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Help in Transcribing and Translating Old Documents

Old Documents - U

Truth to tell, we are indolent. Excuses come with a glibness that is itself speedy but in all honesty, we have the energy level of a hibernating bear. Thus, we lean weightily on that part of the economy referred to as its tertiary sector, i.e. the people who do your homework for you. 

As we have written before, paleography is not our strong point, so we were relieved when, not long ago, we were contacted by Linda Watson of Transcription Services Ltd. on the Isle of Man, the flag of which is too good to pass up:

Isle of Man Flag wikipedia

TSL provide quite a range of services, including some genealogical research in the UK. Until recently, their transcription of old documents was limited to those in English. "We have done some work transcribing diaries from the American Civil War for Harvard University, and many, many wills for clients from as far afield as New Zealand," Linda writes.

Now, they also provide a service of interest to the French genealogist. "Within the last 12 months we have been able to add a service transcribing Latin and French documents, which has been particularly useful to a lady in Scotland who is researching for a book about a 16th century gentleman who was a frequent visitor to the French court." Ms. Watson has just begun a blog about her work on old documents, which she began after she took a course from Liverpool University entitled "Reading Old Manuscripts".  Her French documents specialist, Kristina, writes interestingly about her work:

"Working with old documents can be alternately fascinating and frustrating – it's often both at the same time, for the very same reasons – and their highs and lows are intensified when interpreting manuscripts penned in a foreign language. For me, as a native English-speaker, this means French as well as Latin, though neither would have seemed quite so foreign to, say, a high status English ancestor with a court appointment, since they were the international idioms for law, government, and diplomacy not only before the Reformation but beyond. This may be why researchers of 'capital H' History frequently have a much easier time of it than the family historian; such records tend to be neatly copied out before being entered into the public record – settle yourself with your arsenal of old language dictionaries, put the one listing abbreviations top of the pile, and you're away. Though the individual MS may be damaged, and you are constantly called on to decide which of several possible letters is staring opaquely up at you (to ensure the surrounding word is accurately expanded), at least the physical appearance of your cipher tends to be clear, the document having been stored with some care. But such high status ancestors are few, and early documents unearthed by inspired genealogists are generally local in scope and execution, requiring the idiosyncrasies of an individual shorthand – not included in any code-book – to be cracked and factored in. When researching one's own ancestry, background knowledge of names and places (notoriously the most difficult words to transcribe correctly) speeds up the task significantly, as does a general sense of the document's context. Working on assignment, one is limited to the information supplied on the parchment itself, which may be an incomplete working draft, with the writer intending to fill in details – as well as clean up his penmanship – at the fair-copy stage.

This was the case with the sample 16th c. French text viewable on the TSL website. In life, the paper itself bears only minor damage (fraying, an internal tear, some discolouration), but the ink has faded to illegibility – the first low that I encountered. Fortunately, digital photography has not only made palæographic work more convenient and accessible, its use of ultra-violet light resurrects faded ink, is safe (without flash) for parchment, which is happily all the safer for not being handled during the process of transcription. First high, then, came on viewing the digital image, in which the ink appeared a crisp, dark sepia – easily legible, if not for the slap-dash, idiosyncratic, inconsistent penmanship, and the elliptical content, as its writer failed to spell out exactly what it was he was writing about. It is exactly the kind of working draft mentioned above, though Serjeant Boudet seems to have devoted some energy to signing his name with elaborate fair-copy flourish. Second and third lows, first smile. The highs which came with cracking each initially impenetrable abbreviated word and phrase were higher than if the job had been an easier one, giving the same satisfaction I expect cryptic crossword and sudoku solvers take in their respective puzzles. But my main enjoyment stemmed from travelling to a time and place I knew nothing about when I began my assignment, provincial France in 1585, the writer Pierre Boudet being a King's Sergeant, but "under (the) League", the extremist Catholic Union challenging Henri III's tolerance toward Protestants with an increasing violence that would soon result in the Huguenots' exodus to England. A gripping history lesson, then, courtesy of a low-level local official, paid one and one third ecu, who took pleasure in his signature, writing in haste to report the advertisement of a forced auction outside the church of Bazoges. If only he'd taken an extra moment to record what it was that he auctioned!"

The entire TSL service operates via the internet:

  • send a digital photo of the document
  • include a description of it, where it is from, any information relating to its contents.
  • Terms agreed by e-mail
  • Results returned as a PDF or Word file (or in the post, if preferred)

We have not yet used TSL, but we very much like the idea of those most difficult documents being made clear as day via the internet while we continue to snore in our cave. Should any of our dear readers have been so fortunate as to obtain family records from the Sixteenth Century and which they still cannot decipher, they may wish to consider the TSL. If so, please write to tell about it.


Transcription Services Ltd.

3 Hilary Road


Isle of Man  IM2 3EG

United Kingdom

telephone: (+44) 1624 671591

fax : (+44) 870 8381142




©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy 

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