think this one ought to be obvious, but it’s really critical to familiarize oneself with all the examples of handwriting on the page.
Use the familiar to decode the unfamiliar.
Find something you recognize on the page — any words that you can recognize or predict based on your prior knowledge, or about what you’ve been told the document says (for example, from an indexed entry) — and use these words as your Rosetta Stone to understand the nuances of the handwriting of this particular writer. Since there are multiple forms of the letter “s” that are possible in Kurrent, for example, does the writer consistently use the same form? Or does he use them all interchangeably?
Use maps and gazetteers to help understand the places mentioned.
A good exercise for me will be to go through the list of places of residence mentioned in this document and see if I can translate them based on the names of villages close to Roding.
Formulate hypotheses and test them.
When you think you’ve deciphered a surname found in a record, test your theory by plugging it into a German language surname distribution database. If the surname exists in Germany today, you may be on the right track, and you score bonus points if the surname is also found in your county of interest. Similarly, if you think you’ve deciphered the priest’s name, try Googling the history of the parish to see if this particular priest was mentioned. Note that Google.de will provide different (and more appropriate) results than English-language Google, and for Polish records, Google.pl is the preferred search engine. You may need to translate your search terms first using Google Translate, which is an approach that is always fraught with peril when working with inflected languages, so keep your searches simple.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
The more you work with foreign-language records, the more things will start to make sense to you. Especially with different letter forms like Cyrillic and Kurrent, it seems like a certain amount of time has to be spent in the beginning in staring at alphabet charts, committing the letter forms to memory and learning the sounds that each letter makes. Be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.
Get help when you need it.
Learning to translation foreign-language records is an investment in yourself, but you don’t have to go it alone. The global genealogical community is a very generous one, and there are people who are willing to help you along the way. If you get stuck, you can always post the record and your translation attempt in the Genealogy Translations group on Facebook. Volunteers in that group, or in one of the groups targeted to your ethnic group of interest (German Genealogy, Polish Genealogy, etc.), can usually provide insight into archaic terms and offer historical context to help you understand the record, in addition to merely offering a translation.
Deciphering genealogical records can be quite an enjoyable puzzle, and you’ll gain a useful skill that will help you in your research. I’m really excited to continue my practice with German records, now that Hoffman and Shea’s German genealogical translation guide is here. While you won’t see me offering assistance to others with German translations any time soon, I’m confident that regular practice, the day will come when I can pick up a German document written in Kurrent and read it without having to look up any words in the book. And if I can do that, you can, too!
Note: The first round of edits is in! Apparently I was systematically misreading 𝖇 and 𝖉 in this document, too. I’ve made those changes in the text above. Thank you, Mente. Every correction is a learning opportunity.
1 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, vol. 27, pg. 3, MF 573.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017