Translating German Genealogy Records

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Translating German Genealogy Records

Today’s post is about a system I’ve put together when translating German genealogy records to English. Lots has been written about resources to help you translate, but very little about the actual process of transcribing and translating.

If you work with German records, you understand how the handwriting has changed over time. Good old Wikipedia has a solid overview Kurrentschrift:

Kurrent is an old form of German-language handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing, also known as KurrentschriftAlte Deutsche Schrift (“old German script”) and German cursive. Over the history of its use into the first part of the 20th century, many individual letters acquired variant forms.

German writers used both cursive styles, Kurrent and English cursive, in parallel: location, contents and context of the text determined which script style to use.

Sütterlin is a modern script based on Kurrent that is characterized by simplified letters and vertical strokes. It was developed in 1911 and taught in German schools as primary script from 1935 until the beginning of January, 1941. Then it was replaced with “normal German handwriting”, which is sometimes referred to (correctly but confusingly) as “Latin writing”. See Ausgangsschrift for examples of post-1941 school handwriting samples.

First, I’m lucky enough to find a record, like the one for my great-great grandparents at the top of this post. Then I line up my resources.

Resources for Translating German Genealogy Records

German Genealogy Books

For help with characters and whole words, I use Ernest Thode’s German/English Genealogical DictionaryBaltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. I also like Roger Minert’s Deciphering Handwriting in German Document: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Historical Manuscripts, [n.p.]: GRT Publications, 2013.

Translating German Genealogy RecordsGerman-Language Fonts

Then I installed two fonts that support older German characters on my computer: Greifswaler Deutsche Schrift and Sütterlin. Both are free and available for download at the links. 

I open Word and choose a font – in this case I used Greifswaler – and transcribe each letter as it appears in the record. Adding this step has helped me a lot. It’s much easier to see if my guesses on particular characters match the record this way.

Facebook German Genealogy Group

If I get stuck, I turn to the Facebook German Genealogy Group. With thousands of members  – often native speakers – who are generous with their time and expertise, snarly handwriting comes clear with their help.

Putting It All Together

Then I crop the record, insert it into Word, and add the Greifswaler translation, the German translation, and finally the English translation. And then I enter the data in my family tree, save the file with a consistent name (KirschsteinBraunMarriage.jpg in this case) and do a happy dance.

Then I reintroduce myself to my husband, who has been leaving bits of food and water for me at the door to the study during the nine or ten days it takes to do this. Kidding!

That’s my system for translating German genealogy records. For other Sassy Jane genealogy posts on German resources and research, click here. And happy translating.

New Sassy Jane Guide Available

Ten Skills Every Genealogist Needs
Using German-character fonts is just one of the helpful hints in Ten Skills Every Genealogist Needs, my latest e-book.

With this Sassy Jane Genealogy Guide, you’ll find new records by searching the “Deep Web,” pinpoint geographic locations past and present, read old handwriting, and translate records to English. Get your copy here

About the Author:

Nancy Loe has an MA in American History and an MLS in Library Science and Archives. She has appeared on PBS’s American Experience, at Rootstech, SCGS Jamboree, and state and regional genealogy conferences. Her website was featured in Family Tree Magazine’s “Social Media Mavericks: 40 to Follow.”

3 Comments

  1. Cathy Meder-Dempsey 27 October 2017 at 12:12 AM - Reply

    What a creative way to do the translations. I love the idea of using the fonts and am thinking of other things than using them for transcribing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Nancy Loe 27 October 2017 at 10:11 AM - Reply

      Glad it helps, Cathy.

      • Cathy Meder-Dempsey 27 October 2017 at 10:56 AM

        I don’t have a problem transcribing or translating the German records but I think using the fonts is a great idea for those who do. I’m thinking of using the fonts for other things as well. Thank you.

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