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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda:
Following a Paper Trail to a Foreign Country
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 20, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Recently as I was helping someone at my local Family History Center, and I was confronted with disbelief from the other researcher. She was beginning to research an Italian line. She knew the town from which the family had emigrated. I was pointing out to her how fortunate she was to know that much.

A search of the Family History Library Catalog revealed that there were some civil registration records that would be of use to her. Her disbelief was that the records were in Italian. I thought about that for a while. There are times that we forget that English is not the only language out there.

Remember when working in foreign countries that the records will be in their native language.

Tools to Help

First and foremost are the word lists that are generated by the Family History Library. If you are visiting them you can pick them up on the International Floor. If you cannot visit there, you can ask your local Family History Center for the publications order form. On the form you will find the necessary item numbers for the word lists that you can order. Finally, if you have purchased the Family History SourceGuide on CD then you have all the word lists at your fingertips.

These word lists are an excellent way to begin to pick out important words among the records from the given country. In addition to days of the week and months of the year, the word lists include occupations and other words that genealogists are always on the look-out for.

Understanding the Records

In addition to the SourceGuide, there is Jonathan D. Shea's and William F. Hoffman's Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide" published by Avotaynu, Inc. in 1994. This book is an excellent resource for those researching records in German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and Lithuanian. Each section of the book includes copies of the various records you are most likely to use with translations of the important sections.

Armed with such a volume, you will have a point of reference when you begin to work in the records of your ancestors' home country. Such a resource can point out items peculiar to the particular record type and country. This will enhance the research you are doing.

In Conclusion

Whenever you begin to research in foreign records, you will want to make sure that you set aside enough time. It does no good to try and translate a record when all you have is 30 minutes to stop by your local Family History Center. I find that I need to fully immerse myself when I am working in the foreign records. Otherwise, instead of being able to read the record I find myself getting frustrated at my lack of understanding.

Become familiar with the terms you are most likely to come upon in the records. In conjunction with the SourceGuide and Following the Paper Trail put together your own list. Sometimes the act of writing down the information helps to ingrain it for the next time you see the terms in context.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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