SK Translations founder Katherine Schober is an experienced German genealogy translator specializing in deciphering old German handwriting. In this interview, she discusses the vocabulary, skills, and knowledge necessary for piecing together your German family history, and invites independent researchers to try it themselves by taking her online courses.
What brought you to start SK Translations?
I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I first started studying German in high school, and eventually ended up doing my Master’s degree in German and got to spend the first year of the program in Salzburg, Austria. During my studies, I met my Austrian husband. We lived together in Austria for three more years, where I taught English as a foreign language and started translating German on the side. Luckily for me, the two of us still speak German at home, which keeps me in practice, and we usually get to go over to Austria once a year as well.
We moved from Austria to Boston in 2014, and I briefly worked for a translation company there. After doing that for a little while, I decided to branch out on my own and start SK Translations. I wasn’t planning to focus on any particular field, but gradually I started getting requests for historical projects and old letters and diaries from World War Two or earlier. Since my passion has always been history, those were the projects that I found most exciting. Eventually, I was able to make genealogy the core of my business.
Just like any other language, there are words in German that people used hundreds of years ago that we don’t use today. The general grammar is more or less the same, but you’ll get different vocabulary and phrases that are no longer in use today.
The German language also has an old type of handwriting, so before I could translate those letters, I first had to learn the old script. I tried to teach myself the script through books and internet tutorials. Whenever I got stuck, I would reach out to my husband’s grandmother back in Austria and try to figure out if she could help me with a word or two. Eventually, I learned how to read it myself. When you do it every day, it definitely becomes a lot easier!
Over time, I noticed that a lot of my clients, professionals and amateurs alike, wanted to be able to read their own records, written in the old German handwriting, so I made an online course that teaches exactly that. I wanted to make the course fun, so I added interactive flashcards, matching games and quizzes that helped complete beginners read entire records by the time they finished the course.
The handwriting course starts with teaching the different letters of the alphabet. The second section goes over reading the important terms that come up on the records, such as words related to birth, marriage, and death, occupations, abbreviations, etc. The last section is all about practice, so you get to go over old church records, vital records, and letters and try to transcribe them yourself. I’ve been so happy to see that my students really love the course, and are amazed at what they can now read – all by themselves – in their German records.
Here’s an introduction to Katherine’s German Handwriting Course:
I’m currently in the midst of developing a brand-new course that teaches genealogy-specific German, the German vocabulary and grammar that you need in order to work with old records. Teaching has been a big passion of mine for the last couple of years. My job is no longer just about translating the records myself, but also empowering others to do it themselves without requiring a professional translator. It’s a lot of fun for me to see my students’ progress and excitement.
What kind of clients do you typically work with? What brings them to you?
My clients are mostly private people who are researching their own German, Austrian or Swiss ancestry. They either find me through my website, where I’ve written a lot of blog posts about genealogy topics, or they meet me at genealogy conferences. These people may have found old letters in their attics or basements or they’ve researched Ancestry or FamilySearch and found different records. They want to understand what’s in those records or letters so they can find out more about their family.
What are some interesting stories you’ve encountered in your work?
I love working on diaries because they give you a glimpse into life as it was hundreds of years ago. When I work on diaries that are hundreds of pages long, I feel like I get to know the person whose words I’m translating. Being able to connect with ancestors on that level has been truly inspirational for my clients and their families.
In one case, I translated the diary of a woman in the early 1900s, who was leaving Germany to go marry a man in America. She kept a diary of her journey across the Atlantic Ocean where she described everything in great detail. I remember she said that she got to have butter for the first time on the ship. That was such a luxury because at home they just had margarine. It is through those little details that you really get a feel of what it was like back then.
Another interesting diary I translated was from a woman who was traveling on a ship all the way from Germany to Thailand, going through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Middle East and stopping off at different ports. This was also the early 1900s. She explained her whole journey and described the different places she visited along the way. That was very fascinating. Throughout the diary, she talks about how much she missed her husband and how she was yearning to see him – that was mentioned on almost every page. So I was very excited for the end of the diary when I would finally get to hear about their reunion. But the diary stopped right when she pulled up to the port in Thailand, and I never got to hear about the reunion with her husband! I was so disappointed.
Other interesting pieces I’ve translated include some Civil War letters from the mid-1800s, describing various battles from a firsthand perspective. The oldest document I’ve translated dates back to 1533.
When can people join your course?
Reading the Old German Handwriting is an online course, so it’s open all year round. Once you sign up, you have lifetime access. People like that aspect of the course a lot because the motivation to research their genealogy is often something that comes and goes; for example, they might have more time during the summer but need to take a break with their research during the winter. With lifetime access, you can go back to the course whenever you want, redo the flashcards and the games and freshen up your skills so that you’re ready to go the next time you start working with your records.