Tag Archives: translation of genealogical sources

akt urodzenia Walerii Krasula/Waleria Krasula - birth record

Multilingual records of my monolingual family

Multilingual records of my monolingual family

Somebody once asked what I mean by translation of records when I said I had to translate a lot of source documents for my family. Good question. Yes, it is true that I am Polish, so is absolutely everybody in my family and I am yet to find an ancestor who moved abroad. You might then ask yourself: what need is there for Translation? Surely but life is hardly ever normal. I am as Polish as it gets: born and bred there. I come from long line of Polish farmers who quite often never even left a parish, never mind the country, BUT as Poland is situated right in the centre of Europe it was regularly turned into a battlefield.

From the establishment of Poland in the Middle Ages, there was war after war after war. The land was invaded pretty much by any neighbouring nation and some from further afield as well, until the point in the eighteenth century where Poland ceased to exist altogether – on the map of Europe that is. The country was divided between Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Different laws and prohibitions were in place depending on the region (with Galicja enjoying quite liberal attitudes) but, generally speaking, using the Polish language was discouraged and then by the late nineteenth century, it was replaced by Russian and German respectively. There are many examples of Polish people fighting to save the language and culture. What does it mean for me or any other genealogist searching for Polish roots? It means that records are written in a different language. In my case, every record starting from 1868 is written in Russian (if I am really lucky there is a Polish name in brackets pic.1). Because of politics and geography, a good part of my family records have to be translated even though all the ancestors I found to date lived in one district and spoke Polish.

If you remember that the concept of a civil register was only introduced in Poland at the end of the eighteenth century and the first civil registers were completed by priests alongside parish records then it is reasonable to expect that most older church sources are written in Latin.

I was lucky enough to learn Russian at school although my choice of words here could be problematic as the Russian language and culture, visible everywhere in communist Poland, was hardly a reason for celebration. I also spend long hours learning Latin as a part of my MA in Archaeology, so I consider myself well equipped to deal with what my genealogical research throws at me, but I can just imagine the frustration of other people with Polish roots when they discover that even knowing Polish is just not enough to be able to trace their Polish ancestors.

akt urodzenia Walerii Krasula/Waleria Krasula - birth record, multilingual record

pic.1 Waleria Krasula -akt urodzenia (birth record) 1905

A wedding in rural Poland 1970

 What do genealogy and a jigsaw puzzle have in common?

A wedding in rural Poland 1970

A wedding party, 1970


            It is very hard to explain why genealogy is more exciting than I first thought. I guess the answer has a lot of different layers.

Ever since school, I always liked history, but not all the dates and facts teachers want you to remember. It was always the thought that if it wasn’t for an ancestor who survived through hard times (like times without microwaves, cars, roads or the Internet) we wouldn’t be here today. This curiosity about life in the past led me to attempts at finding out more about my own ancestors; who they were and what their life looked like. Due to the lack of suitable time travel options, I had to turn to old archives and records. Searching for Polish ancestors is nowhere close to the convenience of having nice, digitalised records (a reality in the UK), but, for me, it has an important bonus. When I go to a parish somewhere in Poland and read the actual book that holds the old parish register it gives me the feeling of a physical link to my past. I am holding something that my 4th great grandad touched or looked at when he came to the church to share and record a joyful or sorrowful experience. It gives me the feeling that the years and centuries have swished by me and suddenly I am looking into the old record with his eyes. Am I crazy? Maybe just a little bit, but who isn’t?

The other reason why I am so into researching my family history is that I like jigsaw puzzles. I know it makes no sense at first glance, but let me explain. When I was a child I loved putting jigsaws together – the bigger, the better. I loved the challenge of piecing together thousands of fragments until they formed a nice, shiny surface that I could glue together with a feeling of well-deserved pride. Piecing together my family history is just like that. You need good eyesight, determination, patience, persistence and a bit of stubbornness. It is better to start with a frame and easy to assemble parts (information you know about your parents or grandparents and people with unusual names) and then start filling spaces of a lovely blue sky or the red sun setting over a deep dark water of which you have only about 1500 pieces! Sometimes, when you have to pick up every single piece and try it on every possible angle and it doesn’t fit, you feel disheartened. Sometimes you put a piece in and you think it fits, only to find out few weeks later that it does not! But sometimes you pick a piece of a blue sky out of a pile of 1000 exactly the same blue, you try it and it fits! And this feeling keeps you going and holds your interest and immediately you know why you are doing it! When I find a new person I spent weeks looking for and all the dates and names suddenly make sense, I realise this is why I love genealogy so much. I want to build this beautiful jigsaw and glue it together so I will always remember where I came from, whose blood is running through my veins and how much strength is in that blood, but that’s a topic for another story.

Have a look at my family tree.

How about you? What drives you? What makes you tick?