When I embarked on this project, I knew I was likely to have to deal with at least one language I don't speak: French.
Between the fact that I studied Spanish, which has a similar structure and lots of cognates with French for three years (but 30-something years ago) had a semester of French (also 30 or so years ago), and most importantly, Google Translate, I was confident I could at least get a reasonable amount of information out of any materials I came across. Besides, I know quite a few French speakers if I run into problems.
I didn't realize this until later, but French is easy enough to work with because it also uses almost exactly the same alphabet as English. The diacritic marks are painful, though (French. Uses. So. Many. Accent. Marks!)
For example, just to type the town where my grandparents lived for 3 years during the war, Beaumont-lès-Valence, I type the "Beaumont-l" part as normal, then hold down the letter "e" until the foreign-language variations appear in a pop-up menu, and then I select the "è," then type the "s-Valence" as normal.
French also uses a LOT of contractions (way more than in English). Those aren't so bad, because English-language keyboards have a key for the apostrophe, and anyone who learns to type knows where it is.
But get a load of these two sentences:
Avant d’arriver en France nous ignorions complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées. Nous supposions que du côté des autorités américaines il n’y aura point de difficultés, vu qu'à deux reprises le consulat des Etats-Unis a Anvers nous a admis comme ici me présenter.
Before arriving in France we were completely unaware that the emigration laws had changed. We assumed that on the side of the American authorities there will be no difficulties, since on two occasions the consulate of the United States in Antwerp has admitted us (as here) to present myself.
Black text is no big deal. Still slow because I have to pay careful attention to spelling (especially painstaking because I was typing handwritten documents. I do OK reading cursive writing in my own language, but reading French cursive is much harder. Fortunately, the cursive handwriting rules are basically the same between the languages).
Purple text is also no big deal - those words include punctuation marks that I know how to type without even thinking about it (apostrophes and dashes).
Blue text IS a big deal. For those words, I have to stop for each letter that needs a mark, hold it down, and select from the menu.
I discovered that it's MUCH faster to just type the word without the marks, set the document language to French and let the spell-checker fix the accents. I type "completement que les lois de l'emigration ont ete changees," run the spell-check and it corrects it to "complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées." Easy-peasy.
And in fact, because I was transcribing cursive handwritten French, I often had to guess at spellings, and the spell-checker usually fixes those, too. Once I have a few sentences typed in and spell-checked, I plop the paragraph into Google Translate and read it carefully. If the translation is nonsensical, I go back and experiment with alternate spellings of the problem words until I get it right. Then I give it to my mom and aunt (who I suspect are feeling a bit put-upon by this point) because it's their dad's handwriting, and there's a pretty good chance that if I cannot decipher a word, they can.
But, as it turns out, Polish has come into my world, too. My grandmother was Polish, and my grandfather was Belgian (and half Polish), and I came across two handwritten letters in Polish. Except for the occasional cognates (or where my great-uncle wrote the word in English) I couldn't decipher it AT ALL. Oh, and the Polish alphabet has a somewhat smaller overlap with English alphabet. To reasonably type it, you need a Polish keyboard.
But, how do I find Polish speakers? I know a couple, but they've been in the US for 40+ years and they are quite Americanized. And neither have a Polish keyboard. My husband had a pretty good idea: surely there are Polish students studying in the United States, and surely one of them also has a Polish keyboard. From there, a distant cousin gave me a great idea - write to Columbia University Polish Studies department.
So, I did. And from there, it got easy. They announced it at a meeting, and I suddenly got an email from a student named Filip offering to do the transcription and translation.
After he was done, I got the idea that it was somewhat hard for him, too. My great-uncle's handwriting isn't as neat as could be desired. Polish spelling rules have also changed in the 85 years since these letters were written, and evidently my great-uncle wrote in an old-fashioned, super-formal manner that is no longer common. But Filip was engaging, smart and fun, and he did a FANTASTIC job.
Anyway, here's what Polish looks like:
Wszystkie te dokumenty są in triplicate. Bardzo możliwe że konsul będzie uważać te dokumenty za niewystarczające i zarządzi ażebyś mu dowiodła że ja jestem Twoim bratem. Dla tego celu przesyłam Ci moje świadectwo urodzenia. Jednakże moje świadectwo urodzenia powinnaś nie załączyć do tych dokumentów i pokazać konsulowi jedynie jeżeli zażąda ażeby dowiodła Ci pokrewieństwo nasze.All of these documents are in triplicate. It is very possible that the consul will deem these documents as insufficient and will make you prove that I am your brother. For this reason, I am sending you my birth certificate. Although, you should not attach my birth certificate to these documents, and only show it to the consul should he make you prove our kinship.
Anyway, if anyone needs some Polish translation work done, I whole-heartedly recommend Filip. His contact info is as follows: