Tuesday, January 31, 2023

1944: Transcribing and translating an old handwritten letter

     Ok, I'd like to whinge a little about the difficulty of translating a letter written almost 80 years ago.  It's hard work.  It's in French (which I mostly don't know), it's in cursive (which I do read, but still...), it's tiny and cramped, it's written on super thin onion-skin paper (so that you can sometimes see the writing on the reverse side) and the paper is sometimes stained.  It's about 3000 handwritten words on only two sheets (front and back, so four pages) of paper.  He writes between lines sometimes and sideways on the left margin, and sometimes he crosses words out.  Take a look at page one to get a sense of the project (then multiply that by four).

Page 1 of the letter

    Before, during, and after WW2, my grandfather kept a folder of information that he needed to get an immigration visa to the USA. It included about 80+ pages worth of:

  • Affidavits from Great Uncle Jake (my grandmother's brother) who was already in the US, swearing that he would not allow my grandparents and their children to become public charges and that he wouldn't allow the children to work before the age of 18.  These also included notarized letters from his banker swearing to the amounts of money he kept in his accounts, his employer, stating how long he'd worked for them, and how much he made, 1945 income tax returns, and lists of US. savings bonds he'd purchased. His naturalization certificate number, etc.
  • Letters from Jake to the US Foreign Service.
  • Telegrams back and forth between my grandparents and uncle, sometimes urging my grandparents to flee to any other country that they could.
  • Letters from Uncle Jake to my grandparents and vice-versa.
  • Inquiries to the American Red Cross
  • Letters from my grandfather to a diplomatic official begging for a visa, and a reply from that official saying that he had no power to issue a visa, that those decisions were made in Washington DC by the State Department and to STOP ASKING HIM.
  • Etc.
    He saved that folder for the rest of his life, it was that important to him. After he died, it wound up in my aunt's possession, and last summer she sent it to me.  I finally got around to scanning it about 10 days ago, and now I'm working through it.  And the contents tell a wonderful story, of desperation, love,  heartbreak, and family.

    The letter I'm currently working on is one of the letters from my grandparents to my great-uncle that was in that folder. It is (I believe) a draft of a letter that he mailed to my great-uncle right after postal communications were re-established after their area was finally liberated in the fall of 1944.  There are enough crossed-out words, that I suspect that he re-wrote it and sent a cleaner version to my uncle, then kept this version as a copy (or perhaps my great-uncle returned it to him after the war?).

    The letter is tremendously difficult to work with. To put it in perspective, the four pages are very slightly smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper, yet contain approximately 3000 words (that's about 10-12 typed, double-spaced pages). To put that into perspective -- that's a term paper's worth of writing.

    Making it doubly difficult, is that it's written in French, and I speak very little French. At this point, I'm pretty comfortable reading Grandpa's cursive, but I when I'm reading his writing in English, I do have to depend on context clues to read some of the words, and when I'm transcribing French, I lose those context clues.  

    So, I type it in word by word, letter-by-letter, trying to determine the spelling as best I can. The difference between m and n and u can be very subtle in cursive! Or i and e, or v and r. or L and T if the latter isn't crossed. I ignore the diacritic marks during this stage (French uses an insane number of accents and other markings, and they are a complete pain in the ass and require I press and hold the letter I want, which brings up that letter's mark options so I can choose between say, à and á or â).  Fortunately, I've gained enough experience reading French over the last year that at least I'm starting to recognize the more common words, and don't have to transcribe them letter-by-letter.  

    Once, I have it typed in, I spell-check it. I have the spell-checker language set to French, and it adds in all the accent marks for me. But, I compare each and every word it flags as a misspelling to the original to see if it looks like a plausible transcription before accepting it.  

    Next, I copy and paste the text into Google Translate, and anywhere the translation is nonsensical, I go back and try different spellings of the problem words until I find the one that looks like it matches the handwritten word, AND makes sense once it's translated.  That's basically where I get my context clues. And what remains - that's when I get help.  I average about 1-3 words problem words per several sentences or about 10-15 or so words per page

    Finally, I send the text with a screenshot of the appropriate portion of the original letter to my mother and aunt, both of whom know their father's handwriting better than I do and ask them to check the remaining words that I was unable to transcribe/translate such that it is recognizable.  Unlike me, they do know French -- they grew up speaking French at home -- though they have both told me they are pretty rusty as they've both been speaking primarily English for more than a half-century, and only English for a couple of decades. :-)

    Then, if there are any remaining words that the three of us cannot figure out (about 3 words per page), I go to a few native French speakers I know and have them look them over. 

    But, the good news is: The letter is pure gold.  There is some new information in that letter, and it also confirms some guesses I've made.  It also shares some of the more mundane daily life stuff that Grandpa didn't tell me 44 years later when I interviewed him.   Anyway, it's exciting and frustrating all at once.  

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