This is a guest post by German to English genealogy translator Katie Schober. Originally from St. Louis–with German ancestry–Katie earned a BA and an MA in German and was a Fulbright fellow in Austria. She now lives and works on the road as a digital nomad, with her Austrian husband. Regular readers may remember Katie from the Speaking of Translation podcast episode Life as a digital nomad. Following that interview, we received a number of inquiries from listeners who wondered about Katie’s work as a genealogy translator, so here you go! Katie’s professional website is SK Translations, through which she also writes and teaches about deciphering old German handwriting, researching German genealogy, and other related topics.
So…what do you do?
“What do you do?” is a normal conversation starter in America. My answer to that question, however, is not your average reply. Whenever I tell people about my line of work, I usually get one of three responses:
1. “Um, what is that?”
2. “Oh, ok…” – (moving on to the next person) – “What do you do?”
3. “Wow, that must be amazing! How cool! What kind of documents do you get to translate?”
You can guess which response is my favorite.
So what do I do? I’m a German to English genealogy translator. In case your response is similar to answer number one above, I’ll briefly explain what that means. I translate historical documents such as birth certificates, marriage records, death certificates, letters, and diaries to help people find their German ancestors. And I absolutely love it.
Getting started as a genealogy translator
To be honest, I came into the genealogy field completely by accident. My translation business got its start in 2015, after I had worked a brief stint as a project manager at a small translation company in Boston. Realizing that I was constantly jealous of all the translators to whom I was assigning projects, I decided it was time to translate full-time myself. And after seven long months as a project manager, that’s exactly what I set out to do.
In the first few months of building my business, I advertised myself as a general German-English translator. Sure, there were fields I loved (history, tourism, culture), but surely it would be better to be able to translate everything, right? Not so much. As any translation expert will tell you, specialization is key. Luckily, my specialization found me.
As the months went on, I began to get a few requests to translate old German letters – letters that my clients had found in their basement or attic, written by their grandparents or great-grandparents in a language they could no longer read. As an avid history enthusiast, I was beyond excited to get these requests – to me, they seemed much more fun than what I’d been translating thus far. But when I looked at the letters, my heart dropped – they were written in the old German script, a completely different type of handwriting than the writing we use today. This old script, known in German as Kurrentschrift, was taught in Germany until the mid-twentieth century, when the Latin script, our version of cursive, was introduced in the schools. Today, therefore, it is only the very oldest generation in Germany who can still read this type of handwriting. “Well, if most Germans can’t read it,” I thought to myself back then, “how in the world am I supposed to?”
But since I love history and wanted to be able to read those faded old documents, I set about learning the script. Through books, video tutorials, and a bit of help from my Austrian husband’s grandmother, I slowly stumbled my way through those elegant “e’s” and “h’s”. The better I got, the faster I became, and I soon realized how much I loved discovering the stories of people’s ancestors. I began to advertise to genealogy groups across the country, and slowly but surely, SK Translations: German-English Genealogy Translations was born.
Old German handwriting…from beginner to expert
Today, four years later, I can now read the script with no problem (if you happen to be learning it, I promise it is just like any other skill – the more you practice, the easier it gets). It helps that I work with it every day – from eighteenth century church records to lengthy letters between Germany and America in the post-World War years, I’ve seen many different types of documents. The oldest translation I’ve done to date is a newspaper announcement from 1533, in which the municipal council of Nuremberg ordered villagers to stop selling their eggs, cheese, lard, pigeons, etc. to my client’s ancestor, as he was reselling those farm products at a higher price and causing prices everywhere to rise. Sixteenth century drama at its finest!
My favorite translations, however, are the letters and diaries of my clients’ ancestors. Through these personal writings, you really feel like you get to know the authors themselves – and sometimes, you get really involved in their stories! I once translated an early-twentieth-century diary of a young German wife who was on her way to visit her husband, stationed in Thailand. After being on her own for a year in Germany, the diary’s young author traveled by ship from Germany down to Spain, through the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and finally to Bangkok itself. On almost every page of her diary, in addition to writing of the activities and food on the ship (butter was a luxury, I learned), she wrote and wrote of how much she missed her husband, and how excited she was to finally be able to see him after a year apart. As I made my way through the hundred pages, my anticipation of the reunion grew and grew – so you can imagine how disappointed I was when the diary ended right before the ship docked in Bangkok. We had come so far, and now no juicy details of the reunion?! Extremely unfair.
What I love most about my job, however, is getting to hear my clients’ responses when they see the words of their ancestors for the first time. Whether it’s learning that a woman cried tears of joy as she read the words of her grandmother whom she never got to meet, or that a man now has the name and address of his great-grandfather’s home in Germany and can finally plan a trip to see his ancestral town, being a part of my clients’ family journeys means the world to me. So even though my response to “What do you do?” may not be completely normal, I am always able to answer the question with pride and happiness, as I can honestly say that I love my job.