What If You Can't Read The Handwriting For A Record Translation?

+3 votes

I would think this question would apply to anyone trying to translate a Spanish or any other language record, regardless of proficiency in the language.  I am also sure that many people who are good/proficient at translating records have likely faced/dealt with this problem before. 

 This is a www. “What would you do question” (?) for people with record translation experience/expertise that I think might help others as well as me in the beginning stages of learning how to do our own record translations.  

If you can’t read a record you want to translate, what is your first/next step?  What happens when you want to translate a record, but you cannot read the person's or priest's handwriting well?  What do you do if the writing is mostly or completely illegible?  What do you do when you might be able to pick out certain words, but not enough to create a translation?  

I am looking at a ancestors'  1772 marriage record. I just cannot make out enough in the priest's handwriting to create a translation. From working on/learning from our Spanish Vital Record Research space page, I do know some of the common/repeated words and phrases that should be in a marriage record, and I do think I might see a few of these familiar 'keywords'.  

I am mono-English so attempting translations are tougher for me anyway, but that is not the essential problem with this one. My problem is that I cannot read the priest's handwriting well enough to even attempt the translation to start with.

Before I ask for translation help on G2G, I wanted to find out how other people deal with a record (Spanish or another language) with hard to read handwriting.  Maybe I can explore different ways to deal with this based on the responses.

PS. I have the record in an English FHL record, so I do have the essential information for sourcing from this record through another means. It is just that I am being stubborn about making an effort to at least try to learn how to read and understand Spanish Church records.

WikiTree profile: Steve Archuleta
ago in The Tree House by Steve Archuleta G2G3 (3.4k points)
edited ago by Steve Archuleta
Great question Steve!!
Thank you (!) for the kind comment.  Feel welcome to 'chime in' because I know that you have dealt with hard to read or illegible genealogy records numerous times in your extensive translating experience with Portuguese and other records. Anything you can offer/advise would greatly be appreciated.

7 Answers

+4 votes
If it is a Catholic Church record, it could be in Latin, Spanish or a mix of the two.
ago by Marion Poole G2G6 Pilot (556k points)
Thanks for the Latin hint!  I do think I see the common latin word 'ut' and something I can't make out in the writing after. I can assume that it might be 'ut supra'.  My (space page) colleagues have educated me a bit on Latin 'switches' in Spanish Church records.  "ut' and about 5-6 other words are all I can make out in the 'body' of the record so far.
+8 votes
  1. It always helps if you already know what it says, then you can see which words you do recognize and try to fill out around them.
  2. Similarly, it helps to know the area - what the names of people and places are supposed to be. Just beware of wishful reading. Also, it can be hard to "un-see" what you first have seen.
  3. Birth - marriage - death records usually have a fairly limited vocabulary, albeit somewhat specific to the time and place. That helps.
  4. Look at the whole page, or a few pages, to get a feel for the whole thing. This is useful when you are starting to have a grasp, perhaps not so much the  very first time.
  5. Give it time. If your purpose is to learn and improve it is good to read a lot of different records and to come back to them in several rounds with years between - we DO have the genealogy bug, after all.
  6. It may be possible to learn to shift between a very relaxed, open, intuitive reading (don't think, let your eyes do the job) - and a more analytical, criticale attitude.
  7. A buddy is, of course a very good thing to have, particularly as a reality check against "wishful reading". Or for asking questions too "stupid" to bring to G2G.
ago by Eva Ekeblad G2G6 Pilot (311k points)

Really good points Eva. I think the practice is what really makes the difference. I'm not sure I have seen a question 'too stupid' to bring to the G2G (wink) but a buddy is a great thing to have when you need a second set of eyes. smiley

Thanks, Mindy.

I should probably have formulated "stupid" questions differently, even with the scare quotes. I know all questions get friendly answers in g2G, but nevertheless I think there are members who have questions they hesitate to ask in a public forum and would be more comfortable asking a buddy.

I figured that was what you meant. And I agree, it is nice to have a buddy you can ask those simpler questions! I am thankful for all the nice, helpful people when I was new here. heart

+5 votes

Hi Steve, 

I agree with all the points in the previous comments (except maybe the notion of questiond being too stupid to ask in g2g), but here are some other tips you might find helpful:

  • This and this page give an idea of how letters have been written in old records. I have them printed out! 
  • Abbreviations are very common, and sometimes annoying as they are not always standardized. Experience helps. 
  • Here is an online tutorial that you might find helpful. 
  • Try to find some already transcribed records for the area /time you are interested in, and practice with them.
  • Don't give up! Practice really helps: I'm now (after a lot of practive) able to scan several pages per minute of eg old baptism records for a specific name.

All that being said, my experience is mainly with Dutch/Flemish/French records, and things might be different for Spanish ones. 

ago by Filip Beunis G2G6 (6.1k points)

Abbreviations are a nightmare for mono-English people in the beginning stages of learning to translate records.  If we don't know the [foreign] words to start with (!)  we are surely not going to know the abbreviations of them. I have had to rely on experienced bi-linguals like Rubén, Bonnie, & Mindy who have expertise in record translations when it comes to abbreviations.  Thank you for the response and insight,

THANK YOU (!) for the links in your response as well.  The variations in letters in old records can be so hard to recognize. I have found that I really struggle with recognizing the variations of 'r's and 'f''s in old handwriting... along with a few others.
You're welcome :)

Thanks for sharing those links Filip smiley

+2 votes

Steve: your question and the community's answers make for a very interesting thread, the links included are great!

ago by Bonnie Saunders G2G6 Mach 1 (13.2k points)
Thank you (!) for the kind comment.  Feel welcome to 'chime in' because I know that you have dealt with hard to read or illegible genealogy records numerous times in your extensive translating experience with/in several languages. Anything you can offer/advise would greatly be appreciated.
Bonnie, how comes there is no Spanish Glossary in the Language department here? I think that should be included to enable people to decipher records.

Hi Jelena!  What are you referring to when you say "Language dept", hahaha, I wasn’t aware we had such a department in the community!  In any event, not to despair.  Thanks to Steve Archuleta's project, there is a Spanish Glossary available to all. 

Here's the announcement,

here are the pages (Spanish Vital Record Research Hints).

and here's the Glossary itself.

Hope these links help!

Bonnie, there is the Language Project on WikiTree. And within that there is a pool of Glossaries in different languages. You might consider linking the Spanish Glossary there too. 

Jelena, I see!  I was not aware of this project (& unfortunately, probably nor of others equally worthy), which is my fault for not always keeping up, thank you for pointing it out to me!  I imagine the Managers of the Spanish Vital Record Research Hints pages will take your comments under advisement.

Hi Jelena, 

Good question. I am currently in the process of working with several Project Leaders on deciding where it should be linked, after each of those Leaders have a chance to look at our pages. These things take time, but it will get done smiley the collaborative WikiTree way...


+4 votes
Some stuff I use when I try to read old German script, which can seem like a different language when I am tired although I am native German.

1. Know the terms you will need to decipher the records in general. I wanted to point you to the Language Volunteers project, because there are located the glossaries for different languages, but then I saw that Spanish is not included... Google translate can be of help there.

2. As Eva said, know the locations mentioned. How far are they from another? Is it possible someone moved from Place A to Place B in 1722? Google maps is often one of the most underused features!

3. When you think you deciphered a word, try to find it elsewhere on the side. Is it in the next record used in the same "place" within the sentence? If so, this indicates it belongs to a "standard formula" which is used regularly. What could that formula mean? Even if you "only" know American records, most records in most languages are built in a similar way. So this could give you a hint.

4. If you can't decipher a whole word, try to decipher a part of it, and when you achieved that, try doing a wildcard search (maybe even on Google Spain) and see what the computer gives you... maybe it gives you the part of the word you can't decipher.

5. Maybe the most important tip:  If you can't decipher it for the sake of your life and you only get furious on the record, the computer and yourself, shut down the browser window and don't look at the record anymore today. The record will be there tomorrow and sometimes taking a break helps heaps. With refreshed eyes you might be able to decipher the words tomorrow.
ago by Jelena Eckstädt G2G6 Pilot (257k points)
Taking a brain and vision break has been mentioned several times :)  as important so I am trying to do this.  I think I have been able to decypher a couple more words after breaks.

A small breakthrough (baby steps)... After a break :) I was able to make out  "y vele infacie eclesie" for the first time, and that phrase triggered a recent memory on the work we did for the Spanish Vital Records (translation) space page.  The team translated a marriage record from 1782 from not just the same town, but even the exact same church.  The 1782 completed translation looks to be very similar (same church) to the one I am working on (1772).. including the phrase y vele infacie eclesie".  Looks like my experience with the team on our project is already going to pay 'benefits'!

All good points Jelena
+3 votes
Another point to consider is the change a (written) language underwent over time, and the influence of the local vernacular - for "Spanish" it might make quite a difference if it is a Castilian or a Catalan record.
ago by Helmut Jungschaffer G2G6 Pilot (474k points)
Castillian and Catalan are actually two different languages.
+3 votes
Steve, I think if you consolidate all the above answers into a checklist for yourself, that will be very useful.  

Practice and familiarity are so important.  There was a period in my research when I had to try and read old German script (awfully hard!), and now I am working on 17th-century Pennsylvania records.  You might keep a collection of other similar records you've transcribed and use that for reference.

Also, for each different time period/country/language/record type, you may be able to Google and find handwriting tips, lists of definitions and abbreviations, etc.  I usually download those and/or take screen prints so that I have my own little reference library.

Then when all else fails, ask G2G!  It helps to give a link to the original record, if possible, because it helps others who are trying to help you if they can see the entire record.
ago by Julie Kelts G2G6 Mach 7 (72.9k points)
Thanks!  I have purposely not identified the record or its links in my post(s) yet... because I wanted to try out any suggestions or follow the advice given in responses before I did that.  I have made a little progress on the record because of the responces, but I may end up asking for help soon.  It is a tough record for this mono-brain beginner!

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