Just What Does *&@#(^%[} Mean?

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: April 18, 2002

One of the challenges of doing a genealogy in North America is the fact that, other than the small number of natives remaining in the population, we all came from some place over the oceans to this continent. At some point in time, our ancestors entered this relatively new country having been born and raised in another country and culture. Chances are pretty high that English was not their native language before they arrived!

Some of their original letters and documents that may contain valuable information about our families and their stories are going to be in the language of another country. The language may be one that doesn't even use the same characters that you are reading on the screen now!

What better way to connect to these ancestors, to really get a feel for their lives, then to learn about the cities and countries that they were born in, to learn more about the language and culture. In many cases, the new immigrants were so excited and proud of their new country that they wouldn't allow their native tongue to be spoken in their new home. Other than hearing their parents talk most of their children never had the opportunity to learn the language of the country their parents, and perhaps even them, were born in. You may have even tried to visit one of the sites for a city or country and gotten a lot of gibberish and square boxes on the screen, with a tantalizing picture that makes you want more! So here are a few tools to help you with bridging the gap and allowing you to learn from these sites, as well as getting information from those documents.

Web Browsers

Your web browser probably came with a choice of many different fonts. Select the Help function of your browser and see what it has to say about languages. Netscape and MS Internet Explorer both provide a wide choice of fonts, character sets and languages.


Fonts are a set of instructions for interpreting computer coding into a graphical element that shows up on your screen. Most programs will try to match the original font that was used to create the document. If there is not an exact match in its files, the computer will attempt to get one as close as possible. By insuring that your computer has the appropriate fonts loaded, you may be able to eliminate the gibberish and see the characters that you are supposed to see!

You can also use various utilities, usually available in conjunction with the fonts, to enable you to use your keyboard to type in documents in the correct fonts.

So why bother with setting your fonts and browser and typing in this foreign stuff? Because you can then use one of the translation utilities available on the web to translate the documents you may have!

Translation Utilities

The late Douglas Adams' wrote a series of humorous science fiction books, the first of which is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. One of the items he made up was the Babelfish, a fish that you stuck in your ear and that translated languages. A web site named Babelfish has been created that serves as a translation utility between certain languages, English being a common one, German, French, Russian and Spanish being others. I have used both the German and the Russian utilities on a regular basis. Google will allow you to search in the other languages once you can paste the right words in the proper font. Select their Preferences to select the language to search in. They do require that your machine show the site, or be able to cut and paste the appropriate words from another document, in the correct format. It doesn't work without having the right fonts showing.

How accurate are these sites? I took a web-based course with the Law School of the University of the Saarland (I'm an attorney). We did a paper in which we compared the English version of an international agreement, with a copy of the German version that was translated by Babelfish into English. It was surprisingly accurate, particularly given the idea that the document was a set of legal regulations. It wasn't perfect, but the concepts were clear and there were only a couple of places where we thought the interpretation could have led to specific contract problems. For genealogical purposes, these translations can go a long way toward allowing to figure out what the document is saying and the information that is contained in it.

Other uses include being able to send queries to GenWeb organizations in other countries, in their own language, rather than posting in English and not being understood. What I normally do is type out my query and then paste it into the utility. I then clean up the formal names and dates, which often get mistranslated and paste it into my query, along with the English version. While I haven't gotten any major leads, I have gotten responses and feedback!

Good luck!

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Updated on 10/25/2005