When to Hire a Translator for Genealogy Documents

Sometimes it’s best to hire a translator for genealogy documents–even if you’re a committed DIY-family historian. Here are some fantastic tips from a pro on when and how to hire a translator rather than do it yourself (or ask Google Translate).

When should you hire a translator for genealogy documents?

This is a great question, and we’ve invited professional German-English translator Katherine Schober to address it. She specializes in translating genealogy documents. Here’s what she has to say—and don’t miss her top tips for hiring a translator.

“In today’s technological world, the internet does provide some great tools for helping you transcribe and translate your documents. In fact, I’ve previously blogged here at Genealogy Gems about tips and best websites for DIY-translations. (And here’s an even more focused blog post I did on best German translation websites.)

But sometimes it’s best to hire a translator for genealogy documents rather than trying to do it yourself (or asking Google Translate). These are the times when you want to be absolutely certain of the accuracy of your document, when you want to be sure that you are extracting all possible information and genealogical clues about your ancestor from the document at hand. And, perhaps the most obvious reason, when you just don’t have time to painstakingly decipher the document yourself.

Puzzling out the words

A key reason to hire a professional translator is to be sure the document is read and transcribed accurately. Just like today, no two person’s handwriting was ever exactly alike in the past. So while there are “alphabet keys” to help you transcribe old handwriting letter by letter, your ancestor or a church scribe may have written some letters very differently than the handwriting examples you may be consulting today. The same applies to spelling. German—and many other languages—did not have standardized spelling until the late 1800s. Our ancestors often just spelled words as they sounded to their own ears. This can result in some very unique spelling, and make it impossible for you to find a word in a dictionary or online.

Furthermore, many of the words our ancestors used are outdated and no longer in modern dictionaries. Old-fashioned dictionaries do exist, but you must find them and perhaps buy them, and you will usually need to understand the language (such as German) to interpret them correctly.

These realities can leave you puzzled and frustrated when trying to decipher a strange-looking scribble. However, translators have seen many variations of letter formation and spellings throughout their careers, and are familiar with these old words and phrases. Something that may take you hours or days to decipher—and may produce uncertain results—is much easier and more reliable when done by a professional.

Along with understanding what’s written, translators who have genealogical or historical specialties also know what information should appear in a church book or certificate. They are very familiar with the formats and phrasings commonly used in these documents, which makes it much easier for them to recognize and translate these.

What your document really means

Hiring a professional translator for your genealogy document is best when you want to be absolutely certain of its overall meaning—not just its word-by-word translation. In the genealogical field, certain words and phrases have layers of historical meaning. Some of these meanings actually varied by time period and location. A professional genealogy translator would be able to accurately convey the meaning of a word or phrase for your specific document, not just a cookie-cutter dictionary definition.

A translator will also be able to provide more information on the material found in your document. For example, I always use footnotes to inform my client of the historical context of an event mentioned in passing in a text, of additional meanings of a word that the author may have been trying to convey, of the meaning of certain symbols in church books and certificates, and so on. This helps you to have a more thorough and accurate understanding of your ancestor’s document, which can help you to discover more clues later on.

Tips for hiring a translator for genealogy

1. Hire a native English speaker (if your document will be translated into English).

In the field of translation, the number one rule for most translators is to only translate into your native language. Why? When writing a document for a client, the translator should be 110% confident of every word he or she types, understanding every small nuance the translated word might convey to you, the English reader. The text usually also reads much more fluently if written by a native speaker.

That being said, there are of course exceptions to every rule: there are many translators who grew up in bilingual households, as well as talented linguists who do translate accurately and write well in both their native and non-native languages. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that if you are translating a diary or a letter, hire a native English speaker to be sure that your document will read well and accurately in your own language. If you are translating a certificate or a record where it’s more about individual words and phrases, this is likely not as important.

2. Ask for their credentials and experience.

Nowadays, most translators have websites which list this information, but if not, feel free to ask them. In the age of the internet, trust is important, and translators understand that you need to trust them with your project and your financial investment. If they have a review section on their website, check out the reviews before going forward with your project.

3. Get a clear understanding of project cost and time required before beginning your project.

Experienced translators should have many projects under their belts, allowing them to provide you with a general idea of cost and time required for your translation. For example, before I quote a project, I look at past projects of similar format and handwriting (is it a church book? a diary? a certificate?) and look at my records on how much time was required for those specific jobs. I am then able to accurately convey to the client how much time I will need for his or her translation, as well as how much it will cost. It is important to discuss these things ahead of time so that there are no surprises for either person upon completion of the job.

How to find a translator for genealogy

Of course, if you need a translator for your German genealogy document, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to write me any time through my website, www.sktranslations.com. If you’re looking for another language, try these online directories:

American Translators Association. From the home page of this website, under Find a Translator or Interpreter, click where it says Click here for advanced options. For an initial search, you can skip some of the fields and just focus on the ones shown here. Enter the language in which the document is written and your language (in which to translate it). Then scroll down to the Area of Specialization field. From the drop-down menu, under the Social Sciences category, choose genealogy or history.

Association of Professional Genealogists. There’s not an advanced search to narrow down those who provide translation services for a specific language. Search by research or geographic specialty to find those with expertise in particular regions or languages, then read their biographies to see whether translation is listed as a specialty or service they provide. You can also click on Translator under Find a Specialist on their directory page, though you may have to click on the biography of each to see what languages they offer. (Deep language expertise by professional genealogists may vary; watch for professional-level language training listed in their academic degrees.)”

Explore more foreign-language genealogy resources

The Genealogy Gems website is packed with more tips to help you explore your family history in another language. To search for the ones you need, click here to return to the home page. Then use the category search on the left side. There’s a translation tips category, but there are also plenty of articles on researching German, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian and other ancestors whose records may be in a language you don’t speak. Start reading–you may find just the tip or tool you need to bust through your foreign-language family history brick wall.

Here’s Why I Reached Out for Help

Sooner or later, we all hit genealogy brick walls: a point in our family history research where we can’t seem to make any further progress. When I hit a brick wall with great-grandpa Gus in Eastern Europe, I turned to Legacy Tree Genealogists. Here’s what their experts found that I hadn’t discovered for myself.

My genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe

My great-grandfather Gustav Sporowski was born in Kotten, Kreis Johannisburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1881. His wife was born in Kreis Ortelsburg in 1878. I’ve found all of her church records, but have had no luck with his. I’ve met so many people who get stuck researching in Eastern Europe, and East Prussia and the Belarus area in particular. (I strongly suspect that the Sporowski family came from the Sporovo lake region of Belarus). So I invited Legacy Tree Genealogists to take a look at Gus and suggest some next steps. I wondered what someone who specialized in Eastern European research might be able to tell someone like me, who knows how to genealogy but not-so-much in that part of the world.
Reviewing my work

Legacy Tree Genealogists assigned me to a Project Manager, Camille Andrus, who reached out to discuss what I already knew and what I wanted to learn. I requested their Discovery Research Plan, for which they just provide guidance about what record collections to consult and what methods or strategies to try. That way I can do the research myself (which I like doing!). I also asked Camille if she would write about her research process so I could share it with you. Here’s what she sent me:

“We looked over Lisa’s work, and upon initial inspection everything looked great. She had looked in the gazetteer (now available digitally at www.meyersgaz.org with maps of the area) and Lutheran church records. She had searched the records for her ancestor’s supposed home parish. When that failed to yield results, she had done a partial radial search, searching records in several adjacent parishes. Check. Check. Check. She was following all of the integral steps, but still not having success. What had she missed? What had she done wrong? The short answer — nothing. Her research was impeccable, and she was looking in the right places.”

While it’s nice to hear I was following the right path, I was a little worried that it meant there were no more “sledgehammers” out there that I would use to take a nice good swing at my brick wall. But Camille didn’t stop there. She dredged up several additional strategies for me to take, which was just what I was hoping for!

Getting around the genealogy brick wall

Camille had three specific suggestions for where to look next for great-grandpa Gus. At the end, she also offered some helpful reassurance. Here’s what she said:

1. Civil registration in East Prussia

After closer inspection of what Lisa had already tried, we saw several opportunities we could still pursue. We looked up civil registration records available through a Polish archive, since what was East Prussia is now part of modern Poland. German civil registration in East Prussia began in October of 1874 and is an important resource for researching individuals from this area. The Meyers Gazetteer confirmed that Kotten (where her ancestor was from) belonged to Kreis Johannisburg in the German Empire province of East Prussia. This village belonged to the Monethen (Kreis Johannisburg) civil registration district.[1]

The Olsztyn State Archive inventory lists several birth, marriage, death, and family books for the Monethen Civil Registration Office, but the books only cover the late 1930s and early 1940s. The whereabouts of the registers covering 1874 through the early 1930s are unknown. It appears as though the records covering this time period have been lost or destroyed. This situation is not unusual for East Prussia, in general due to the numerous conflicts that have occurred in the area over time.

2. Church records in East Prussia

Another major resource for German genealogy research is church records. The Meyers Gazetteer database noted that Protestant residents of Kotten attended church in the nearby town of Baitkowen (Kreis Lyck).[2]

The church book inventory for Baitkowen revealed that the Protestant parish was established in 1891, a decade after the ancestor Gustav Sporowski was reportedly born. No sacramental registers for this parish are known to be extant. It should be noted that the Baitkowen parish was created from parts of the Lyck, Ostrokollen, and Drygallen parishes.[3]

The Protestant parish of Drygallen (Kreis Johannisburg) has extant baptismal records which are available on microfilm at the Family History Library for the years 1730-1821 and 1844-1875.[4] Lisa indicated that she had reviewed these files but did not find any Sporowskis.

The Lyck Landgemeinde (the congregation for parishioners living outside city limits) was founded in 1704, but there are no known extant baptismal records for this parish after 1808.[5]

3. Following up on clues

The Protestant Bartholomew Church in Lütgendortmund, Dortmund, Germany. Von Smial – Eigenes Werk, FAL. Click to view.

A key clue came from Lisa’s notes. She mentioned that Gustav and his wife were married in Lütgendortmund, a town hundreds of miles west of Gustav’s birthplace, before ultimately immigrating to the United States. Luckily, their marriage occurred in a time when civil registration had been instituted. A search for marriage records showed there are civil registration records available for the town of their marriage, which are available at an archive in Detmold. We were able to advise Lisa that further research should pursue this record, as it may list information about his parents.

Getting Unstuck

The bottom line is that If you feel stuck, it’s not necessarily because you are doing anything wrong. Review the “checkboxes” of your research plan to ensure you aren’t missing any integral clues. If after final review of methodology concludes that you’ve pursued every avenue, the lack of success may be attributed to gaps in the records or perhaps they have been lost completely. Other times all you need is one clue to put you back on the right track.

This is exactly the kind of advice I was hoping for: expert and specific. I feel much more confident about how I’ll spend my time moving forward! If you have hit a genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else) consider hiring a professional to review your work. An investment with a pro can save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration. Doesn’t that sound good?

About the Researchers: Legacy Tree Genealogists is a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. For a limited time, go to  Legacy Tree Genealogists and receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100. 

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

[1] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[2] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[3] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Baitkowen (Baitenberg), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[4] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Johannisburg, ev. Drigelsdorf (Drygallen), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[5] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Lyck Stadtgemeinde, http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

Applying to Lineage Societies: Why Hire a Pro to Help You

A professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies. Joining is a time-honored way to honor your heritage and document your family history research. But it’s not easy! Here’s why even experienced genealogists may want to hire a professional to help with the process.

Professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies

Thanks to Legacy Tree Genealogists for supplying this guest blog post.

Applying to lineage societies

Do you have an ancestor who lived in Colonial America when the Revolutionary War was fought, or perhaps earlier in Jamestown, Virginia? Does your ancestry extend back to New England when the Mayflower arrived? If so, there are various lineage societies you could consider joining:

family history video documents applying to lineage societiesWhile each organization has different requirements for their lineage society application, most have the same principles: prove a connection from yourself to the person of interest by use of vital records (where available). Where not available, other documentation that proves family connections can be used. (DAR now also accepts DNA evidence.)

You may not know that most societies allow you to “piggy-back” on applications they have previously accepted. Let’s say your second cousin Steve already joined a society based on your common patriot (or pioneer) ancestor, Alexander Smith. You would just need to provide documentation proving your connection to your parents, your relevant parent’s connection to his/her parents, and your relevant grandparent’s connection to your common great-grandparents, who were already mentioned in Steve’s application. You may then be able to reference Steve’s application for the remainder of the lineage going back to Alexander Smith.

Overall, this may sound like a simple process. But it often takes quite a bit of work because the records needed to prove each generational link are not always readily available–and sometimes they just don’t exist at all.

Why get help when applying to lineage societies

Below are five ways that a professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies:

1. Help you determine how to apply. As we mentioned, each lineage society has different requirements, so you’ll want to be sure you know what they expect in order to be as efficient as possible in gathering documentation. A professional can help you determine exactly what documentation is required and locate contact information for those with whom you need to work to submit your application.

2. Identify where your research should stop and start. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as the saying goes. If your lineage ties into one that has already been acceptably documented by another member of the society, you should use it! A professional genealogist can help you identify any previous lineage society applications that have already been approved for your lineage. This single step can save you a lot of time and money.

3. Organize your information. A professional genealogist can work with you to determine what documentation you already have and what you will need to order. They can help you order copies of missing vital records or find acceptable substitutes in archives, libraries, and online.

weigh conflicting evidence applying to lineage societies4. Conduct in-depth research as needed. Many times, at least one ‘problem’ generation requires in-depth research, circumstantial evidence, and a proof summary in order to make the connection. A well-written proof summary explains how all the circumstantial evidence fits together to support the generational link, and often aids the applicant in obtaining membership when not enough concrete documentation is available (or when it conflicts). This often involves delving into land records, tax lists, probate records, and other more obscure sources to find any and all clues and pieces of information that can be used to tie two generations together. It can be a time-consuming task. A professional genealogist can do this efficiently and thoroughly.

5. Compile and present all records to the lineage society for admittance. You’ll be the one to present or submit your documentation, but professionals can help you get it all ready so that you’ll be as prepared and organized as possible.

Save time and money when applying to lineage societies

A well-prepared lineage society application often shortens the waiting period to be accepted into a society because it is easier to verify and follows the rules of the society. If an application is poorly prepared, it can take several submissions before acceptance into the society is granted. And of course, the lineage society determines what they will and will not accept as proof, so there’s never a guarantee. They may request additional information, and then you have to go back and keep digging! But since professional genealogists have experience working with the various societies and know what types of documentation are usually accepted, working with a pro can make the application process to a lineage easier, more efficient, and in the end, more rewarding.

If you have an ancestor in your lineage who may qualify you to join a lineage society, experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you gather your documentation and prepare your application. They are the world’s highest client-rated genealogy research firm. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA. Based near the world’s largest family history library in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, Legacy Tree has developed a network of professional researchers and archives around the globe.

Contact them today to discuss your options–and your ancestors. EXCLUSIVE OFFER for Genealogy Gems readers! Receive $100 off a 20-hour+ research project from Legacy Tree Genealogists with code GEMS100. Offer good through December 31, 2017.

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