Translating handwritten German letters, circa 1939-1941

I have a book consisting of letters my mother and aunt sent as children during the first two years of WWII from Luxembourg, where they and their parents were waiting to emigrate to the U.S., to their aunt who had remained in Germany with her mother. The aunt transcribed the letters by hand into the blank book, and pasted in photos, drawings, and other memorabilia her nieces had sent. My mother’s family arrived in New York in 1941 and her aunt (my grandmother’s youngest sister) sent the book to them sometime after that. Subsequently, the aunt and her mother were shipped to a ghetto in Poland and later murdered in the camps.

The book consists of some 90 pages of handwritten text, all in the aunt’s handwriting, averaging between 100 and 150 words per page, so perhaps 11,000-13,000 words in total. I have had estimates from several professional translators in the neighborhood of $2,500, but this is more than I can afford at the moment.

Does anyone know of other options that might cost me less, even at the price of lower quality? AFAICT, freely available automated translation technology has not progressed to the point of being able to decipher handwriting.

I thought of the possibility of crowdsourcing the translation, but I don’t know how I’d go about getting that done. Does anyone know of projects like this being crowdsourced, or have any suggestions of how it might be accomplished?

Other thoughts? Thanks.

Does the local high school or community college offer classes in German? The teacher would probably be happy to assist in reading your letters.

Use your phone to record while the letters are read. Later you can transcribe to paper.

Another option is to post a request on a German message board. But that means scanning the letters and being able to email them to a stranger.

A Craigslist ad is a 3rd option and pay a fee for someone to translate. Should be cheaper than hiring a professional.

You could always contact a large university’s languages department and they should have a teacher that can read the letters.

Arrange an appointment or email scans of the letters.

Teachers are notoriously underpaid. Ask the teacher what they would charge to translate these letters for you. Or even post a notice to the University’s German students to hire them for this. Earning money while gaining experience in reading German. Possibly they might persuade a teacher to accept this translation task as a school project, in place of a term paper or as extra credit.

Also, depending on the handwritten script used, it can be a pain-in-the-ass to decipher it unless you’re used to dealing with handwriting from that place and era.

I would contact a University - actually, I would contact Clark University in Worchester MA. They have a PhD program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an undergrad program as well. It is quite possible that someone would be willing to translate your letters as part of a Senior project or PhD effort. Of course, they are likely to want to interview anyone still living, etc. And have some rights to the material.

Dangerosa wins the thread. :wink:

You couldn’t get better advice than that. Clark University will be especially motivated to translate letters from victims of the Holocaust.

They may even have historical information about your relatives.

BTW, Clark has the only such program in the U.S…the other place would be to call the U.S. Holocaust museum in D.C., where Clark’s alums often work. You have historical documents of one of the biggest events in 20th century history - they might not add much to the BIG HISTORY, but everything like that can help with the history of the average people.

Thanks, I’ll check out Clark.

Learn to speak/read German.

Not a bad idea. I have a little German, since my grandmother spoke it a lot when we visited, and I took it for about a year in high school. And since these are letters from two girls between the ages of 7 and 11 when they wrote them, it won’t be like trying to translate Kant.

(When we studied Kant in college, we were told that there were German students who learned English because it was easier to understand Kant translated to English than in the original German!)

As for translating the letters myself, it would be a matter of time: it would probably take me months, working on it occasionally. But perhaps not a bad trade off, especially if I got some occasional help from Mom.

I’m interested to take a shot at the translation. Though I’m not a professional translator, I think my command of both German (my native language) and English are sufficient for the task. My friend The Butterfly’s Ghost also has volunteered to support me. I find the historical background fascinating, this horrible time is always best told by contemporary witnesses and victims. I also think I have quite a good grasp of the historical and linguistic idiosyncrasies.

But one important question: is the handwriting Sütterlin? In this case I’m out, I can’t read Sütterlin. Otherwise, maybe you could send me an example and I can see if I’m able to read the script. Please PM me.

Thanks very much for the offer. I’m away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll be in touch with you next week.

ETA: I don’t think it’s Sutterlin.

Ok, I’m looking forward to your reply. Have a nice holiday!

And very good that it’s not Sütterlin :).

Do it in 2 step; Use optical character recognition* to get a digital text then paste that into Google translate. When you get strange results, take a closer look at that specific section and do it manually.

You say “freely available”. Is the requirement that it be free or that it cost you significantly less than 2500$?

Are the letters written in Kurrent script (caled German script in Germany) or in Latin cursive script? (you should be able to tell e.g. by the distinctive forms of the ‚d‘ and the ‚e‘ in Kurrent).

For a quick proof of concept, connect to wi-fi with a smartphone, download the Google Translate app, select German-to-English, hit the camera icon, and point the phone at one of the letters. If it can recognize the words, it will translate them.

You’re combining two imperfect technologies with OCR and machine translation, and it’s unlikely to work very well with handwriting, but it’s free and easy to try.

There must be dozens of people on here who know German, including native speakers.

I can’t commit to translating the whole batch, but if you would be interested in scanning a few and sending them to me to translate, feel free to PM me.

I would suggest you contact the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City via e-mail and tell them your story. They may be able to translate them for you. They are experts in German Jewish history and might be interested in letters from the era.

To follow up, I sent a few pages to EinsteinsHund, and he not only transcribed and translated them in just a few days, he went on to do the entire job, at no charge, in about a month. He has been very kind, generous, and helpful during the entire process. My family and I are greatly in his debt and extremely grateful for his efforts. I have just today put a gift in the mail to him that I hope he will find meaningful.

I have already expressed my thanks to EinsteinsHund profusely in our private e-mails, but felt it was important to do so here as well. His generosity to a stranger is typical of the best aspects of the SDMB community, and is a welcome reminder in this day and age that there are still many very good people in the world.

I am assembling scans of the original pages, along with EH’s transcriptions and translations, and my own notes that provide additional context, into a book for circulation among my family. I plan to have a preliminary edition ready as a surprise for my mother when she visits me next month, shortly after her 89th birthday. I will also distribute copies to her sister and her three sons (my cousins), and my sister. I plan to interview mom and my aunt to obtain additional information to add to an expanded edition of the book.

Thanks again to everyone who made suggestions here. With the family’s permission, I will probably provide copies to Clark University and other institutions.

But mainly, vielen dank to EinsteinsHund!