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But What Does It SAY?

Most Americans have ancestors who spoke a language other than English. Often the native language was not passed down more than one generation, leaving many of us unable to read written accounts of our family histories. My own paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1905 and did not pass the Swedish language on to his children. It died with him in 1968.

I have several books and unpublished manuscripts of my Swedish family history that no one in my family can read. Many of you might be in the same dilemma. For most of us, paying a professional translator is prohibitively expensive. What to do?

Depending on the language, you might be able to find someone who is bilingual and would relish the opportunity to use his or her language facility. Finding a bilingual person might not be difficult. Be advised, though, that being able to speak two languages, even fluently, is not the same skill as being able to translate from one to the other. Can’t read Greek? Check with a Greek Orthodox Church. Italian has you stumped? Maybe the Sons of Italy has someone who can help. My own hometown in Connecticut has a very active Portuguese Club and a Polish-American Club. Someone might be able to help you at little cost or in exchange for a polite donation to their organization.

Another resource is one of the free on-line translators likewww.translate.google.com. The original language can be typed into a text box and the English translation appears in the text box next to it as if by magic! You actually don’t even have to type in the text in the source language. You can scan the document, convert it to a Word or PDF file using Optical Character Recognition software, and then copy/paste it into the “source” language text box. It works for 80 languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, and can translate languages that use a different alphabet, like Greek or Korean.

Bear in mind that a computer can only give you a machine translation that may be pretty confusing. It may not give you a good translation. Many words have more than one meaning and the computer will pick the most common use of the word. It’s a start, however, and will probably give you the general gist of what’s being said. A good bilingual dictionary (online or hard copy) will probably be necessary to help you determine the best meaning. Even then, you will only end up with a rough translation. There is really no substitute for a competent bilingual translator.

Using on-line translation resources is a very time consuming process, but it has allowed me to learn a lot about my Swedish family history, and even to meet a very distant cousin who lives here in Florida. It’s tedious and often confusing, but can be very rewarding and may offer up details of your own family background. Give it a try!

(The News Herald)


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