For many family historians with Polish roots, the language barrier is one of the most intimidating obstacles to tracing their Polish ancestry. Depending on the specific region from which one’s ancestors originated, genealogical documents may be written in Latin, Polish, German, or Russian, and sometimes in several of these languages, depending on the time period and the source of the documents. However, the good news is that fluency in these languages is not required for successful genealogical research. A good genealogical translation guide, and a willingness to learn, can make it possible to locate and translate the documents needed for building a family tree.
The very best genealogical translation guides I’ve found are those authored by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. “Fred” Hoffman. Shea and Hoffman published a four-volume series, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents, which began in 2000 with Volume I: Polish, and continued with Volume II: Russian, Volume III: Latin, and Volume IV: German, in 2002, 2013, and 2017, respectively. Each volume is packed with multiple examples of every kind of document that a researcher might hope to encounter in the course of her family history research, in addition to broader instruction in the languages themselves, covering phonetics, orthography, handwriting, grammar, personal names, and more. Shea and Hoffman also provide instructions for tracing immigrant ancestors back to Europe, and offer an introduction to the best gazetteers for locating ancestral villages, as well as letter-writing templates to aid in the composition and translation of correspondence with foreign archives. In addition, their glossaries are invaluable for defining the sort of esoteric words that are not in common usage today, that nonetheless may be encountered in genealogical documents. These are just some of the highlights of each book; additional information is available at the authors’ website, including an excerpt from their Polish translation guide aimed at helping researchers decipher correspondence received from archives in Poland.
As one may imagine, these books are pretty substantial, physically. They’re printed at a large, 8.25 x 11 inch size so that images of the documents are adequately displayed for comfortable reading, yet the books range between 384 pages for the Polish volume, up to 665 pages for the German volume. I love having a physical book to hold in my hands and fill with sticky tabs, marking all the sections I refer to most frequently, but it’s not always convenient to lug these books around when I’m on the go. Moreover, the size makes them expensive to ship, which may make the books less affordable for those living outside the U.S. With that in mind, the authors began publishing the series as e-books, and the German, Polish, and Latin volumes have been available for some time now. The Russian e-book is newly available, and I’m thrilled to have it on my computer desktop for easy access. As an added bonus, the e-book format allows me to zoom in on the images of the documents for easy viewing of tiny details in the letter formation without straining my eyes, whereas this was a little more difficult in the print version.
This new, third-edition Russian translation guide is 52 pages longer than my old first-edition book, and updates include expanded sections on records leading back to Europe, gazetteers for the Russian Empire, and dealing with repositories of records in the former Russian Empire. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of information, however. As the authors themselves suggest in the introduction, this is not necessarily the sort of book that one reads cover-to-cover. Polish researcher Cecile Wendt Jensen once compared Shea and Hoffman’s books to the Sears Wish Book for genealogical documents, and I think her analogy hit the nail on the head. Although I might give my eye teeth to locate some of the documents they discuss, not every example will be relevant to all researchers.
Of course, in this era of internet research, there are some online translation aids available for Polish, Russian, Latin, and German genealogical translations. These aids offer a decent introduction to translating records, and you may find that they meet your needs entirely if you’re not interested in understanding every detail of every vital record you encounter. However, if you’re after the whole enchilada, Shea and Hoffman’s books are game-changers. They present multiple examples of birth, marriage and death records—the backbone of our family trees—with a complete analysis of each record, including comments on the handwriting, grammatical or spelling errors, alternate phrasings which are sometimes found, and more. Each document is dissected in a warm, collegial tone, as if the authors were right there in the room with you, to explain, encourage, and share helpful research tips along the way.
In the interest of full transparency, I did receive a complimentary pre-release copy of the Russian e-book, but I have no monetary interest in the sales of these books. I’m simply a huge fan of the In Their Words series because of how helpful these books have been, empowering me to be comfortable and confident in reading for myself the birth, marriage, and death records that tell the story of my family. I’m not a gifted linguist, as anyone who has heard me try to pronounce “Grzesiak” accurately can tell you. (It always comes out sounding like “Grzeszak.”) I couldn’t engage in a conversation in Polish or Russian to save my life. But vital records? I’ve got those covered. And if I can learn to read them, you can, too.
In my next post, I’ll share some strategies that I’ve found helpful to use when translating a new record. Happy researching!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020