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.