Translating for the German Genealogy Market
by Ann C. Sherwin
here is much to be said for making a living at what you enjoy. Isn't that why we're translators? But even so, the pressure and looming deadlines of sci-tech or commercial translation can be a burden at times. One way to lighten your load and still keep the paychecks coming is to develop a hobby into a translation specialty. With good business planning, it may even become your primary source of clients. At least that's how it turned out for me, when I decided to offer translation services to people who shared my interest in genealogy. The genealogy market now accounts for over half my business. The clients are primarily Americans in search of their own roots, but I also translate for professional genealogists, missing heir locators, even auction houses that deal in rare holographs.
My main reason for specializing in genealogy is that it's fun. But there are also practical advantages to working in this field:
Lest too many readers rush to this promising field, I will also mention a few downsides:
- You broaden your client base.
- It's a growing, Internet-friendly market.
- Clients are loyal; you get repeat business and referrals.
- The work is low-pressure.
- Deadlines are flexible, rush jobs rare.
- Clients provide feedback and express appreciation.
- Credit risks are low since jobs tend to be small.
- Payments arrive promptly, often within a week.
- Deciphering skills carry over to other fields.
- Your specialized dictionaries don't go out of date.
- You can't be replaced by a machine.
If the downside list seems too short, read on. You may find things to add to it, depending on your point of view. But for me, the challenges can all be classified as fun and ultimately rewarding. I take genuine pleasure in "miraculously" unlocking the door to informationcarefully preserved for decades, even centuriesthat was nevertheless inaccessible to my client's family because no one could read it.
- Individual budgets tend to be smaller than corporate budgets.
- You're competing with dabblers and volunteers.
- Source documents often cause eyestrain.
- The field has little prestige outside its ranks.
An amateur family historian since 1975, I am almost half German. My search for my German roots began with old family letters and personal papers and eventually led me to my ancestral home in Baden-Württemberg, where I have since developed close ties with living relatives. When I hung out my shingle as a translator a few years later, I discovered that I had a skill that was very much in demandthe ability to read poorly legible documents in antiquated German and to provide accurate and readable translations of their content. Back then genealogists were being served largely by translators outside the professional mainstream. Once I began to promote my services in this market, I quickly learned that there were plenty of discerning clients out there who valued the same prompt and reliable service that business and industry demanded. Meanwhile the Internet has helped put genealogists in touch with qualified professional translators, to everyone's benefit.
One way to lighten your load and still keep the paychecks coming is to develop a hobby into a translation specialty.
Another leisure pursuit helped me develop skills needed for this field: I love to solve cryptograms and acrostic puzzles. Over half the genealogical documents I translate are written in German scriptnot the rounded Sütterlin script taught in German schools in the 1930s, nor the beautiful spidery scripts of earlier generations, now available as computer fonts, but the handwriting of real people from centuries past, 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century documents with all manner of neat or messy handwriting variants, flourishes and shorthand, written before German spelling was standardized, often by people of limited education, in fading pencil or in ink that has soaked through yellowed pages, messages crammed onto postcards or paper filled to the edges with no margins, text frequently obscured in the tight bindings of record books or cut off in the reproduction process. I work from originals (only as a last resort), photocopies, computer scans, or microfilm copies. I don't do script from faxes.
Code-breaking skills come into play especially with a very individualized handwriting. Even though I have reference books showing the dozen or more ways a particular letter could be formed, I find it quicker to break the code by comparison with known words, if the handwriting sample is large enough. Unfamiliar proper names present a special challenge and need to be verified. Detailed atlases, historic gazetteers (which include former German-speaking territories), and the current German postal code book are all useful for verifying the names of small villages, even those that have since been swallowed up by larger towns and cities. And a German name dictionary, such as Balow's Deutsches Namenlexikon, can confirm that an unusual family name you think you've deciphered actually exists. Of course its absence there does not prove the contrary, since no reference work is complete.
Acrostic puzzles (whose solution reveals a quotation from a published work) are great practice for getting meaning to emerge when you are missing many words and letters. This gets easier as you become more familiar with old terminology and spellings. Once you realize what the text is about, the unfathomable scrawls will begin to clarify before your eyes, and you'll wonder how you could have missed their meaning before. A word of caution though: As in any field, do not guess without alerting the client. Where appropriate, I explain the reasoning behind my guesses in footnotes. While footnotes may be frowned on in some fields of translation, genealogists welcome them.
There are certain document forms that you will see repeatedly, such as birth, death, and marriage records with column headings, or pages from the family registers that most churches kept. You can save time by creating computer templates for these. However, for records in paragraph form, no matter how wordy and repetitive, I've learned that it is not a good idea to transcribe and translate one and then use it as a template for other records in the same batch, changing the data specific to the person the record pertains to. There are often slight variations in the boilerplate, but more importantly, it's too easy to miss changing a key name or date. Since clients will be entering the data in their family charts, they are almost certain to catch discrepancies and illogicalitiesand if they don't, so much the worse. Genealogical information is widely shared and published, so an error is likely to be perpetuated. Genealogists care about accuracy, but few will go back to primary sources in a foreign language, if it duplicates the effort of someone whose scholarship they trust.
As you might guess, deciphering a handwritten document is often a greater challenge than translating it. It takes me less time overall to transcribe and translate in separate steps than to translate directly from the original, and clients appreciate receiving the transcription along with the translation. It helps them learn to recognize names, dates, and places as they search through old letters or public records on microfilm for further information on their family.
I should mention that I charge by the hour for work that involves transcription, because the difficulty varies so much, and clients are used to paying by the hour for research and other genealogical services anyway. But while this assures me of a decent hourly return, it doesn't mean I can take my time on a job. I am very conscious of the clock. Few family historians are willing to pay the per-word rates that a corporation might pay on, say, the translation of its product literature or a contract or annual report. They usually request a flat quote the first time. To estimate an hourly job, I assess the legibility, sometimes by actually transcribing a paragraph or two, do a word count, and consult a chart in which I keep statistics on past hourly outputs for similar documents. I'm able to keep the cost within reason only because I'm fast. My average hourly output for genealogical documents is about twice what it is for documents in other fields.
Once you have transcribed them, vital records, personal letters, and correspondence with German archives are generally easy to translate. The challenges are more likely to be these:
Letters written by the minimally educated
It is not unusual to get letters with no punctuation whatsoever, erratic capitalization, and poor or inconsistent spelling and grammar. It helps if you are familiar with certain dialect pronunciations, which are often the key to spelling patterns. Germans who had been in the U.S. for a while also tended to sprinkle their letters with English words spelled according to German phonetics. For instance, it took an oral reading of a German letter before I realized from the context (a list of crops) that Bededes were potatoes.
Heavy style and incredibly long sentences
These are common not only in vital records and wills but also in scholarly articles written in the 19th and early 20th century. In most cases clients are less interested in preservation of the author's style than in accuracy and clarity, but you still have to slog through it to extract the meaning before you can render it in a reader-friendly style.
Obsolete terms and terms that don't have English counterparts
Many old class distinctions, titles, political divisions, units of measure, monetary units, etc. are found only in monolingual German dictionaries, if at all. Old bilingual dictionaries (such as the 1876 Heath's a colleague gave me at an ATA Conference) may provide English equivalents in a few cases. But for terms not listed there, finding equivalents can be time-consuming, if not futile, and it drives up the cost for the client paying by the hour. Clients are generally content if you leave the original term and define it in a footnote. If I do use an antiquated English equivalent, the client sometimes comes back to me and asks what it means, without bothering to check an unabridged English dictionary. So it doesn't pay to use obscure terms without explaining them.
Estate inventories and land records
These are harder than vital records because you see fewer of them and therefore their content is less predictable. They are often "laundry lists" full of abbreviations and shorthand. Since capitalization was not used consistently in former times, even for proper nouns, it is hard to tell whether nouns and adjectives in property descriptions are used in their generic sense or as geographical names. There is little help to be found in reference books for names of fields, hills, roads, etc. Inventories also contain old measurements and currency units, which in most cases cannot be translated. But if numbers are also a legibility problem, knowledge of how many Batzen in a Kreuzer or Simri in a Scheffel will allow you to do the math.
Use of Latin
German Catholic records were often in Latin. If the entire record is in Latin, I refer the client to a colleague who specializes in that language. But often Latin terms and abbreviations are interspersed with the German. German names are sometimes given in their Latin form and declined. Basic knowledge of Latin grammar is therefore helpful and a good Latin dictionary essential for translation of German genealogical documents. A specialized dictionary that gives actual phrases used in genealogical records is useful if you don't know Latin grammar, because the root form of a Latin word is often quite different from its inflected forms.
A mixture of Roman and German scripts within a document can complicate the code-breaking process. German words of Latin origin (such as the names of the months), personal and geographical names were often written in Roman script. Beware of this if you are using these known words as a basis for code-breaking. A name may appear in Roman script in one place and in German script in another place in the same record.
Terms whose meanings have changed
If you're translating an 18th century document, don't assume common words like Bauer, Nachbar, Bürger, and Einwohner mean what they mean today. These were class designations that connoted certain rights and obligations, which varied from place to place and changed over time. If your client's ancestor was designated in a record as an Einwohner of a city and you translate this simply as "resident," you will have failed to convey information that is undoubtedly of interest to the client: that this ancestor owned no land and thus enjoyed only limited burgher rights.
For a bibliography of resources for German genealogical translation and links to other sources of help in this field, please visit my Web site: http://www.asherwin.com.