In my last post, I wrote about the new release of Shea and Hoffman’s Russian translation aid, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, as an e-book. Today I’d like to offer a few tips to keep in mind when learning to translate Polish or Russian vital records for your family. Some of these tips could apply to translations from any language, but these languages are the ones I feel most comfortable with. Please note I am not a linguist, or a scholar, nor am I conversational in either of these languages. I’m a genealogist who was motivated to learn to read vital records so that I could be more independent in researching my family tree. If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that description might fit you, as well.
Setting the stage
When I started my family history research, I knew nothing of the Polish language, beyond a few Christmas carols, food words, and folk songs. I had never attended Polish Saturday School, neither of my parents speaks Polish, and when I tried to get Grandma to teach me Polish when I was about 10, both of us felt overwhelmed by the task rather quickly and the project was soon abandoned. So the first time I loaded up a microfilm reader at the Family History Center with a reel of parish records from one of my ancestral parishes in Poland and started scrolling through the records, I was frustrated and discouraged. The handwriting was cramped, faded in some places and full of ink blots and smudges in others, and it seemed doubtful that these Polish-language documents were even written with a Roman alphabet, since the style of the cursive was so unfamiliar. I wasn’t at all sure that I could do this. However, vital records are very formulaic, and if I could learn to read them, I think pretty much anyone can, given enough practice and patience.
Know what to expect, and plan for success
I began with the parish of Kowalewo-Opactwo, which was the birthplace of my great-grandmother, Veronica/Weronika (née Grzesiak) Zazycki. I knew that Weronika was born circa 1876, and at the time of her birth, the parish was located in the Kalisz gubernia (or province) of the Russian Empire. (If you’re new to Polish genealogy and are puzzled by the fact that an ethnic Pole would have been born in the Russian Empire, this article may help clarify things.) Parishes in Russian Poland were required to keep records in Russian starting in 1868. Therefore, I knew that Grandma Veronica’s birth record would be in Russian. I also knew that I did not want to start with these Russian records, if I could avoid it. Although the language in which the records were written changed in 1868, the format of the civil birth, marriage, and death records from this part of Poland remained the same from 1826 through the early part of the 20th century. Since Polish and English both use the Roman alphabet, I figured it would be easier to learn to read Polish records first, and familiarize myself with the structure of the records, as well as the grammatical features common to both Russian and Polish, such as a high degree of grammatical inflection.
So I took a look at my family tree again. I knew that Veronica’s older brother, Walter/Władysław, was born circa 1867. That suggested to me that their parents were married before 1867, which meant that their marriage record should be in Polish, rather than Russian. Sure enough, I was able to locate and translate the Polish-language record for Veronica’s parents’ marriage in 1865. This enabled me to trace back further through the records, discover some of Veronica’s ancestry, and get some practice with reading Polish records along the way.
I highly recommend this strategy if you’re able to employ it. Learning to read Russian is sufficiently challenging that you’ll want to set yourself up for success by easing into it. If you’ve already got enough experience with Polish records to know, for example, that the names, ages, and occupations of the witnesses to a baptism come at the beginning of the record, immediately after the father’s name, age, and occupation, and that the names are written in the genitive grammatical case, then half the battle is won. At that point, when you start to examine Russian vital records, you’ll be able to anticipate certain elements of the text and grammar. This in turn will allow you to focus your attention on deciphering the Cyrillic cursive in which the Russian records are written.
Get a good translation guide, and focus on the parts that you feel are most helpful.
With Shea and Hoffman’s Polish guide, I spent a fair amount of time on the first section, which presented the Polish alphabet, phonetics, and the introduction to grammar, and then zeroed in on the pages that included date and time expressions, numbers, months, days of the week, and family relationships. After that I skipped to the transcribed and translated examples of birth, marriage and death records. Even though the records for my family are in the paragraph form, I found it useful to read through the examples presented in the columnar form as well. There’s a fantastic glossary in the back, along with a list of Polish given names and feast days that I found very helpful when I encountered a name that was unfamiliar to me.
Let the boilerplate text be your guide.
As mentioned previously, Polish civil vital records are pretty formulaic. The paragraph-style records from this part of Poland (after 1826) always begin with, “Działo się w…” meaning, “It happened in,” or “This happened in.” Since some words in these documents are always the same, you can use those words to familiarize yourself with the handwriting found in the document. This is especially true when you make the move to Russian records, since there are multiple forms that certain cursive letters can take. For example, the Russian т can be written in such a way that it looks like our lowercase cursive m, or like our lowercase cursive f. If you’re lucky, the priest was consistent with how he formed his letters, so you can apply that knowledge to unknown words in the document.
Take a break if you get stuck.
It happens to all of us that we encounter a word, phrase, or even just part of a word that we can’t figure out. When that happens, avoid the temptation to spin your wheels for too long; sometimes moving on in the document is the best thing you can do. As you proceed further and encounter more of that boilerplate text that is your Rosetta Stone for deciphering the document, you may realize what those mystery letters are that were eluding you. If you find yourself getting really frustrated, it’s probably time to take a break. Coming back to the problem later, with fresh eyes, can do wonders.
Pick up a pen.
While I can’t say I’ve tried this one too often myself, some people swear by the practice of trying to mimic the scribe, recopying the text in an effort to get a feel for his letter formation. Where I think that the practice of writing the letters by hand would be especially helpful, is in learning the Russian alphabet (more on that below).
Although some would argue that Facebook groups like Genealogical Translations eliminate the necessity of studying a foreign language at all, I believe that there’s still value in learning to read documents relevant to your ancestors for yourself. The more competent you become with reading (at least) the basic birth, marriage and death records, the more independent and efficient you will be as a researcher, since you’ll be able to tell immediately from the record itself whether the details confirm that it is relevant to your research, or merely a record of someone with the same name as your ancestor. While you’re learning, however, the Facebook groups can be a great asset, like having the answer key for a practice test. Even after you become comfortable with translating these documents for yourself, the Facebook groups are a great resource if you get stuck on a particular document due to some awful handwriting or unusual phrasing. You may also find that volunteers in the Facebook groups are quicker to offer assistance to those researchers who appear to be trying to learn for themselves, as opposed to those who request one full translation after another of documents with a similar format.
Special Tips for Learning to Read Russian
Once you’ve gained some familiarity and experience with Polish vital records for your ancestral parish, it may be time to tackle those Russian records. Here’s what worked for me.
Clear your calendar
Although I dabbled in learning to read Russian for about a decade, I never got serious about it until December 2012, when I discovered a cache of records on Geneteka, pertaining to the family of my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński. Not only was Józef’s 1892 birth record included, but also birth records for eight of his siblings who were previously unknown to my family, and many other records besides. I really wanted to learn to read those records. I had no time during the busy holiday season to spend on this project, but the best gift my family gave me that year was the gift of time during our week of family vacation between Christmas and New Year’s, to just sit there and plug away at the records until they started to make sense.
Retrain your brain
No matter how you schedule it in, you will definitely need to set aside some time for this, as there’s an element of retraining the brain that’s involved. Initially I spent a lot of time just staring at each record, trying to make my brain recognize the individual Cyrillic cursive letters within the words, instead of automatically interpreting them as letters in the Roman alphabet. That’s because many of the Cyrillic cursive letters look deceptively like Roman letters, as mentioned previously. It takes some time to learn that what looks like a b is really a Polish w which makes the sound of the English v; the English letter d (д in Russian print) can be written so that it looks like a cursive lower-case g; the cursive Russian letters that look like n, p, c, and m are really the equivalents of p, r, s, and t in English; and that word that looks like “mpu” is really “три” and means “three.” Shea and Hoffman sum this up in a single chart on page 1 which compares printed and cursive forms of the Cyrillic letters with their English, Polish, and Lithuanian phonetic counterparts, with an added bonus chart of some archaic letters which were removed from the Russian alphabet during the Russian Revolution, but which are still used in other Cyrillic alphabets (e.g. Ukrainian). I spent a great deal of time in the beginning just digesting this chart, and this is where I believe in hindsight that the learning process would have been faster had I picked up a pen and started writing these letter forms rather than simply trying to memorize them visually.
Another page that was bookmarked early on was page 9, which focuses specifically on the different cursive forms each letter can take, and offers tips on how to distinguish between letters that may appear similar. These tips will make it clear that the word shown in the “Russian cursive makes me cry sometimes” image at the top of this page is intentionally written to be confusing. This word, лишиться (meaning “to lose”), should be written with a horizontal line under the ш and another horizontal line over the т to distinguish them from the other letters. Written like this, without those clarifying marks, I needed assistance to figure this word out, and fortunately, this is not a word you’re likely to encounter in a Russian vital record. Nonetheless, Shea and Hoffman do provide a definition of the related word лишённый (“deprived,” as in, “лишённый всѣхъ правъ, “deprived of all rights”) in the glossary at the end of the book.
Rethink your АБВ’s
In addition to learning the printed and cursive forms of each Cyrillic letter and their phonetic equivalents in Polish and English, you’ll have to relearn the alphabetical order. Russian throws us another curve ball in the fact that the alphabet is presented in a different order from what we’re used to, which is important to remember when using the glossary in the back of Shea and Hoffman’s book. I can’t tell you how many times I would try to look up a word like землевладелец (meaning “landowner,” often used where the word gospodarz was used in Polish-language records) and instinctively flip to the end of the glossary, only to remember that the letter з which sounds like z comes near the beginning of the alphabet. It may feel like you’re spending an inordinate amount of time with that chart on page 1, but I think it will be time well spent.
In the beginning, it might help to think of your efforts as “deciphering” more than “reading.” It used to take me a long time to make it through each word in a document, identifying each letter individually, and you’ll probably go through this stage as well. By “long time,” I mean that I think it took me a week, chipping away at it in my free time, to fully translate my first Russian vital record. Nowadays, if it’s a record from one of my ancestral parishes where the handwriting, the surnames, and nearby villages mentioned in the record are familiar to me, and there aren’t a lot of uncommon occupations or unusual phrases to look up, I can read a new record in just a few minutes. So the moral of the story is, don’t get frustrated, be patient with yourself, and stick with it. Think of it as a puzzle to solve. Some folks do crosswords or Sudoku; you read 19th-century Russian documents. It really does get easier with time and practice.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020
 Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, (New Britain, Connecticut: Language and Lineage Press, 2002), 388.
Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, (New Britain, Connecticut: Language and Lineage Press, 2002), 388.
IgorAntarov, “Russian cursive makes me cry sometimes,” Imgur (https://imgur.com/gallery/3VLqX : 13 June 2020)