It’s All Double Dutch! RYO #8

Encountering Foreign Languages Within Jewish Family History Research

Photograph of jumbled wooden letters of the alphabet, building blocks in the encounter with foreign languages within Jewish family history research.In this historytracings blogpost we continue our series on researching your own Jewish family history by looking at encountering foreign languages within Jewish family history research.

Our previous blogpost What’s in a Surname? RYO #7 looked at the study of surnames within Jewish family history research, focussing on what surnames can reveal about your family heritage.

It’s All Double Dutch!

Whether part of your family history actually played out in the Netherlands or not, attempts to trace early family records where ancestors formerly lived on the European continent inevitably bring encounters with two potential obstacles: foreign languages and handwriting. If your family’s present generation no longer shares the language of your forebears then historical records may well seem “Double Dutch”. This expression meaning gibberish or gobbledegook has its origins in the 1860s as an extension of the term “High Dutch” used from the 1780s to mean incomprehensible language. The term itself contains ambiguity: “Dutch” could have referred to the language and dialects of the Lowlands, or rather Teutsch, that is Deutsch – the German language. But whether the expression originally implied German or Dutch, it refers to something which is doubly incomprehensible.

There are many historical sources which can shed light on European ancestry. These can be accessed virtually online, by loaning microfilmed copies of original documentation and also in countless local, regional and national archives across Europe. Once you have narrowed down the records in which you wish to search for your ancestors and gained access to them, sometimes a challenge in itself, the text which you then find before you may indeed seem doubly incomprehensible. Not only have you got to be able to interpret the meaning of the text in front of you, by identifying words in the language the text is written in, and there may be more than one language on the page, but you will also need to be able to decipher the script itself, the handwritten forms of its letters and numbers, before you can begin to make out any words which you could then transcribe and translate.

Building Blocks

If your native language and language competencies are restricted to languages which use the Latin alphabet then have a go. Chances are that you may be able to identify single words such as names, places and dates. And likewise if you are proficient in a Cyrillic language or other languages from around the world which use non-Latin alphabets, you may find that you can make enough headway to get some results with even the most basic levels of comprehension and ability to decipher.

Whether you are familiar with your family’s ancestral languages and those of their former locations in Europe or not, do not be put off by the idea of researching historical documents in foreign languages which may at first appear completely opaque or indecipherable. The building blocks to making progress are at their simplest individual symbols and single words. Familiarise yourself with the script on the page by “getting your eye in”. Logic and educated guesses will help you prioritise the type of information you are looking for on a page. Decide visually where that information is likely to be situated, what is redundant information for the moment, and if there are any visual clues to help you orientate yourself with the text, even if the text itself is incomprehensible.

For example if you are planning to work through several years of birth, marriage or death records in order to pinpoint family members in those records, then if the language of the text you are working with uses the Latin alphabet your prime focus will be simply to identify and recognise a familiar surname, then given names and then dates. If you succeed in identifying names and dates but cannot understand the language around these key words and symbols, then ask permission to photograph the entry and you will be able to work on those details at another time or with the help of others.

Get Prepared

Even before you begin this process there are many resources which can help to prepare you and to keep alongside for reference purposes. Many resources online can aid you: from obtaining a copy of the alphabet of the language you will be working with, particularly useful for the Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian alphabets; in addition there are handwriting and script charts which give examples of historical handwritten and typed forms of the alphabet. For example old German handwriting and typed scripts had a variety of forms which make even single letters of the alphabet difficult to decipher.

If you are having trouble with single letters of the alphabet, perhaps you can find other examples of that letter or word on the page or adjacent pages written in the same hand which are easier to decipher, this can help you eliminate or narrow down letters. When trying to translate a word or phrase you can also try typing the words you think you read into an online translation or search engine, chances are that there might be a version of the word online which may help refine meaning. Online translation such as Google Translate and online dictionaries can be of great help with specific words and phrases.

Get Guidance

There are several more layers of assistance available out there, if you want to do the translation and deciphering yourself. You could look up simple genealogical terms in the relevant language or languages, for example months of the year and days of the week, descriptions of family member relationships, causes of death or occupations. Genealogical research guides published by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain and Avotaynu in the USA also offer tailored indepth guidance in a number of Jewish family research areas, from names and terms to historical research specific to the country in which your ancestors lived.

Another wonderful resource are the Special Interest Groups which exist in the online family history research community. Populated by fellow family researchers they make available valuable shared resources, guidance and advice. Often you can join a forum for free or with an annual subscription. There you will find others who share the regional heritage of your family who can offer assistance and help with translations. However, with some historical texts you may need to use a handwriting specialist for the language you are trying to decipher or a professional transcriber or translator who can interpret the historical sources and provide you with a legible typed version.

Finding Your Sources

You may find that you do not need to go further than the internet to locate where potential historical records may be which you can actually access in your own country. There is a vast resource of Jewish community records available through Family Search. These are copies of original archival holdings from both national and regional archives across the world, which can be loaned and personally viewed on microfilm at a Family History Center near you. Furthermore some of these collections have been digitalised online already. Use your family knowledge to home in on a village, town or region under its present day name and see what kinds of records there might be for the timeframe you are interested in.

However do not be daunted by the prospect of contacting foreign archives to request information about historical records pertaining to your ancestors. Using an online translation tool can also help put together a letter of enquiry in the relevant language. English may be understood and responded to in some European countries but not all archivists will necessarily have competence in your native language.

Ed., historytrace, 01/01/2016

Historytrace specialises in researching Jewish and non-Jewish family histories which originate in Europe and in particular where there was family migration between European countries and emigration away from the European continent.

Our expertise can help you pinpoint historical documentation regarding your family’s European roots, whatever the language of that documentation. Our language competencies and ability to interpret handwriting can help you to explore your family heritage in the places where your family formerly across different language zones in Europe. If our services could help you take your family history research further do get in touch using the Contact page of this website.

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