Clearing Language Barriers

Update of article originally published in the APG Quarterly, December 2003. It is addressed to professional genealogists who do research for clients; but anyone pursuing genealogy as a hobby will also find useful information here. 

Download as PDF

Clearing Language Barriers
Selecting and Working with a Professional Translator

by Ann C. Sherwin

In the cultural melting pot most readers of the APG Quarterly call home, few of us can go back many generations in our research without running into language barriers. Mine were Swedish and German. I cleared one by hiring a professional and the other by becoming one.

As a professional researcher, you may limit your services to the country in which you live, but your clients are no less eager to cross borders. After all, the most dramatic turning point in a family history is likely to be someone’s heart-wrenching decision to leave home and embrace an unknown future in a land where language and cultural barriers loom. The keys to bringing this part of the story to life often lie buried in drawers or dusty attics — a bundle of yellowed letters, a fragile military pass, journeyman’s book, christening certificate, or diary — or in archival collections, church histories, ethnic publications, etc., in a language you don’t understand. But I needn’t say more. You already know how to mine every available resource to piece together a family history. A language barrier is just another roadblock to be cleared.

When doing research for yourself, it’s fun to see how far you can get on your own. Some people manage to “cross the ocean” using dictionaries and other translation aids. An annotated bibliography of aids for German research is posted on my Web site. For German and twelve other European languages, Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman is a handy resource. While self-help guides have their limitations, they enable you identify documents and extract basic information. But when working in a professional capacity, you would be wise to use the services of a qualified translator or provide your client with a referral.

Finding a Translator

Ideally your translator should be a specialist in translation (not teaching or research), in the language in question (a long list of languages could mean master of none), and in genealogical subject matter, preferably in your exact area of interest. If the foreign-language documents are handwritten or in an unfamiliar typeface, you will obviously need someone who can read them. The poorer the legibility, the greater the proficiency required.

You might begin your search in the APG Directory of Professional Genealogists. In the print version, APG members offering translation service appear in the Research Specialties and Services Index under “Translator.” For a more up-to-date listing, go to Under “Geographic Specialties,” select a country in which the needed language is spoken; under, “Related Services,” select “Translator.” (You can make selections in the other fields too, but it may limit the results unnecessarily. For instance, selecting a research specialty will rule out members whose primary occupation is translation, not research.) From the list of results, click on a name to view the member’s profile.

Your most promising source of professional translators is likely to be the American Translators Association (ATA), the largest organization in its field in the United States, with over 11,000 members. Its searchable directories are available at, where you can narrow your search by language pair and other criteria. (Hint: Under Area of Specialization, scroll almost to the bottom of this list, where Genealogy appears under Social Sciences. If you need more results, try History.)

Other sources: Ethnic genealogical and historical societies often maintain lists of translators, though some may be amateur volunteers. Translators often advertise in genealogical journals. The translation companies listed in your local Yellow Pages generally specialize in business or technical material, but most of them use the Internet to locate specialists in other fields, and you can too. Enter the language and the words translator or translation and genealogy in a search engine, and you will likely come up with relevant links if you can filter out hits for translation software, dubious offers of free translation, and translation companies listing hundreds of “specialties.” You can ignore sponsored links. I have yet to find one that mentions genealogy, despite its inclusion in the search string.

Translators specializing in the major languages abound. If your need is for Azeri or Zulu, you may have to be more resourceful, but odds are high that help is out there somewhere, if you follow links to other links. For breadth of coverage and user-friendliness, Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet is a good bet.

The Selection Process

The language service industry in the United States is unregulated. As in genealogy, professional credentials are available and desirable, but we don’t have to have them before we can hang out our shingle and start charging for our services. The widespread notion that knowing two languages makes one a translator is almost as foolish as the notion that having ancestors makes one a genealogist. So once you have a list of prospective translators, how do you choose?

In the front of the APG Directory of Professional Genealogists is a guide entitled “So You’re Going to Hire a Professional Genealogist.” It contains so many parallels to translation that I loaned my copy to the president of my ATA chapter as a model for our directory. The steps are much the same: Find a professional with the necessary skills and access to resources; evaluate qualifications; establish the purpose and scope of the project and realistic expectations; clarify cost, delivery time and method, and payment terms. In selecting a professional translator, you will want to apply the same principles that you expect clients to use in selecting a professional researcher.

First of all, look for a translator with verifiable credentials. The most widely recognized credential for translators in the United States is ATA certification, which is granted in a specific language pair and direction and is not available for all languages. A blanket claim of professional certification without mention of these specifics improperly implies that one is certified in all the languages in which one offers service. Verify any dubious claims. Some translators have earned professional credentials in other countries. Almost all hold at least a four-year degree in a foreign language or in a relevant specialty area. A high percentage hold graduate degrees.

Look for a translator with experience in genealogical and historical documents. Words become obsolete and disappear from dictionaries, or their meanings change; spelling, grammar, and usage evolve over centuries. A translator who works primarily with contemporary German, for example, might not be aware that the commonplace words Nachbar (neighbor), Einwohner (inhabitant), Bürger (citizen), and Bauer (farmer) once denoted social classes and were associated with certain rights and obligations. If the documents are handwritten, ask specifically about the translator’s expertise in this area. Even though handwriting changed over the centuries and varied from region to region, a translator who works extensively with handwritten documents is sure to have developed deciphering skills that apply across the board.

Look for a translator who writes well and is attentive to detail. If you make your initial contact in writing, the response will allow you to assess the translator’s professionalism and command of written English. Occasional typos are forgivable, especially in e-mail, but ultimately you’ll want to select a translator whose presentation is as clear, accurate, and orderly as your own research reports.

For best results, especially if the translation is to be published, look for a qualified native speaker of the target language, the language into which the text is to be translated. Most translators do their best work translating into their native tongue, although some nonnative speakers of English have lived and worked in the US so long that English has become their dominant language.

Finally, we must address the very real issue of cost. The question “Can you do it?” is inevitably followed by “What will it cost?” and “How long will it take?” Unlike commercial clients, most family historians are more concerned about cost than about turnaround time, unless they have a deadline such as an upcoming research trip or family reunion. But over the years I’ve observed that they care a great deal about quality as well. As in any service business, cost is proportional to quantity and quality and inversely proportional to speed. Clients must determine the balance that best suits their need, and sometimes that realization comes through trial and error. Whether you are acting as intermediary between client and translator or merely giving a referral, select a translator who is able and willing to adjust the level of service to the client’s priorities and budget.

In the commercial market, most translators in the United States charge by the word, though the rate may vary according to the nature of the text. If a per-word rate is quoted, be sure to clarify whether it is based on the source-language (original) or target-language (translated) text. Depending on the translator’s style, a German text can expand anywhere from 10% to 30% going into English. Most US translators use the target-language text as a basis because the words are easily counted by computer. On the other hand, some clients and service providers prefer a rate based on the source text, because it preexists and the word count is fixed — the cost doesn’t hinge on the translator’s having a terse or wordy style. In either case, what the client really wants to know is total cost, value for dollar.

For a binding quote, the translator needs to see the entire text to be translated. If you send only sample pages, you will likely get a nonbinding estimate. In addition to word count, factors affecting cost include legibility, writing quality and style, subject matter, special formatting, and the intended readership. Taking all these into account, I estimate the time the translation will take and quote a flat price for the job. Once they are satisfied that my hourly rate and output are reasonable, most of my clients do not request a quote for every job.

Working with the Translator

If the translation is intended for publication, either in print or on a website, inform the translator before you agree on a price. Most translators will expect to be credited and will make an extra effort to ensure that the translation reads smoothly. They will want to approve any editorial changes made to the text and to proofread the final version. This takes extra time, which must be figured into the quote. Be sure to clarify copyright issues as well.

If the source document is handwritten, the translator may find it expedient to transcribe it first, since deciphering script and translating content pose separate challenges. Let the translator know in advance that you would like a copy of the transcription, if it is not routinely provided. A transcription that follows the layout and line breaks of the original will help orient you to the source document, so that you can verify names and dates and ensure that nothing was omitted. If the translator indicates that a critical name or date is illegible or cut off or obscured in fold, the transcription will enable you to locate the problematic spot in the original.

There are several things you can do to streamline the translator’s task and keep billable time to a minimum. While they may seem like common sense to a professional researcher, clients often overlook them:

  • Provide the best possible copies.  Be sure no text is cut off at the margin or obscured by paper folds or dog-ears. If necessary, use different light settings to ensure that all areas of the page are legible. Avoid high contrast, which tends to wash out fine lines that may be critical to legibility. If you feel an enlargement would be helpful, send it, but always include a copy in its natural size as well. Faxing easily legible printed documents is fine, but handwritten documents do not fax well. If you use a scanner, print the electronic image out to be sure it is sharp enough (200 dpi JPEG is optimal).
  • In the case of handwritten records, send the entire page on which the entry appears, and clearly mark the part you need translated. Why? Because column headings or the larger sample of handwriting may be critical for deciphering unfamiliar names or words; and records often contain ditto marks or other references to earlier entries on the page.
  • Provide relevant background information. Tell the translator where the document came from or where the event occurred or was recorded. If you don’t know this, at least give the state or country, to help narrow the translator’s search when poorly legible geographical names must be verified. Also let the translator know the family names you are researching and any particular research problem you hope the translation will solve.

By now it must have struck you how much professional genealogists and professional translators have in common. We are both engaged in career fields that take patience, persistence, precision, self-discipline, an inquiring mind, a passion for detail, and a generous spirit. We both struggle for recognition in a world that perceives our work as something “anyone” can do — and in a sense, the world is right. That’s why we also teach, write, and encourage. We both feel lucky that there are people willing to pay us for doing what we love. And as a player in both fields, I enjoy a bonus that some of my colleagues may miss: an exceptionally appreciative clientele. Sometimes my paycheck even comes tucked in a pretty card or thank-you note that feels like a hug!