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  • Yelena McCafferty

Family Matters

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Tracing long-lost relatives has become a popular pastime in the UK, creating some fascinating opportunities for translators. Yelena McCafferty reports on her experience

Ten years ago, if someone had asked you the question ‘Who do you think you are?’, you would probably have reacted with indignation that they had dared to be blatantly impertinent. In 2004, however, the BBC started a new documentary series with that name, which changed the meaning of the expression altogether. When I hear it now, the first association that comes to mind is genealogy and celebrities researching their family trees.

Such has been the popularity of the television programme that it’s been running successfully ever since, prompting a flurry of research activities by viewers keen to discover their own family histories. You don’t need to be a celebrity to discover that your ancestry roots go beyond the UK: in fact, most people’s do. And if they do, you are likely to find historical records written in another language. That’s where the real challenges begin, especially if such notes are in a language that has evolved since they were written.

Professional curiosity

Shortly after the BBC series began, I remember getting a phone call from an English lady who had a 19th-century document on her hands, which she had obtained from Poland but which, she was convinced, was written in Russian. Understandably, she wanted me to take a look at it to see if I could read it, and I was happy to oblige, out of professional curiosity more than anything else. The document was indeed in Russian – however, at first sight, I felt as if I was never going to be able to decipher it: it was handwritten in cursive writing, and there were hardly any spaces between words, so it looked like one long chain of flowery characters, with some words spelt in an unusual way.

If I wanted a linguistic challenge, this was certainly an interesting one. Translators working from Russian have enough trouble deciphering Russian cursive writing at the best of times, and here I was faced with a document written in prerevolutionary Russian. I had an advantage, though: as I was educated in Russia, I was taught cursive writing, so the major part of the battle would be to separate the words and research some of the old vocabulary and spelling.

I took on the challenge, and this translation project was followed by quite a few similar ones, where I was tasked with translating historical records dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. They revealed stories that were fascinating to both me and my clients, and as I took on more projects I began to identify certain lexical similarities in how the records were maintained.

Most of the records I worked on came from Poland. This is because, at the time they were written, certain regions of what we know as modern Poland were part of the Russian Empire. Quite a few notes were from Kalisz, a city which had a large Jewish community prior to the German invasion in the Second World War. It was fascinating to find evidence of people’s probable ethnic origin in the contents of the documents. One birth registration record referred to circumcision, something that can be characteristic of the Jewish faith.

I soon discovered that a simple written entry about a birth or marriage often contains a lot of the background information sought by people researching their family history. A birth record from this time usually starts with the location, date and time of the entry made, followed by the name of the father, his occupation, age and place of residence, details of the witnesses who accompanied him and then the gender of the child, who had to be physically presented. The baby’s date of birth and exact time of birth are then recorded along with the given names. It is only towards the end of the record that the details of the baby’s mother are recorded, including her name, maiden name and age. One of the manuscripts I had to translate related to a birth registration that had taken place three years after the actual birth ‘due to forgetfulness’.

Marriage records contain similar details of the bride and groom, their witnesses, and one document I worked on mentioned the absence of a prenuptial agreement. (If you thought prenuptial agreements were a modern concept, think again – they may have had even stronger practical significance a few centuries ago because they helped ensure women didn’t end up homeless in the event of their husband’s death.) The fact that this particular couple didn’t enter into a pre-marriage contract was explained by some meaningful details further down the line: just one witness signed the act ‘due to the illiteracy of the other persons’. Again, based on the records I worked with, this wasn’t unusual. Quite a few notes referred to illiteracy and inability to write a signature.

One of the striking features of all historical records of the time is double dating. How is it that along with 25 June, for example, a second date of 8 July is given? At that time, the dates were written in the Gregorian and Julian calendars – or the New Style and Old Style, as they are sometimes called. My research showed that Poland switched to the Gregorian calendar as early as 1582, while Russia adopted it as late as 1918. As a result, while some Polish provinces were part of the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th century, dual dating was commonly practised.

New avenues

My work in genealogy translation has since expanded beyond civil status records written in Russian originating from Poland before the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of the most amazing documents I have worked on is a 25-page autobiography of an artist who was born in tsarist Russia and whose fate brought him to England, right through the hotbeds and calamities of the Second World War. This account included an honest opinion of Stalin’s cleansing raids, with a keen sense of the injustice, fear and mistrust felt by a young soul against the background of the official propaganda. The sudden invasion by Germany of the Soviet Union in 1941 was perceived with panic and the feeling that nothing could stop the German advances, while soldiers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Barrier troops fired at their backs, trying to stop the army from retreating as they were pushed back by the skilled and well-organised enemy.

I have also translated an eloquent chronicle narrated by a volunteer soldier who was taken prisoner soon after joining the front line and almost died from hunger in a concentration camp. Although the writer does not go into much detail about the atrocities of concentration camp life, one reference he makes gives a clear idea that it was a fight for survival: he reveals that the nastiest leaders in the camp ended up in an ‘elite’ group because they made deals with the prisoners, procuring food and drink in exchange for golden teeth that had been knocked out of captives. Eventually, thanks to his drawing skills, which were appreciated by the Germans, this particular soldier got out of the camp and, at the end of the war, found himself in England under a new Polish surname. Using the skills he learned during the war, he then set about trying to find sources of income in his new country of residence, offering translation as one of his services.

Which brings us back to the incredible world of languages. In our industry, interpreters often tell translators how lonely and isolated translation work must be. I am fortunate to be qualified in both translation and interpreting, but I would never describe translation as a boring or monotonous process. With projects like these, you can not only enrich your own outlook, but also thoroughly enjoy every minute of your work; it’s like reading a great book. What’s more, as challenging as handwritten texts may be, they cannot be processed by Google Translate. While online technologies are improving all the time, with Google Translate now handling images, it is very hard to believe it will ever be capable of deciphering, not to mention translating, historical records going back hundreds of years. This is where linguistic expertise comes into play and makes a real difference. Our task is almost akin to painstaking forensic analysis, as we resort to a magnifying glass and identify calligraphy patterns. No doubt such files don’t make regular highlights of our work, but they are certainly far from exceptional as more and more of us are searching for answers to the question: who do you think you are?

Update: I was delighted to work with the producers of the BBC's programme Who Do You Think You Are, Series 19. What started as a keen interest in a TV series back in 2004 developed into a true translation specialisation.

Contact us if you need to translate your family documents from Russian.

This article made a cover story in the Bulletin - the magazine published by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting - in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue, Pages 10-11.

[Tip: If you have come across a Russian language conundrum during your family research, email Over the years we've had enquiries from all over the world, the majority of them from the USA.]



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