Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Helps for Translating the Old German Typeface

As you search for your German ancestors there may be times when a search engine will find an ancestor's name in a newspaper which is printed in German.  (Isn't OCR amazing?!)  What happens when you know or suspect the article is about your ancestor but you can't read German?   There's help if you're willing to patiently examine the letters and translate them.

I find the chart at right useful because it shows our Roman letters and both the old German type and the old German script.   It will be helpful when translating newspapers as well as old German documents with mixed type and script.   This is from KrauseHouse.

America Writes Home is another source showing Roman letters and both German type fonts and script letters.  From all of these sources you can see variations of script, though the type fonts are essentially the same.  If you are trying to translate a document with both type and script such as a church or civil record, it's helpful to have a variety of sources since you may need to determine which type of script was used.  A previous post, Helps for Translating That Old German Handwriting, gives sources to aid in the translation of script lettering.

The chart at left, also from KrauseHouse, may be a bit better than the one above because it includes modified vowels and compound consonants, integral parts of the German language.

KrausHouse has another chart which shows Roman letters, German letters, German script letters, and approximate pronunciation in German.  It could be helpful if you need to spell out a word to a German speaker.

After you've translated the old German font into Roman letters, you'll still need to translate from German to English unless you're already able to do that.  If you can't, I find BeoLingus helpful for just such a situation.

Google News Archive has several German newspapers if you'd like to practice your translation skills.  (You can look at this one if you like.)   I tried it and decided it's not easy. Nor was there much incentive since I chose a large font advertisement (because I couldn't find a news article about my ancestor).

My motive for learning to translate old German into English is this:  a year or so ago I learned that my great-grandfather, Henry Meinzen, may have served in the Civil War.  Since he would have recently arrived from Germany, I thought perhaps his enlistment would have been mentioned in one of the local German newspapers.  I thought it wouldn't be too hard to recognize at least his last name if I saw it.  How wrong I was!  German newspaper typefaces of the 1860s look as unlike Roman letters as possible.  Armed with the aids I've shared in this post, I will make a second attempt at deciphering the local German newspaper of his day.  I think I'll translate "enlistment," "Meinzen," "soldiers" and other words that may have been used to publish an enlistment announcement into German, then find the old German letters for the words.  I am ever hopeful of finding more about Henry.

For readers hoping to translate old German script go to Helps for Translating That Old German Handwriting.

Copyright ©2010-2016 Nancy Messier for My Ancestors and Me


  1. Thanks,
    I do fine with the type, but I have great difficulty with the script, even using a guide. Once those letters are all hooked together it can be hard to tell where one starts and the other ends.

  2. I have taken a class on the old German styles of writing but when it comes to the handwritten words it is difficult.

    I used the Google link for some of the German Pittsburgh newspapers and the copies were chopped up with pages over pages.

    I can't figure out why because the thumbnail on the right side did not have the same picture.

  3. Christine, I'm impressed if you can easily read the print. It looks like a foreign language to me, especially pre-1890s. You're good! For some reason, it seems like the handwritten records are easier for me to read. But then maybe it was because they were birth/baptism records for children of the same parents so there was some repetition. I'm not eager to tackle the newspapers!

    Claudia, I noticed today when I looked at a few more German newspaper images on google that they were chopped and parts of pages were overlaid over other pages. It was very strange -- and impossible to find any continuity. I wonder if it happens occasionally or if they are always like that. Unfortunately, I didn't save the link to the pages that were overlapped.

  4. Always good to know! Thanks for sharing, Nancy. VERY useful!

  5. What a super helpful post! I've been working with old German writing for over a year now and it's very frustrating -- even with the guides because each individual, like in modern day writing, has his/her own style. Of course, no one writes in the present generation will ever write in longhand again!

    Thanks for the post. I found this post recommended on Cheryl Cayemberg's site.

  6. Linda, be sure to look at this link (http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/helps-for-translating-that-old-german.html) if you're trying to translate old German handwriting. I think script and types can both be challenging. All the best to you in your efforts.

  7. This post published quite interesting & informative so that adds new value to me and your post very help me lot Thanks

  8. This is really very helpful post…and is very well written…this is what i was searching for..thanks a lot.

  9. Thank you, Schools in Geelong. Best wishes with your translations!

  10. Difference in the edition of journals from one year to other year.

  11. I know you posted this a long time ago, but thank you! It really helped me. I found a membership card of some type from 1909-1910 (it was good for one year), and it was easy to translate the common words - even secretary - but I still can't get the name of the organization, even after deciphering the letters. Said secretary, however, had very nice handwriting, and I was able to read that information very easily. If only I knew what my great-great grandfather was doing those years in Germany!

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, boofsmom. This is my most popular post but few people leave comments, so I wonder if it's helpful to them or not. I'm glad it helped you. I hope you'll be able to find more information about your g-g-grandfather and his time in Germany!

  12. Useful information like this one must be kept and maintained so I will put this one on my bookmark list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this!

    translators from english to french & Quebec French Translation

  13. Thank you so much for all your very helpful information--Great website!

  14. I really appreciate this wonderful post. I have been trying to translate both documents and newspapers, so these guides will be most helpful in the future.

  15. Many thanks for all your excellent advice. I am trying to confirm the birthplace and date for my great-grandfather Carl Julius Mirisch. He may have been born in Leisnig, Saxony on the 5th of July 1840 or perhaps 1829.


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