Katherine Schober is a German translator, specializing in genealogy. After living in Austria for four years, she recently moved back to the States to be closer to her family. She works with old German handwriting in letters, certificates, church registers and other documents. Check out her website at sktranslations.com for more information.
In this day and age, we have everything at our fingertips. Want to know the score of a baseball game? Google it. Curious about a new restaurant in town? Look it up online. Want to know a word in a foreign language? Google Translate.
While it’s wonderful that everything is so easy nowadays, sometimes we need to be a little more careful. With the Google Translate tool in particular, you must ask yourself if it can really provide you with the information you need. Although the site is relatively decent at translating individual words, Google Translate is not recommended for anything more than that, especially in the field of genealogy. Why not? Check out these six reasons below:
#1: Many genealogical documents are handwritten.
This first point is rather obvious, but it should nevertheless be discussed. While the technology behind Google Translate is advanced, the site is simply unable to turn handwritten documents into translated text. “Well,” you might say, “why can’t I just type everything from the document into Google Translate?” My answer: In addition to the problematic translation results you may receive (see below), the handwriting in old documents is often very difficult to read. In German, for example, the script used in documents pre-1950 is completely different from the handwriting used in Germany today (so different, in fact, that most German-speakers themselves are unable to read it!).
#2: Many genealogical documents contain outdated words that Google Translate does not recognize.
Just as English speakers don’t walk around exclaiming, “Thou art lovely!”, words in other languages have evolved as well. Unfortunately, Google Translate is simply unequipped to deal with the old-fashioned foreign words so common in genealogical translations. This is also true for occupations that no longer exist. I recently translated an 1882 marriage record in which the father was listed as a “Wagner” (the German word for ‘wagon-maker’). Type “Wagner” into Google Translate, and it simply remains “Wagner,” leaving you merely guessing at your ancestor’s profession.
#3: Google Translate often translates idioms and phrases literally, leaving you wondering what in the world your ancestor could have meant.
Some Google-Translate Examples of Idioms:
|Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
||I don’t understand anything.
||I understand only station.
|Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen
||In the middle of nowhere
||Where fox and hare say goodnight
|Mit der Kirche ums Dorf fahren
||To make something more complicated
||Take the church around the village
And, if you put these three idioms together, you get this:
Actual Meaning: Why make things more complicated? I am in the middle of nowhere and can’t understand anything.
You can imagine your bewilderment if you are trying to translate a letter and believe your ancestor was somehow trying to accompany a church around an entire village while cavorting with polite woodland creatures. Makes no sense!
#4: Many genealogical documents contain obscure abbreviations that Google Translate ignores.
I recently translated a 1940 list of documents a bride needed for her wedding. As this was a list that she simply wrote for herself, she used many abbreviations throughout the text. When I type one such example into Google Translate, it looks like this:
|Abstammungsnachweis b. Großelt.
||Certificate of Heritage from both grandparents (beider Großeltern)
||Pedigree certificate b. Großelt. (does not translate the two abbreviations)
Again, if you did not speak German, Google Translate would leave you guessing at what your ancestor had written down.
#5: A word in your document can have multiple meanings and Google can only pick one of them.
Take the English word “run.” “Run” can mean jog quickly (She runs in the park), manage (She runs a business), a tear (a run in your stockings) and so on (English With a Twist). How is Google supposed to pick the exact right meaning of the word for your document? Just as English words have multiple definitions, other languages do as well. One such word is the multi-meaning German pronoun “sie”, which, if Google chooses the wrong translation, can either change the meaning of your document or simply cause you a great deal of confusion. Such confusion is (correctly) illustrated by Mark Twain in his essay, “The Awful German Language“:
“the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them…think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.”
#6: Google Translate can make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Here are real examples of what Google Translate did with actual sentences I’ve translated from old letters:
|Wenn ich Zeit zum schreiben hatte, so musste ich nach Frankfurt zu meiner Schwester, die mir Vorwurfe macht dass ich sie so wenig besuche.
||When I did have time to write, I had to go to Frankfurt to see my sister, who accuses me of not visiting her enough.
||If I had time to write, so I had to Frankfurt to my sister to give me reproach visit from me following so little.
|Noch musste ich bemerken das in Ostpreussen eine Hungersnot ist, wofür in allen Städten und Dörfen Geld und Nährungsmittel gesammelt werden.
||I still need to mention that there is a famine in East Prussia, for which money and food are being collected in all cities and villages.
||Yet I had to remember this is a famine in East Prussia, are what is collected in all cities and villages of money and Nährungsmittel
If you only look at the Google Translate column, these translated sentences often make no sense or provide the completely wrong idea. For example, “this is a famine in East Prussia” sounds like the writer is part of the famine, when in fact she is just explaining that there is one in another part of the country. Not to mention the “villages of money.”
In conclusion, I do believe that Google Translate can help you with the meanings of individual words here and there. However, if you are serious about your genealogical research, value accuracy and want to learn as much as you can about your ancestors from the documents in your possession, hiring a translator is the way to go.
 This is a very unlikely sentence, but was used to show how Google Translate deals with idioms.