Tag: Genealogy

Transcribing Old Handwriting

“What do you do?” is a question that I bet all of us have answered countless times throughout our lives. Depending on your career, it can be a question you either learn to dread or love. Fortunately for me, I love it. I started working as a translator while earning my German Masters degree in 2010, and within the last year, moved my focus more to the German genealogical field. Now, when someone asks me, “What do you do?” I need to stop myself from getting too excited, as I could go on for ages about translating letters from a lady in 1868 writing her sister about Indian attacks in America or a family in World War II describing the war-torn conditions of their city.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, as genealogists, it is likely you have come across documents in languages other than your own. As you are eager to learn all you can about your ancestors, you then send the document to a translator to have him or her decipher the text. But how does it proceed from there?

For me, although every document is unique, the process itself is relatively the same. First, I examine the copy of the document (usually received via e-mail) and try to estimate how long the handwriting transcription and the actual translation will take me. To be honest, the transcription from handwriting to text is usually much more time-consuming than the translation itself. This is due to the fact that the handwriting in Germany pre-1950, known as Kurrentschrift, is completely different than the modern day handwriting taught in schools today (so different, in fact, that my Austrian husband cannot even read it). Although I am now able to read the script myself (learned through video tutorials, alphabet keys, and a lot of practice!), everyone’s handwriting is different, and what looks like an “e” in one letter may be an “h” in another. Below are some transcription tips I have learned the past few months.

Five Things I Have Learned Transcribing Old Handwriting

1. As stated above, everyone’s handwriting is different. Just because one shape is a certain letter in one document does not necessarily make it that same letter in another.

2. Words can be spelled wrong. The authors of these letters were only human, and it was not uncommon for them to make mistakes while writing. As 7th grade spelling bee champion of Little Flower School (yes, it is really called that-St. Theresa of the Little Flower), this was a little hard for me to come to terms with at first, but once I started thinking outside the box, I was able to recognize previously undecipherable words.

3. Some words were actually spelled differently in the 18th and 19th century. The German language has undergone multiple spelling reforms over the years, so being able to recognize old spellings of words is crucial. An easy example is that the word for married–”verheiratet”–is usually written with an extra “h”–verheirathet.

4. The choice of words can also be completely different from words we would use today. German, as any language, has developed over time. Just as we no longer walk around using “thee” and “thou”, many German words have also gone out of style. This makes these words hard to find in an online dictionary, but the internet is an amazing tool. Creative googling can usually provide you with at least an example of how the word was used, which provides more context than simply the document in front of you.

5. The lines on a page are not always taken into account. If, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how those four letters on one line are supposed to make a word, I then remember to look at the next line and realize that the word simply continues there. There are no hyphens or clues that the word was cut off, just a mere continuation of the word below.

As you can see, reading old handwriting is definitely a learning process. But a fun one! And once the transcription is finished, the actual translation begins. This is usually my favorite part of the process, because this is where the documents come to life. From excitement about riding on the new methods of transportation in the late 1800s to worries about cooking a lamb large enough to feed the nosy neighbors who dropped by, these letters and documents never cease to fill me with wonder. After going through the translation a first time, I then double-check my work against the source document, making sure I did not miss a word or idea. Finally, I read through the translation on its own (without the source) to ensure that it flows well in English. A mark of a good translation is that it sounds like it was originally written in the second language–it should not be awkward or stilted and should read as if written by a native speaker. As I enjoy writing and editing, this part is usually fun for me.

And that’s it! With the translation complete, I send it on to you, the family historian, for your reading pleasure. I hope that it helps you on your journey to learn about your ancestors, and wish you all the best for your future search!

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Katherine Schober is a German translator at SK Translations, specializing in genealogy. After spending several years living in beautiful Salzburg, Austria, she recently moved back to the States with her Austrian husband. She now works with old German handwriting in letters, marriage and baptismal certificates, church registers and other documents. 


Education Hangout: Genealogy Societies and the Young Genealogist

Have you ever wondered how to attract younger genealogists to your society? Or are you a younger genealogist who would like to be more involved within your society? Hear from Education Co-Coordinators Shannon Combs Bennett and Eric Wells in their latest Education Hangout:

Don’t forget to bookmark our YouTube Channel and listen in for fantastic, friendly advice on a variety of topics relevant to the young genealogist!


Faces of NextGen: Meet Jessica Taylor

Jessica Taylor, 36, Utah

What five words would you use to describe yourself? Curious, careful, personable, busy, learning.

Why genealogy? When I was at BYU shopping for a major I knew I liked history and I liked ancestors so putting them together would be fun! Genealogy is great “hands-on” history.

What’s the coolest discovery you’ve made? That the genealogy industry is a really exciting place to work right now.

What are you working on this week? I run a genealogy firm, so I get to work on the “inner gears” running the genealogy train, if that makes sense. So this week I’ve been coordinating improvements to our site’s SEO, helping onboard new affiliates, getting us set up to participate in radio over at Extreme Genes, and finalizing a change to our Worker’s Comp Insurance. Lots of variety!

What’s the number one secret to your success in genealogy? Working with incredible people.

What superpower would you want to help you uncover your family history? Direct communication with ancestors, of course! That would speed up a lot of our tapping at brick walls! Besides that, not needing to sleep would be really useful.

What are we most likely to find you doing when you’re not researching family history? Playing with my three little girls, walking our Shih Tzu, or running.

Anything else you’d like to share? I admire NextGen because I spent about ten years in this industry hiding my young age because I felt intimidated. So I’m glad you’re getting the young ‘uns out there and involved!


The NextGen Genealogy Network is made up of young genealogists with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Faces of NextGen showcases a different member of our community each month. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming feature, simply complete our questionnaire and submit a selfie.


Faces of NextGen: Meet Eric Wells

Eric Wells, 38, Missouri

What five words would you use to describe yourself? Three instead: Just plain awesome.

Why genealogy? Genealogy was the unintended result of trying to assemble a photo book for my grandmother. She wanted to pass on hundreds of old original photographs to her five children, but ran into a problem when one or more photos needed to be given to more than one of her children. I had no idea this was a big desire for her, nor did I know she had been stuck for decades with this roadblock. At the time I had no idea that taking on this project would inevitably lead me to make connections between the people in the photographs. Diving headlong into my own family’s genealogy was enough to make me love the work.

What’s the coolest discovery you’ve made? On my wife’s side of the family, I discovered the parents of her great grandfather. It took hours upon hours browsing through early twentieth century records from Alabama and Georgia to build up enough circumstantial evidence to create a plausible theory. It took locating her distant relatives and running DNA tests to confirm the connections, the result of which deepened her family tree back to the early nineteenth century as well as widened it by discovering that her great grandfather actually had a half brother and a half sister.

What are you working on this week? I am researching a client’s family tree in an effort to produce heritage books and family tree posters for an upcoming family reunion.

What’s the number one secret to your success in genealogy? Thinking outside the box. Following the trail of census and vital records is the backbone of the research, but the real fun starts when those sources don’t have the info one needs to solve the problem. Thinking outside the box has helped solve more problems than I can count. It often requires having to take the time to learn and understand the time period, culture and geographical area to discover new resources and records which are not normally used.

What superpower would you want to help you uncover your family history? Easy, time travel (with a camera and spare batteries). Burned counties could be saved, ancestors could be seen for the first time, and thanks could be given to those who prevailed through the tough times. I’d like to get to know the deadbeats and the black sheep to understand why they did what they did. Unfortunately I am not (yet) endowed with that superpower, so I’ll just have to live with my own impressions and use my imagination to re-animate our ancestors.

What are we most likely to find you doing when you’re not researching family history? Fixing and remodeling houses (especially my own), some social activism, listening to podcasts, catching up on the latest discoveries in science and archeology, and working my way through a list of the top one hundred greatest books.

Anything else you’d like to share? This is may be a bit macabre, but genealogy is a way to bring people back from the dead. Not in the Frankenstein way, but instead it brings the people back to life within the memory and the minds of those exposed to the work I do. One of my favorite quotes is a recent one from the artist Bansky. He said. “…they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” As odd as it may sound, genealogy is currently the best shot at immortality.

The NextGen Genealogy Network is made up of young genealogists with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Faces of NextGen showcases a different member of our community each month. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming feature, simply complete our questionnaire and submit a selfie.