Posted by: jesshistory2 | October 1, 2009

Genealogy and History Thoughts – Column Eight: Or Why I Prefer to Not Use Online Translators

I know there are genealogists that use online and computer translators to translate old documents, and my intention is not to attack those who use these translators. I realize that not everyone knows another language and that translators can be helpful in saving time. And money. My problem with online translators is that they translate terribly, and if a document is poorly translated, one can miss some important information. Also, not every word of a language is included in an online translator, especially if it is an old word. Or the actual meaning of the sentence can be skewered by an online translator, since that online translator probably does not take in context of the endings on nouns and adjectives or of the case. For example:

  • Latin – depending up the ending of the noun, one call tell the gender of that noun, if the noun is singular or plural, and what case that word is in. (When I speak of case, I mean such as: possession -in the case of Latin, called Genitive, indirect object – Accusative, direct object – dative, subject – nominative, and two more cases that I can’t recall off the top of my head. It’s been awhile since I’ve dealt with Latin.)
  • German – Again, it is the same with Latin, except German only has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.

So, as you can see, if an online translator ignores the case of the noun, one could potentially miss some important information, especially if the information on a document (like a vital record) is in a sentence instead of a form. One could potentially miss out information such as how someone is related to someone else if the document mentions more than one person. So, the case of a noun is quite important when it comes to translating a document.

And then there is the issue of translating something in English into another language. Online translators could very easily use the wrong word in translating a sentence. If someone was trying to write a letter in another language for information, that person could easily use an online translator and get something back that might mean something else to a native speaker reading that letter. (Obviously, they would be able to tell right away that the letter was written by someone who isn’t fluent in the language.) A human translator does a much better job than an online translator, but I realize that can cost quite a bit of money, unless you can find someone who is willing to do it for free. The other option is to try to learn that language, but then again that costs money and time.

Even though I am taking German language classes, I am not fluent in German yet. I still make quite a few mistakes, but unlike a computer, I can probably come up with a better translation (with a dictionary) than a computer’s literal translation. I know that these online translators can be awful because I decided to test a couple for fun. (Yes, I wanted to see how bad they were.) I have a document in German and know roughly what the document says. I decided to try Microsoft Word 2003’s translator (okay, this one isn’t on the internet, but I think it falls into the computer category.), and well, it did a poor job. One of the reasons was that it restricted the number of words that could be added at a time. The problem is that sentences in historical documents can be quite long and the sentence meaning will be skewered if words are cut out. In German, there are times when the verb can be at the end of a sentence, and if one does not have that last verb, the sentence meaning will be wrongly translated (if it makes any sense at all). So, for me, the Microsoft translation was quite funny because of all of the mistakes it made. (Again, I did this just to make myself laugh.)

Here is an excerpt of my document in German:

“Worüber wir gegenwärtige Urkunde in Gegenwart der nachgenannten vier Zeugen: 1. Philipp Jantzer/Jentzer, Kaufmann, drei und dreißig Jahre alt wohnhaft in Waldfischbach;2. Ludwig Schäffer, Bäcker und Wirth, fünfzig Jahre alt, wohnhaft in Trippstadt;3. Johannes Drescher, Schullehrer, sechs und dreißig Jahre alt, wohnhaft in Trippstadt;4. Jakob Jung, Kaufmann, ein und dreißig Jahre alt, wohnhaft in Kaiserslautern,alle vier mit den Brautleuten nicht verwandt und nicht verschwägert,gefertigt und mit denselben und den kontrahirenden Theilen, benebst den anwesenden Eltern, nach geschehener Vorlesung unterzeichnet haben.So geschehen zu Trippstadt im Jahre und am Tage wie Eingangs erwähnt.”

Here is Microsoft Word’s translation:

” … 1. Philipp Jantzer/Jentzer, Buyer, three and thirty years old resident … all four related to the bride people not and does not verschwägert manufactured and with the same and the contracting Theilen, benebst that present parents, after happened lecture signed. As happened at Trippstadt in the year and by day as entrance mentions.”

(Note: I have elipses in this excerpt of the Microsoft translation because Microsoft’s program restricts the number of words to about twenty-five and by the time I got to the end of the document, I was tired of having to continually copy and past.)

As you can see, Microsoft’s translation of this excerpt is not very good. It left several words in German, and the sentance clearly does not make sense.

The other translator that I have tried is Babelfish. Babelfish did only a slightly better job. Here is Babelfish’s translation:

“About what we present document in presence of the following four witnesses: 1. Philipp Jantzer/Jentzer, buyer, three and thirty years old resident in forest fish brook; 2. Ludwig Schaeffer, baker and Wirth, fifty years old, resident in Trippstadt; 3. Johannes Dre, school teachers, six and thirty years old, resident in Trippstadt; 4. Jakob young, buyer, and thirty years old, resident in Kaiserslautern, all four related not verschwaegert to the bride people and not, not manufactured and to the same and the kontrahirenden Theilen, benebst present parents, after happened lecture signed. As happened at Trippstadt in the year and by day as entrance mentions.”

And here is my translation of the excerpt:

“We, four witnesses were present at the aforementioned deed:
1. Philip Jantzer/Jentzer,* merchant, 33 years old, resides in Waldfischbach; 2. Ludwig Schaeffer, Baker and innkeeper (or land lord), 50 years old, resides in Trippstadt; 3. John Drescher, school teacher, 36 years old, resides in Trippstadt; 4. Jacob Jung, merchant, 31 years old, resides in Kaiserslautern; neither of these four are related to the bridal couple, and they happened to be present in the signing of the contract, instead of the parents’ presence. And so came to pass in Trippstadt in the year and day mentioned.”

(*I had someone transcribe my document for me because at the time I could not make sense of the German hadwriting, and the transcriber wasn’t sure if the letter was an a or an e.) If anyone can come up with a better translation, please feel free to correct me.

Of course, when it comes to only translating one or two words, these online translators can do a fairly good job, but I wouldn’t use it for phrases or sentences. Also, I noticed that these dictionaries do not have archaic words in their databases. So, if you’re looking for the translation of an old occupation, the chances are greater that you might not find it. I did do some browsing a few minutes ago, and I found a website that has translations for old German occupations. Here is the link: I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it appears as though it might be helpful when it comes to looking for older words.

Again, as I mentioned before, I am not attempting to attack those who use online translators. I just want to let others know that these online translators are not as accurate as they might appear. If anyone has a better translation of that excerpt, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me. So, what do you think? Feel free to leave me a comment.

Originally posted on November 15, 2007.



  1. I could not agree with you more on the downside to the online translator. Especially when the www affords us the ability to receive translation services of native speakers!

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