When you need help deciphering place names in hard-to-read genealogy documents, two free online tools may have great suggestions for you. Use them to take the guesswork out of identifying great-grandpa’s hometown!
There are times when you know from the context of an old document that a certain handwritten word is a city or town–but you aren’t sure of the exact letters the scribe has written. Perhaps you can make out most of the name, but not the first letter. Or maybe you can’t tell whether you’re looking at an “r” or an “n” in the middle of the word. Other times, you can read the place name, but this particular spelling doesn’t appear on a map.
Deciphering place names with a simple trick—and 2 free online tools
Two online resources that are very helpful for identifying town names are Google’s search engine and Meyer’s Gazetteer. At both sites, you can enter what you do know and have these sites help suggest possible place names.
Google search suggestions
Type your transcribed town name intoGoogle—along with any other known place clues, such as the county/province or country name–and see if you get any search results for the region you are researching. If you do, congratulations, you likely transcribed it correctly!
If not, Google may actually suggest the correct transcription of your word for you. For example, when I was translating a nineteenth-century document a few months ago, I read the letters of the town as “L-e-h-t”. I typed “Leht, Germany” into Google, and waited to see what search results would appear. As it turned out, there were no search results for “Leht, Germany,” but Google’s “Did you mean…” function actually provided four other possibilities for what I could have meant as a town name! Here’s what it gave me:
After comparing these Google suggestions with my handwritten word and the specific region of Germany, I realized that the word actually had an “r” and an “e” squeezed in and was, therefore, the German town of “Lehrte.” Taking advantage of this “Did you mean” feature of Google can be very helpful when trying to decipher city and town names.
If you can only recognize the first few or the final few letters of a German town,Meyer’s Gazetteeris the site for you. Meyer’s Gazetteer is a free database containing names and information on pre-World War I German cities, towns, and villages (meaning that this site includes towns in present-day France, Poland, and other places). Type in the letters you recognize in your word and use an asterisk to represent the letters you don’t. Meyer’s Gazetteer will then provide you with a list of all places with your letter combination. Then you can then see if there is a town that matches your handwritten word and region.
In the example below, I recognized a capital “A” at the beginning of the word. The middle letters looked like a scribble, but I could see “e-n-b-a-c-h” as the final letters of the word. I typed this into Meyer’s Gazetteer, using an asterisk for those unclear middle letters. The website then provided me with a list of possibilities, and–by only looking at the town names in my specific German region–I was able to significantly narrow down what my handwritten town name could be. By comparing this list to my handwritten word, I was able to then decipher the remaining letters and figure out the name of the town. (Click herefor more tips on using Meyer’s Gazetteer.)
By taking advantage of the resources available online, you can make your transcription process much easier and much more fun. Best of luck!
About the Author
Katherine Schober is a German translator who specializes in genealogy documents. Her new book, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting, is available in paperback or Kindle format. Check out Katherine’s other Genealogy Gems guest blog posts:
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!
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.
You can often use Google Translate for genealogy to help you translate single words or phrases. But what if you need to translate an entire passage or document? Here’s why you might want to use a different web tool–and a list of top translation websites from expert Katherine Schober.
Thanks to Katherine Schober of SK Translations for this guest blog post.
Google Translate for Genealogy–and its Limits
Google Translate is a good tool for translating individual words and short, non-complex sentences. But it works better with basic words rather than long sentences or paragraphs. This tool often ignores idioms, or words and phrases that mean something different than the actual words imply.
Mistranslations of idioms can completely change the meaning of a document and leave you confused about certain aspects of your ancestor’s life. In German, for example, there are multiple idioms using the word “sausage,” a food that is a large part of the culture in Germany. If you type in the German idiom “Jemandem eine Extrawurst braten,” which literally means “to fry someone an extra sausage,” Google translates it word for word, coming up with the translation result “to bake an extra sausage.” This may leave the non-experienced person confused, thinking their ancestor was discussing cooking a meal. However, an experienced translator would know that this phrase actually means “to give someone special treatment,” and has nothing to do with cooking. (See my blog post, “10 Hilarious German Sausage Sayings to Try on Your Friends.”)
Google Translate can also be unreliable if a word has multiple meanings. For example, think of the word “run” in English. It can mean “a fast jog,” “a tear in your stocking,” “to be a candidate for an election,” and so on. Google Translate could easily pick the wrong English translation of your of your word, leaving you with a falsely translated document or simply very confused.
Beyond Google Translate: Best Translation Websites
Here are three websites I recommend when Google Translate just isn’t up to your genealogy translation needs:
Linguee.com: This is a very helpful translation site. Unlike Google Translate, it shows you words and phrases translated into English by actual translators and not machines. You receive the definition of the word, plus pages of various sample sentences that include your word/phrase in a contextual format (in both the foreign language and in English). This means you can scroll through the examples to see which translation is the most accurate English word for your document.
WordReference.com: This is an online dictionary with multiple language options available. Depending on the word, it may provide sentence examples and other entries where your word is found. This helps you to ensure the translated word is the right option for your text.
Google.com: Although Google Translate can’t always get the meaning right, the Google.com search engine is a wonderful reference. If you can’t find your foreign word on the sites above, try typing it into a Google search with the word English after it. Sometimes you will find forums where your word is discussed by various family historians. If this doesn’t work, try adding genealogy after English, or taking English out and just writing genealogy. Playing around with your search request may very well give you different results. And Lisa Louise Cooke recommends putting quotation marks around the word in order to ensure it appears in every search result. Here’s an example of how that search would look: “Geburt” English Genealogy
I’ve previously recommended top websites especially for German translations on this blog: click here to check it out. Good luck to Sue, who commented after reading that post: “Great article! I can’t wait to try some of these websites. We have a large stack of German letters written to my husband’s mother that look impossible to read. Thank you!”
Katherine Schober of SK Translations specializes in translating German genealogical and historical documents. She has recently joined Lisa Louise Cooke on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast: catch her creative, use-in-any-language translation tips in episodes #151 and #152. Not a Premium member yet? Click here to see what you’re missing out on in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast: Premium members get a year’s worth of access to all episodes! (Time for a binge-listening weekend??)
Need help reading or translating German genealogical documents? These top German translation websites will help you identify and translate old German letters, words, abbreviations, street names, and occupations. These online resources are so good, even the experts use them! See how they can help your German family history.
Those of you who have braved the world of German genealogy may have run into a beautiful but solid genealogical “brick wall:” old German handwriting. “Kurrentschrift” (literally: “running script”) was the main form of writing in German-speaking lands until the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, this elegant script is often a major obstacle for modern-day genealogists searching for their German ancestors.
But it doesn’t have to be! While I recommend contacting a professional for the more complicated texts (I’d be happy to be of service), you can often make substantial progress in transcribing and translating old German documents with the help of several fantastic online resources.
Top German Translation Websites
These are my favorite German translation websites for genealogy (and yes, I use them myself):
Wordmine.info: This is a great site for transcribing German genealogy documents, especially if you can only recognize some of the letters in a word. Choose either “words ending with” (Wörter mit Endung) or “words beginning with” (Wörter beginnend mit) and type in the first or last letters of the word you are deciphering. For example, if you can only recognize “tum” at the end of the word, type in “tum” under “Wörter mit Endung”. It will then show you all the German words ending in “tum”, which may help you to recognize what your handwritten word could be.
Kurrent Wikipedia Page: This site offers a nice key of the Kurrent letters and the corresponding letters in our alphabet.
Abkuerzungen.de: If you see an abbreviation in your genealogy document but aren’t sure what it stands for, you can type it into this website and it will provide you with a list of possible German words for your abbreviation.
Online German Dictionaries:LEO, Online Dictionary by Langescheidt, and dict.cc are all extensive online German dictionaries. If one of these dictionaries doesn’t have a definition for a word, one of the other two might.
Linguee.com: This is a very helpful translation site. Unlike Google Translate, it shows you words and phrases translated into English by actual translators and not machines. You receive the definition of the word, plus pages of various sample sentences that include your word/phrase in a contextual format.
Woerterbuchnetz: This is a good site for finding the meanings of old-fashioned German words. Modern dictionaries often do not have definitions for the outdated words found in genealogy documents, but this online collection of old German dictionaries does. Knowledge of German required.
Der Familienstammbaum: This website provides an A-Z list of old-fashioned German occupations with their modern-day German translation.
Street Search Engine. If you know that a word in your document is a street (“Straße”), but can’t figure out which street it is, use this site to help you out. First, type in the city in the “Ortsverzeichnis A-Z” (gazetteer). The site then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this list can help you to recognize the correct transcription of the word.
Fonts2U. This site allows you to type in any word to see how it would look in Kurrentschrift. While everyone’s handwriting was, of course, different, it is nice to get an idea of what a word could have looked like in the old-fashioned script. For example, “Kurrentschrift:”
Katherine Schober of SK Translations specializes in translating German genealogical and historical documents. She recently joined Lisa Louise Cooke on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #151 with creative, use-in-any-language Google strategies for translating documents and identifying ancestral names and places. Click here to see what else has aired on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast–and consider becoming a Premium member to get access to the entire Premium Podcast archive (it could see you through a whole year’s worth of workouts, commutes, or household chores!).
Check out these 3 free online tools that help with how to pronounce names.
Recently, I heard from a Genealogy Gems listener in The Netherlands, who shared research tips for those starting to trace Dutch ancestors. I wanted to mention his email on my free Genealogy Gems podcast, but I didn’t know how to pronounce his name, Niek.
There have been other times I wished I knew how to pronounce names of ancestors or distant cousins, or other foreign words. Here are 3 free online tools that can help. They’re each a little different. I’m giving you all three so you can run the name through more than one site to be even more confident you’re getting the right pronunciation.
1. Google Translate is a powerful, free tool I use for quick translation look-ups. Google Translate now has an audio tool for some languages that will pronounce the words you enter. Look for the speaker icon in the bottom left corner of the translate box and click it:
Google Translate is an awesome free tool for other reasons, too–click here to read about one of its qualities that actually got a gasp out of the audience when I mentioned it in a lecture.
2. Forvo describes itself as “the largest pronunciation guide in the world, the place where you´ll find millions of words pronounced in their original languages.” It’s like a pronunciation wiki. A quick search for “Niek” gave me the result shown here. I clicked on “Pronunciation by MissAppeltaart” to hear how that contributor (who is from The Netherlands) said that name. By the way, you can contribute your own pronunciations by clicking on “Pronounce” to see a list of words that are waiting to be recorded.
3. Pronounce Names gives you visual cues for pronouncing a name, which is helpful for those who aren’t sure they heard an audio pronunciation correctly. This is what it looks like when you ask for a name pronunciation for Niek.