10 Tips for Reading a Language You Don’t Know
By Ancestry.com 01 April 2010

You don’t have to speak the language to read the document. Just knowing a handful or two of key terms in the foreign language you’re reading can help you make your way through most family history documents. Use the following tips to guide your translation:

  1. Anticipate the words. If you’re reviewing birth records, make note of the type of information you’re likely to find on one. Remember, in newer documents, handwritten terms and words written on blank lines usually indicate names and other items specifically tied to the person(s) named in the document.
  2. List key terms. Note words that show up repeatedly on vital records, including date, birth, birth place, year, death, marriage, mother, father, etc. Keep a list handy of the names and abbreviations of months, religions, titles, and more. Search http://wiki.familysearch.org for the language you’re reading to see if a genealogical word list exists.
  3. Compare documents. Not certain which parts of the document you’re reviewing are standard language and which parts are personal information about your ancestor? Compare your ancestor’s document to an identical document of someone who’s not related to you to see what differs.
  4. Try web translating. Use a service like Google Translate and type in the document or part of the document to get a rough idea of what you’re reading.
  5. Learn the alphabet. Not everyone uses the same letters. Visit sites including http://www.stevemorse.org/#dealing and http://wiki.familysearch.org for information about both the alphabet and language you’re interested in.
  6. Practice writing. While the language may be a challenge, the handwriting could be an even bigger problem. Go through old foreign-language documents, pick out words – even proper nouns – that you’re familiar with, and practice writing them in a style similar to what you’re reading. You’ll familiarise yourself with the period script and be able to apply it to other words.
  7. Limit your view. Muddling through a language is simpler if you tackle small portions at a time. Start with a single sentence, preferably one that you know contains names or dates to help you feel more comfortable with your translating project.
  8. Pick up a book. Have an English translation dictionary handy as you read; also look for translation tips and terms in genealogy how-to books associated with your ancestor’s ethnicity.
  9. Connect with locals. Use message boards to talk to researchers in your ancestor’s homeland who may be able to help you decipher a word here and there.
  10. Hire an expert. Staring at a handwritten diary, journal, or other gem? For really big translation tasks, look for an expert in the language.

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