You Can Too Read Foreign Language Records!

You Can Too Read Foreign Language Records!

One of the laments I’ve heard ever since I used to host Portuguese genealogy chat on AOL is “But, I don’t know Portuguese (insert your favorite language) so I can’t research the records.  Well, I say “Hogwash!”  I don’t know any language but English and some question my expertise in that language.  Yet, I’ve been able to work with records in Portuguese, Latin, Dutch, and French.

You don’t need to be fluent in a language to read the basic documents.  What you need is a foreign language dictionary, a word list of common words, and examples of transcribed documents.  By training yourself to pick out the important phrases, you can “read” the documents.

Let’s take a Portuguese baptismal record.  You want to know the name of the person baptized, the date of baptismal, their parents names, the name of the godparents, and the witnesses. Once you know the words surrounding this information in a record you can pick out the important information.

I’ve also found that reading documents in one language can help you with another.  I did years of work translating Portuguese records.  When I switched to French, I found similar word origins and phrasing.  Same for the Dutch and Latin.  Familiarity with one can help with another.  For example, the term for child in French records is fil.  In Portuguese records in filho.  They are very similar.

You can find free aids online to help you with your translations.  Google Books has many free language dictionaries.  What’s neat is you can often find one from the time period that you are researching.

The Family History Library of the LDS Church has vocabulary word lists for many languages.  Here is the Portuguese Genealogical Word List which has helped me many times.

You know, I was once intimidated by foreign language records, too.  There was a two year span between when I knew where in the Azores my ancestors were from and when I got the courage to crack open the microfilm for Maia, Ribeira Grande.  Once I began researching, I realized that each Priest had a formula and rarely diverted from it.  I practiced transcribing records and in no time I was able to go through a microfilm and pick out the information I needed.

My suggestion to anyone beginning to work in foreign language records is to get a language dictionary, get the word lists provided by the LDS Family History Library (you can find them on their website,, and get copies of the documents you want to translate. The, using your language aids, practice, practice, practice!  By, translating several records, you’ll get a feel for the format, the words, and the necessary information you need.  In no time, you’ll be reading foreign language records, too!

Cheri Mello, a specialist in Portuguese genealogy, has written an excellent guide to Portuguese research complete with documents and translation.  Use her guide to learn how to read the Portuguese records.  (This is a PDF file.)

1.  Get a language dictionary.

2.  Use a word list from the LDS Family History Library website

3.  Get copies of records and practice.  Practice makes perfect.  The time you spend learning to translate the records will be well spent.



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Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website,

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