Frequently Asked Questions
The diaries, letters, and documents currently gathering dust in your attic connect you to your own history in a way that a family tree alone cannot. These writings may also contain information or first-hand accounts of more general historical interest. In any case, they will help you to understand the personal lives of your ancestors and the world in which they moved. Because of my background and interests I am uniquely able to help you to place yourself and your family in historical context.
I am especially interested in translating letters and diaries from the 19th century and the period 1933-45. German immigrant letters and Holocaust-related material are my specialties. I will work with clients for their private use or for publication.
Do my letters and diaries have historical significance?
It depends on how you define “historical.” Your letters/diaries may not add anything new to our overall understanding of the period in which they were written, but they are historical in a broader sense. Certainly they will add to your understanding of the writer’s concerns, habits of thought, and the world in which he or she moved. Furthermore, they may describe events occurring in a particular locality. For example, a diary that I translated, kept by a young woman over a period of more than 30 years, included a description of the 1918 uprising by sailors in Hamburg, part of the “November Revolution” in Germany. The writer lacked the sort of perspective that a historian might bring to the event, and she had no access to any hitherto unknown “facts” or documents. But her description of gunfire in the neighborhood is immediate and visceral.
I only have a few letters. Are they worth translating?
I recently translated 7 letters that dealt in detail with an old family controversy that played out against the backdrop of the European economic crisis brought on by World War I. This tantalizingly brief correspondence actually necessitated a partial reevaluation of an already written family history. The main thing is to have such letters evaluated.
In another instance, a 50-word inscription in an old family Bible yielded information that changed the owner's understanding of her ethnic identity.
I have hundreds of letters (or a two-hundred-page diary). I’m sure there’s good stuff in there, but won’t it cost a fortune?
It will not be inexpensive. The cost of $200-$250 per 1000 words ($50 minimum) really adds up, no question about it. But it is painstaking and physically demanding work requiring much skill in deciphering, translating, and writing. There are, however, ways to narrow the scope of the translation, which may reduce the cost somewhat.
How do you narrow the scope?
I recently translated a correspondence comprising about 150 letters written by an Austrian family to their son who had immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s. The father’s letters to his son were full of well-intentioned (but largely useless) fatherly advice about setting up a business in a country about which he knew nothing. His concern for his son was touching and palpable. The mother’s letters, though equally concerned and loving, rarely dealt with anything of substance. They consisted mainly of hand-wringing about his health and prosperity, and pleas to God Almighty on his behalf. By agreement with the client, I skipped most of her letters, unless I saw something worth translating.
That is one way to limit cost. Another might be to limit translation to a particular time period, or to summarize certain type of letters based on some agreed-upon set of criteria.
Can you translate just the important or interesting parts?
There is no way to know in advance what is interesting. Some years ago I translated the Nazi-era legal correspondence between a German Jew and his “Konsulent” or Jewish legal counselor in Berlin. The letters looked unpromising and uninteresting. They were dry, dry, dry. But… what a story emerged! The man had fled Germany for Holland. He was being sued retroactively by the Nazi government for “stock manipulation” that had supposedly taken place in the 1920s, i.e., before the Nazis came to power. The Nazis asked him to place his money in the Dresdner Bank branch in Amsterdam as a “gesture of good will.” The man, a trusting soul, complied -- whereupon the Nazis froze (stole) his assets. Now destitute, he somehow managed to make his way to England, and a year or so later to Brazil. And what do you suppose was the first thing he did upon reaching Sao Paulo? Like any good German of the time he went and registered with the German consulate, of course!
What initially looked like ho-hum legal communications turned into a stunning portrait of a German-Jewish man who simply could not understand that the seemingly solid and reliable rules of German life had changed forever. It is often remarked that German Jews were more German than the Germans themselves -- and here was a case in point. Of course, his German citizenship had been revoked long before he reached Brazil!
The other problem with looking for the “interesting” or “important” is that life doesn’t come in neat packets. Ideally, what emerges from a correspondence or diary is the writer herself against a broad cultural and familial tapestry. Her everyday concerns and worries, the way family matters were handled, her likes and dislikes, how she experienced her station in life -- all these aspects of life and others rise to the surface of the text in a way that cannot be easily separated out. In the end, what is interesting and important depends on what surrounds it.
Can you translate all sorts of handwriting?
No. I pretty much limit myself to more or less regularly formed “deutsche Kurrentschrift” or “alte Schrift,” which was standard in the 19th century, and the later “Sütterlin Schrift.” I did translate about forty letters written by German officers who fought under General Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo. They would have learned to write in the late 1700s, but in general, the older the script, the less likely I am to feel comfortable working with it. And I have come across plenty of idiosyncratic handwritings that have defeated me.
Do you translate church records and the like?
Only if they are incidental to a correspondence. There are translators who specialize in such records and are much more knowledgeable than I am in this area.
How did you learn to translate script?
About 20 years ago, a coworker at the publishing house where I was working asked me to take a look at her great-grandfather’s notebook. He had been a fusilier in the Kaiser’s army in the 1870s, and the notebook contained mainly numbers and lists. However, there was one “poem,” written in the old script, which I couldn’t read at the time. The title, however, was in our cursive style: “Die Nonnenbeichte” – “The Nun’s Confession.”
My interest was piqued. I made a key for myself, starting with der, die, and das, and whenever I deciphered a letter, I pasted it on a card and looked for other examples in the poem. I then inserted those letters wherever I saw them. This gave me new letters, which I then used to guess at other words. Eventually I figured out the entire alphabet -- and the entire poem, which turned out to be a piece of scurrilous anti-Catholic doggerel. I never imagined that I would end up using this skill for such different purposes.
What about stories?
These can be quite revealing as well. Some years ago a client asked me to translate five short stories written by her paternal grandfather. Three of them dealt with love triangles. When I spoke to the client, she told me that the writer had abandoned his family for another woman just after the war. Her own father, recently deceased, had refused to discuss his father with her. Was the writer rehearsing, justifying, or trying to understand his transgression? It is hard to know from this remove. But whatever the case, his grand-daughter now had additional information to help her to understand her own father.
Do you use a particular method?
I became aware while translating my first letters, the lengthy correspondences of the van Dreveldt family, that I quickly became “seated” in the writers so that I had the sense of channeling their thoughts, of being their conduit to readers whom they could not have imagined. As such, I was sensitive to every nuance of wording, every verbal idiosyncrasy. I became, so to speak, their intimate across time. It seemed to me that this capacity to identify yielded a very immediate and compelling translation.
This “method” came to the test with my next major correspondence, about 450 letters between a young woman working as a governess in the home of relatives in Constantinople, during the 1880s, and her mother in Germany (it is rare to have both sides of a correspondence). Could I identify with the thoughts and emotions of a 20-year-old woman? The answer was Yes. I even began to read the potboilers that she mentioned. At one point, I asked my client for Marie’s photograph. Her response: “Now Ken, don’t you go falling in love with Marie. She’s been dead for more than 60 years!” It is, as it turns out, not possible for me to translate letters without emotional involvement.
The first set of letters became the basis for Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family. The Van Dreveldts’ Experiences along the Missouri, 1844-1866 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). For more on this correspondence, see:
For more on the Constantinople letters, see:
I have also Web-published my translation of the excerpted diary and letters of Udo Kraft, published in 1915. And I have written an introductory essay about this translation:
What is a good translation?
This is an interesting question. It depends on the purpose of the translation and the qualities of the source text. If the source text is in literate, elegant German, then the English should reflect that. But what exactly does that mean?
What if the German is old-fashioned? The translator can’t simply bring archaic grammar and vocabulary over into the translation, because archaic English is not really equivalent to archaic German. And what should the translator do with slang? Use, say, 19th-century English or American equivalents and hope they don’t sound too jarring? What I aim for is good modern usage, with just enough of the old to serve as a reminder that it comes from another time and place.
On the other hand, what if the text is minimally literate, with erratic or minimal punctuation and sentences that run on and on? Should the translator emulate that? As you can see, there is more at stake than simple accuracy. In this sort of translation you want at least to convey the communicative intent of the writer, not merely a word-for-word translation that sounds like a translation.
What other sorts of translation do you do?
I’ve been translating professionally for about 20 years. In addition to handwriting, I translate medical texts and patents. I also have numerous books to my credit.
For more information about my services, leave an e- mail message at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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