Thursday, January 1, 2009

Will Translate for Genealogy Help

Within the short interval of three years, genealogy has become, as the blurb on this blog says, a serious obsession in my life.

But I have a day job. I am a translator. And to be honest, I am just as passionate about my job as I am about my hobby. Some days when I go to work I have to pinch myself and say, “I cannot believe I am getting paid to do what I love.”

But what is even better than genealogy or languages? Genealogy AND languages … Heaven.

This combination is something that is not going to happen much in my research of my lines or my husband’s lines. Not just because most of my lines involve Scots-Irish, English, and Welsh, because my husband’s ancestors are continental Europeans: German, Italian, and Jews from Romania. Problem is, I do not really translate German, Italian, or Romanian (well, German maybe a little bit).

Not to worry. There are a lot of other researchers out there, and some of them have ancestors from Eastern Europe. And I have been privileged to be able to help out two people so far in their ancestor research, one a co-worker and the other my husband’s cousin. For the co-worker I translated the discharge papers (from the Imperial Russian Army) of one of her husband’s ancestors, and for my husband’s cousin, the certificate of marriage of two of his ancestors (from Hungarian).

Documents of genealogical interest tend not to have complex syntax, but they do present a specific set of challenges. For one thing, the language is often archaic and the places and procedures involved may no longer exist or be practiced. The terminology is often specific to a particular bureaucratic sphere. For another thing, these documents are old and therefore possibly not in the best of shape.

In the case of Hungarian certificate of marriage, it was a copy made in 1911 of a document originally dated 1885. The copy had been folded in eight sections, and the document had started to disintegrate at the folds, so that at some point someone had felt compelled to place tape over these folds. And the tape did what tape does – it darkened with age, so that on the digital image I received by e-mail it was difficult to distinguish the text underneath these taped areas. However, because the document followed a fixed and somewhat repetitive format, I was able to guess what appeared in some of the blanks (and indicated that it was a guess in the translation notes, of course). For some partial words, especially the beginnings of the words, I could guess what the entire words were. Unfortunately, I know of no reverse sort dictionary for Hungarian (several reverse sort dictionaries exist for Russian), so guessing based on end fragments yielded little success. And there was at least one whole word that presented a problem for me: bitközség. I know that község means town, village, or community, but in this case I do not know what the affixed modifier “bit” adds to that. I did some searches, but was unable to come up with anything before the cousin brought the translation to show to relatives. Nagy Karoly, the town in question, refers both to an rtv (town with settled council) and to the jaras, or district, within which it was located and of which it was the district seat. Here bitközség would be referring to a municipality within the district.

In the case of the 1896 Russian Army discharge papers, it was the place names and unit names that were the biggest challenge: the native town of the discharged man was located in that corner of the Russian Empire which now straddles Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. The document form was in Russian, but I could not be sure that all the handwritten entries for proper names were based on Russian names or their Polish or Lithuanian version. Three websites were particularly helpful in my search. One contained a listing of shtetls in Lithuania; this website belongs to the Lithuanian-Jewish Special Interest Group ( The other websites belong to the Polish Genealogical Society of America ( and Polish Roots ( The soldier in question was an Old Believer; this experience provided a reminder that whether an East European ancestor was Jewish or gentile, it’s always a good idea to check both Jewish and non-Jewish East European sites.

On top of all the other difficulties presented by the document, the handwriting wasn’t terribly good (a problem familiar to all of us). To compensate for this, however, the document was interesting for some of the details it provided on what was of interest to the Russian authorities: “If, when he enters active service, [name] brings his own boots with him which are at least nine vershoks in length and undergarments which are suitable for use, then upon his arrival these items may be appropriated and money will be paid to him for these items,” followed by the specific price to be paid for each type of garment.

I learned a lot from translating these documents: geographic terminology, a bit about the military bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, and Jewish marriage customs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire., among other things.


  1. It was interesting to read about the detective work you did in regard to these translations. Great job! So many challenges get in the way of reading foreign documents, and the foreign languages are not always the most difficult part.

    Just curious - what is your background in these languages? Did you spend some time living in Eastern Europe?


  2. Hi Lisa,

    Just noticed your comments today (I need to figure out how to turn on comment notification on this blog).

    I don't have any Eastern European family background, but I majored in Russian in college and work as a translator (the actual inspiration was seeing Sergey Bondarchuk's movie version of War and Peace when I was a kid), and I have picked up several other Eastern European languages along the way. I spent a summer in Russia, but that was all.

    It was a lot of fun doing these translations, so I'm hoping I get more chances like this.

    Glad you enjoyed the article,