Showing posts with label translating. Show all posts
Showing posts with label translating. Show all posts

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Single Best Technique for Reading Old Genealogy Records: Immersion

You may have started dabbling in genealogy years ago or months ago. Think back to the first documents you found for your family. What was the toughest hurdle for you?

For most people, it's the handwriting—and for some of us, the handwriting in a foreign language.

Do not let that slow you down! Every day I see people requesting document translations in Facebook genealogy groups. And there are always people ready to jump in to help. I'm one of them.

But we don't type out the translation because we're fluent in the other language. Or because we were raised to read and write in an old-fashioned style.

No. We can read and understand these birth, marriage and death records, census forms, ship manifests and more because we swim in them every day.

I've written articles about understanding foreign-language documents before. You'll find them at the bottom of this article. Much like "The Blues Brothers", I'm "on a mission from God." My mission: To throw you into the old-fashioned and foreign handwriting water and show you that you can swim!

Ten years ago this document was a ball of confusion. No it's all painfully obvious to me.
Ten years ago this document was a ball of confusion. No it's all painfully obvious to me.

A few days ago I realized the power of the immersion technique. I was hunting through some very old email I'd saved, trying to find the source document for some people in my tree. In a 10-year-old email, I found an 1886 parish marriage document for someone with my maiden name.

My reply to the email surprised me. I asked my friend, "Why are there so many names on this document? What does it all mean? Who are they all?"

As I look at the document now, it's perfectly obvious who they all are. They are the groom and his parents, the bride and her parents, and the witnesses.

Why was I confused by that? The answer is simple. Ten years ago I hadn't seen any 19th-century Italian marriage documents. Now I've viewed and transcribed thousands of them.

Familiarity is the main thing you need. You do not need to know the translation for each word on the page. You need to know the key words for things like:
  • born
  • died
  • son/daughter
  • husband/wife/widow
  • dates/numbers
Below are 4 articles with links to resources for helping you understand those old documents.

The single best technique for reading old genealogy documents is to expose yourself to lots and lots of them. Looking for your 2nd great grandmother's birth record? Look at the other documents before and after hers. Use them to help you figure out that one word or letter you cannot decipher.

You'll also see for yourself which names are common in the town. After you see it written 10 times, that difficult last name becomes so easy to pick out.

The obstacle of foreign languages and old-fashioned handwriting will disappear.

Use the tools available to you. Spend time looking closely at similar documents. Familiarity is your best teacher. You can do this!

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

You Can Read Foreign-Language Genealogy Records

"I don't understand the language" is not an excuse. You can find the facts you need on a foreign-language vital record.

The reason why you can is the format. Official records from your ancestor's town are usually written on a pre-printed form, or in a standard style. In most cases, it isn't hard to find the keywords: born, died, father, daughter, the twenty-third of May 1859. Find these words and you'll find the facts you need for your family tree.

Understand the Form or Format

As usual, I'm going to focus on Italian documents. That's where all my non-English document experience is.

Here are two examples of the basic formats you may find.

Annotated Italian-language vital record

On this 1813 birth record (download a larger version), the handwriting is easier to read than the pre-printed words. The basic format includes:
  • Document number
  • Date
  • Town official's name and town name
  • Keyword: comparso. Look for the word comparso (appeared). It's followed by the name of the person reporting this event. Let's call them the declarant because they are declaring a baby was born. On a birth record, the declarant is usually the father of the new baby, but it may be the midwife or a close relative. You should see their age (di anni), profession (professione), and where they live (domiciliato).
  • On this document, the next section is a paragraph that follows a format. It says on this day of this month at this time in the home of the declarant was born a baby to him and his legitimate wife. The sentence may include the baby's mother's name, age and profession. The sex of the baby is written as masculine (maschio) or feminine (feminina).
  • The name given to the baby
  • The names, ages and professions of two witnesses who are familiar with this family
  • Signatures (or a mark, if a person is illiterate), including that of the mayor.
My takeaways from this birth record? Antonio Iamarino was born on 3 April 1813 to Giorgio Iamarino, a 21-year-old farmer, and his wife Pietronilla Cocca, age 20. They lived on Strada li Tufi in my grandfather's town of Colle. One of the witnesses has the same last name as the baby's mother. He may be a relative.

Here's a harder type of record. It may look intimidating, but when you know what to look for, it isn't so scary.

A standardized but formless Italian document.

This document, written in 1820, was part of a set of marriage documents (download a larger version). It says that on 15 March 1810 Maria Viola died. She was the daughter of Gregorio and Angela Caporaso. She was the wife of the late Pietro Iamarino and 60 years old.

On a free-form document like this, start with dates. Then look at names and words for birth, death, baptism and relationships.

The key to breaking into this document is the word marzo (March) in the fourth line. The sentence begins, "A quindici marzo mille otto cento e dieci". If you study the numbers a little for the language you need, you'll recognize this as a date. It says "On 15 March 1810".

Immediately after the date is a name, Maria Viola. Then there's another keyword: figlia, meaning daughter. So the next names are her parents. Then we see moglie, meaning wife. So Maria was the wife of the next name, Pietro Iamarino who has died previously (the word fu tells us this).

Unless you're viewing a document with no idea where it came from, you have some context to help you. If you found this document, you'd know it's related to Francesco Saverio Iamarino whose parents were Pietro Iamarino and Maria Viola. The context will help you understand the document.

Locate the Keywords and the General Words

There is probably no better genealogical language resource than You need an account to use this website, but it is free to join. The following pages offer the keywords for vital records and their English translation.
The pages above also offer the words for days, months, numbers and general words found on genealogy records. Get familiar with the language you need. It'll help you understand even more of the document. And when you're stuck on a word, try Google Translate. It may help you make sense of things.

Also check the language pages for other links to help you with handwriting, explain naming patterns in certain cultures and more.

Note: Bad handwriting or a low-quality image is a tougher challenge, but not impossible. Compare the difficult word to other words and letters on the document. If you think one letter in your problem word is a capital T, for example, compare it to another capital T in a word that is clearer to you.

I've read thousands of Italian vital records. I learned the Italian keywords quickly. I got used to the old-fashioned handwriting. Most of the time the important facts are ridiculously easy for me to understand.

You can do this! Get familiar with the important words. Find them in your document. Make sense of the facts.

Do not let your ancestor's language—the one you never learned—stop you from building your family tree.

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tips & Tools to Help You Translate Foreign Genealogy Records

There are tons of Facebook genealogy groups devoted to very specific readers. If you search, you can find a group devoted to your area of research: Southern Italian Genealogy, Hesse Germany Genealogy Group, Polish Texan Genealogy, French Canadian Genealogy. You name it!

In these groups you will find many people seeking translations of foreign birth, marriage and death records. And there are countless people willing to help.

But you can become a self-sufficient translator of your own documents. Often the hardest part is figuring out the letters themselves. It helps tremendously to know the types of words you're looking for.

If you learn the genealogical keywords, numbers, months, days, etc., in the language you need, the words will become clearer to you.

When you're stuck on a letter or two, search the rest of the document for any other markings that may be the same letter. When you have an educated guess, plug it into Google Translate and see what you get.
Don't be intimidated! You just have to know what you're looking for.

Here are several excellent resources to help you learn the words you need to know in four languages. If the language you need is not here, visit the FamilySearch Wiki for more.

Still getting stuck? Join a specialized Facebook group. You'll find a wealth of knowledge and very helpful genealogists.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Married Thanks to a Royal Decree

While recording facts from my grandfather's Italian hometown's vital records, I noticed more than one extremely young person getting married. Often a young girl who was orphaned would be married with her grandfather's permission as a matter of survival. Her new husband could take care of her.

While revisiting some of these documents I found some young people who needed a royal decree before they could marry in 1818.

One was Michele Franco, a 16-year-old farmer who was about to marry a 19-year-old seamstress. They lived in different towns, so perhaps this was not an arranged marriage, but a marriage for love.

It's hard to imagine why else a 16-year-old boy from another town would be a suitable choice for this 19-year-old seamstress. Because of his age, Michele received a royal decree on 18 August 1818 granting him permission to marry.

Another, somewhat astonishing case is 12-year-old Mariantonia Marucci. She was not an orphan and had her parents' consent to marry 29-year-old Michelarcangelo Pettorossi, a bricklayer.

The couple had 10 children together starting when Mariantonia was the ripe old age of 15. Mariantonia received a royal decree on 24 February 1818 granting her permission to marry despite her lack of age.

I have no details about Mariantonia's parents, but maybe they were so impoverished that this was the only way they could provide a decent life for Mariantonia.
Mariantonia Marucci, age 12…authorized to marry despite her age, by royal decree

Then there was 14-year-old Angelamaria Silvestro, who became an orphan at the age of 10.

Her grandfather was quite old when he gave her his consent to marry 29-year-old Serafino Verdura, a farmer. Angelamaria did not appear to need a royal decree which makes me wonder when and why such a court order was required.

You can understand the 12-year-old girl needing special permission, but why did the 16-year-old boy need it when the 14-year-old orphan girl did not?

Some research about the age of consent to marry in the 19th century seemed to indicate that it was perfectly fine for a 12-year-old girl to marry. It is possible that this particular area, or perhaps all of what was then the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, had their own age of consent rules.

In the early 1800s in the small Italian towns I've research, the average age at first marriage was about 25, so parents were not marrying off their children unless they really had to.

It's interesting to compare these two very young girls to modern-day Italians who must be 18 to marry—or 16 with court consent.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

My 5th Great Grandfather: A Random Act of Kindness?

I spent about five years documenting the thousands of birth, marriage and death records for my grandfather's hometown of Basélice, Benevento, Italy dated 1809–1860.

Documenting every record allowed me to bring my grandfather's previously unknown-to-me family back many generations. I worked backwards through time, primarily, so that I could attach people to my bloodline more easily.

When I first looked at the earliest reel of microfilm, which begins in April 1809, I was dumbfounded by the very first birth record.

My 5th great grandfather, Nicola Pisciotti—age 60—found a baby girl at this door without clothing, as he left his house. The baby girl, whom they named Maria Giuseppa, was a few days old. She was 16 years younger than Nicola's youngest son—my 4th great grandfather, Giovanni Pisciotti.

Did Nicola and his 58-year-old wife Rosa Pecora really raise Maria Giuseppa at their advanced age?

Well…maybe not. I did not capture an image of this document when I first saw it on microfilm (I didn't have a smartphone yet), but now it is online on the Benevento archives site.

And now that I can take my time and translate it, I realize that Nicola found the baby, but he did not raise her.

That explains why I found no other records for a Maria Giuseppa Pisciotti.

The saddest aspect of these early 1800s records from this small, rural town (population about 2,000) where a young woman absolutely could not raise her out-of-wedlock baby, was that each year about five babies were born to women whose identities were known only to the midwife.

The babies were given last names that no one else in town had, and were usually raised at the convent.

But not our Maria Giuseppa. Perhaps her mother did not go to the midwife. Perhaps she had the baby on her own, with no help whatsoever, and left the infant at the home of Nicola and Rosa. I don't know what became of Maria Giuseppa because I don't know what last name they gave to her.

Here is the document and my translation:
The last word, nutrice, changed the story entirely.

Today, the second day of the month of April of the year 1809 at two p.m. appeared before me, Mayor Pasquale Carusi, Nicola Pisciotti, laborer, 60 years old, living in Baselice on Strada la Costa, and he presented a baby which he says he found on this doorstep, naked, without rags [clothing or blanket], while he was leaving his house. After seeing the baby I [the Mayor] have determined that it is a girl a few days old. I enter the name of the newborn in the registry as Maria Giuseppa. Under that name I order that said child be remitted to a nurse.

It wasn't until I translated that last, difficult, handwritten word for nurse that I realized Nicola and Rosa did not raise this baby.

Still, it was quite a unique story for this town.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Language Barrier?

I've spent countless hours harvesting information from old Italian vital records. It was a little intimidating at first, but once I became comfortable with the most important genealogical words—and completely memorized my numbers—I stopped seeing these documents as being written in a foreign language. To me they are fairly straightforward documents filled with highly valuable data.

1804 Italian death record. No big thang.

You can achieve this familiarity with foreign languages, too. You can learn the key words you need to identify in a foreign document. And once you look at enough documents to get comfortable with the strange, archaic handwriting, you will be fine.

Here are several free wiki entries from to help you get accustomed to genealogical words in the language of your ancestors:

Find more languages by clicking the map on this FamilySearch page:

There is much more country-specific information available in the wiki, so if you don't see the language you want here, or if you need to understand how vital records work in another part of the world, start at the world map. My list above is very European focused because I did not find language help for African, Middle Eastern or East Asian countries. But there is plenty of critical information available about how records are kept, marriage practices, and more. Take advantage of it!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How to Read a Free-form Italian Death Record

So far I've shown you some birth, death and marriage records from the Napoleonic era in Italy. These were somewhat easy to read because they used a fill-in-the-blanks form. But your ancestral hometown may not have used the same form—or any form at all. What then?

Here is a record of the 1789 death of Francesco Colasanto, written as a single paragraph in 1851. It was part of the 1851 marriage packet of his grandson, Francesco Saverio Colasanto. I have underlined parts of the image and underlined the text that corresponds with those sections to show you how to read this type of document. Granted, the handwriting can be difficult. Practice and exposure to many documents written by the same priest or town official can get you used to reading it.

Handwritten death record prepared for the 1851 marriage of the decedent's grandson

Extract of the death of Francesco Colasanto. It begins with words to the effect of "In faith the priest of the Church of San Leonardo Abbate of Basélice," and goes on to mention where the original death record is found: Volume VIII, folio 41(?), document number 5. In that book of death records was found Francesco Colasanto, son of Giovanni and Donata Ruggiero, husband of Errica Pettorossi, died at 23 January 1789 and was buried in the same church. It states that this record is being written only for matrimonial purposes on 15 August 1851. It is signed by the priest, Giuseppe Maria DelVecchio, and by the mayor of the town. It bears a stamp from the church and from the town.

After viewing many handwritten documents just like this, I became familiar with their format and was able to quickly pull out the pertinent facts. Don't forget to let Google Translate be your friend.

OK. I promise to leave Italy for a while and return to U.S. documents.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

How to Read Italian Marriage Records

Writing this blog and explaining my logic is actually teaching me a few things. I had something totally wrong about Italian Marriage Records, so this revised blog entry is corrected.

When I was documenting every birth, marriage and death record from the Italian town of Basélice between 1809 and 1860, I was thrilled with the massive amount of information you could glean from marriage documents. In this town there was a whole packet of papers about the wedding itself. But if, say, the groom's father was dead, you would also get his death record. And if his father was also dead, you'd get his death record, which includes the name of his parents. So suddenly you've gone back three generations from the groom.

During this period of time a couple had to publicly post a notification of their intent to marry—twice—usually two weeks apart. These two posting dates were recorded by the town. After that an official document gave them the ability to be married.

Then the couple was married in the local church. The town would have one record for the first banns, another for the second, another for the finalization, and on the next page a place to record the church wedding date. Then there was a separate document that combined all of this information.

Here are examples using my great great great grandfather Nicoladomenico Leone's second marriage to my great great great grandmother Caterina Pisciotti. (She was almost the same age as his eldest daughter!)

First notification of intention to marry

The year 1842 the 24th day of the month of April at 1 p.m. was affixed to the door of the town hall notification of the solemn promise of marriage between Nicola Leone, son of the late Giuseppe and the late Maria Zarrelli, and Caterina Pisciotti, daughter of Giovanni and Dorodea Petruccelli. Signed by the official.

Second notification of intention to marry

The year 1842 the 12th day of the month of May at 2 p.m., I, Vincenzo Lembo mayor and official of the Comune of Basélice, District of Campobasso, Provine of Molise, testify that on the 24th day of April in this same year, a Sunday, was affixed on the door of this town hall the following notification. … Nicoladomenico Leone, age 43 (I have not figured out what the occupation says) who lives in Basélice, son of the late Giuseppe and the late Maria Zarelli, and Caterina Pisciotti, age 22, daughter of Giovanni, a farmer in Basélice, and Dorodea Petruccelli, living in this town intend to enter into a solemn promise of marriage with this second notice. (That last part is not verbatim.)

Declaration that the couple is free to marry

The year 1842 the 16th day of the month of May at 9 p.m. … the same name and woman appeared before the same mayor, having twice posted their intention to marry, the second time on the 24th of April.

The church wedding date

On the back of the previous document was this paragraph stating that the couple was married in the church on the fourth of June 1842. It includes the priest's name.

The complete marriage record

This all-in-one document includes my great great great grandfather Nicola Leone's signature at the bottom. That's a treasure in itself. The document includes the dates of the posting of the couple's intentions, their church ceremony date on the right, and again their names, ages, occupations, and their parents' names.

In another post I will show some of the other documents in what I call the wedding packets.

Monday, February 6, 2017

How to Read an Italian Death Record

My annotated Italian birth record received a lot of attention on Facebook and LinkedIn, so I'd like to continue with an annotated Italian death record. This is the 1830 death record for my great great great grandfather Giuseppe Leone of Basélice, Italy.

The general format of many such documents from this era is to state the date, the name and position of the official recording the information, describe two witnesses to the facts, state who died and when, and provide the names of the person's parents and spouse. At the bottom is a somewhat generic official statement that everything above is true and here are our signatures to prove it.

Now for more detail. In this particular town the form begins with the words "Death extract" and the decedent's name is handwritten. The documents are numbered in the order in which they are recorded, so this is document 176 for the year.

Next is a long fill-in-the-blanks statement reading (in general): "The year 1830 the day 21 of the month of November at the hour 15 (3 p.m.) before me (Mayor's name) and officials of the state of the Comune of Basélice, District of Campobasso, Province of Molise, appeared …"

Next comes the description of the two witnesses: "Francesco Iampietro, age 49, a farmer who lives in this town, and Michele Marucci, age 50, a farmer who lives in this town, to tell me of the death on the day 21 of the month of November in the same year as written above, of Giuseppe Leone, at his own house, age 60, born in Basélice, whose profession was [missing], who was the son of the late Michele and the late Giovanna Pisciotti, and who was the widow of Lucia d'Abrillo."

That's a lot of information. At the very least you want to key in on the name of the decedent, when they died, their age and place of birth, and their parents' and spouse's names. In this town's records I have often seen "widow the second time", meaning here is the name of his second wife who also died before him. It is particularly helpful that you can tell by the word "fu" or "furono" that the parents have already died. I have seen several birth records for babies in this town whose father died before they were born. The word "fu" tells me this.

Like anything else, with enough practice and a basic knowledge of the key words, you can decipher these documents, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How to Read an Italian Birth Record

I spent about five years viewing microfilm of every birth, marriage and death record from my maternal grandfather's hometown in Italy. Gathering every piece of information allowed me to build his very extended family tree back about seven generations. Spoiler alert: 90% of the town was interrelated!

It also taught me a lot about how to quickly decipher these documents. Let me show you how.

The other day I found online documents from my paternal grandfather's hometown in Italy, and I quickly found the 1902 birth record for my grandfather himself—Pietro Iamarino.

Here is that birth record with some annotations. (On 5 Feb 2017 I have updated this image to point out the time and day of birth.)

Different towns will use a different form, and that form will change over the years, but there are a lot of similarities. They generally begin with the year, day, month, hour and minute of birth. The year is always written out—never in numbers. So 1902 is millenovecentodue. The next section is an official statement to the effect of "Before me, official's name and title in this town, appeared this man (father of the baby's name, age, occupation, and address), to state that a baby was born to him and his lawful wife (her name, age and occupation)." The baby's name is out in the column of the document, but also below the mother's name.

The next section includes the names, ages and occupations of two people from the town who swear that this man (the father of the baby) is who he says he is, and that they attest to these facts. After this you may see signatures of the father, the witnesses, and the town official. Often in these old documents the father and the witnesses may be illiterate and unable to sign. If that is the case, the official will state as much.

So this document tells me that my grandfather Pietro was born on 10 Oct 1902 in Colle Sannita at 1:30 p.m. to Francesco Iamarino, a 24-year-old farmer, and his wife Libera Pilla. It also says he was born at 36 via Casale, which I'm trying to reconcile with the facts I had previously. I stood on the spot where my grandfather's house once stood, and it was not via Casale, nor can I find a via Casale in modern Colle Sannita. But his father Francesco Iamarino's birth record also includes that address.

Once you become used to the form from the town you are researching, you'll be surprised how quickly you can extract all of the facts you need. To learn the key Italian words from these vital records, see my other blog entry, "Italian Words You Must Know."