Everywhere we family researchers turn on the Web, we can find machine translation help. We enter the foreign language text, select the language in which the text is written, select the language into which we want it translated, hit the "<Go>" button, and, Voilà!, a translation appears in less than a second. Machine translation is fine if we've got, say, straightforward modern Slovene to translate into English, and we're satisfied with getting the gist of what the translated text said and not the details. (To give the Devil his due, I heard from a friend at a machine translation company that Google is getting "frighteningly good" with its English-Spanish-French-German machine translation.)
If the text to be translated includes idioms or old terms or technical or special terms (and we family researchers will run into many of these!), then we may not even get the gist of what the text said. If the text is what a Slovene cousin wrote in a letter to you or to your great-great grandmother over 100 years ago, you'll want the details, not just the gist! And if the translation is from English to Slovene, and the text to be translated is a letter from you to a cousin, then you won't want send the mish-mash that machine translators tend to spit out. In these cases, you'll want something understandable. You'll want something translated by a real live person.
If you're lucky, your Uncle Gene still remembers Slovene. At the cost of a good steak dinner, he'll take care of your translations for you. But what about those poor saps with no Slovene-speaking Uncle Gene? Are we stuck using machine translators or shelling out big money for paid human translators? Fortunately, there is free human translation help, if you know where to look.
Free Human Translation Help for More than a Sentence
There are a number of free human translation services for translating more than a sentence. These are summarized in the following table.
Each of the services in the table is discussed in more detail below.
FREELANG can be accessed at
Go to this webpage and follow the instructions to get your translation. The process is simple.
First, you agree to FREELANG's Terms of Service, then you choose your language combination. Once this is done, click the <Find a translator> button.
That takes you to a new page with a list of translators. Read the information about each translator and then choose one for your job by clicking on "Click HERE to contact me". The best translators should be people whose first language is the foreign language in which you're interested.
On the final page, you provide your name and e-mail address. Also on this page, you have areas for your translation and for a message to your translator. This is where you say why you need help, tell what help you need (e.g., formal versus informal language in a letter to your Slovene cousin), and say "please" and "thank you". When you have filled everything out, click on "CLICK HERE TO SEND YOUR REQUEST," which appears at the bottom of the final page.
The area for the translation allows no more than 800 characters, while the translator message is limited to 200 characters. Roughly, 800 characters of text is 160 words or 15 lines of text. Of course, 200 characters is one-quarter of that, or roughly, 40 words or 3 1/2 lines of text. By the way, spaces count as characters.
Every time you submit a translation request, you must tell the translator WHY you need his or her help ("I need your help in translating this because..."). Saying that you're a family researcher, that you don't speak the language, and that you want to write a cousin or want to understand what your cousin wrote you are excellent justifications for your request for help.
The service offers translation to and from a nearly complete list of major European languages (when I checked the list, I didn't see Albanian, Basque, or Yiddish, and only one and not two flavors of Norwegian, but I saw every other language that I could think of).
If you use this service, don't forget "please" and "thank you" (yes, I've said this before, but I don't think you can emphasize this too much).
Information about Arthur Teschler's genealogy translation service, TransServ, written in German, can be found at
This wonderful service, which, sadly, is closed for the remainder of 2009, is the free human translation service that I've relied upon for all of my family research. Of the human translation services listed in this section, it's the only one with a focus on genealogy. In fact, this service only provides genealogy-related translations.
With TransServ, you can have up to 40 lines of text translated. Translating 40 lines is a lot of work, so it's best to submit shorter translation requests. The available languages were English, German, Czech, Dutch, French, and Polish when the service went into temporary hiatus. TransServ's available languages have varied over time, but they have always included English and German, since the focus of the service is helping those with German ancestors. But don't worry if you don't have German ancestors. Everyone involved with this service is a volunteer, so your "thank you" is the only reward the translators desire. Be certain to be generous with your "thank you's".
TransServ is e-mail based. You send your translation request, along with the text to be translated, via e-mail to
The first line of the e-mail is a language instruction that takes the form
#FROM LANGUAGE>TO LANGUAGE.
As an example, you might type
on the first line. Nothing else should appear on the first line. In the example, you're asking to have English translated into German. All languages are coded using the first three letters of the language. After the first line comes the text you want translated and your "thank you's". By return e-mail, you'll get a confirmation identifying the translator. Within a week you should receive your translation.
"Cucumis is a community of translators who share their linguistic knowledge and help each other online." It can be accessed in English at
While designed for translators to help other translators, it can be used by those with a knowledge of only one language. You must register and regularly log-on, and you'll be allocated "300 points" every 10 days. You exchange points with other members of Cucumis for translation services. It's hard to say how much translation you'd get for 300 points, but, based on examples provided by Cucumis, it's probably not much more than 4 or 5 lines.
Most major European languages are available through Cucumis.
● Linguanaut Free Translation
Linguanaut Free Translation can be accessed at
On the first page of the Linguanaut site are your language translator options. If you click on a language with only one translator, you are taken to a new page where you are asked to identify the from and to languages, and to provide your e-mail address, and are given a small area for the text to be translated. If you click on a language with multiple translators, you'll be taken to a page where you make your translator choice. No information about the translators is given, so the reason for having a choice is something of a mystery. After choosing, you'll be taken to the page where you are asked to identify the from and to languages, and to give your e-mail address, and are given a small area for the text to be translated.
There is no stated translation size limit, but the request to "please keep it short" and the small size of the area for the translation indicates that they would prefer translations of approximately 30 words or less. Please pile on the "pleases" and "thank you's", they won't count against you, and they might get you an extra sentence translated.
Translations to and from most European languages (including Scottish!) are available from this service.
● The Text Store
The Text Store can be accessed at
It will provide free translation by a human of up to 100 words of English into Hebrew or Hebrew into English. The translation can be submitted by e-mail, which should be sent to
Don't forget "please" and "thank you".
The Text Store will also proofread and revise, as needed, up to 100 words of text. Proofreading requests should be sent to the e-mail address above along with your "please" and "thank you."
● Russian Language translation by the Ervica Team
Russian Language translation by the Ervica Team can be found at
Translations are from English into Russian and are limited to 4,000 characters, which is roughly 800 words or 60 lines. This site says that some requested translations may not be performed. A word to the wise: shorter translation requests may be more likely fulfilled than longer ones. If you want to use this service, click on the <Translate> button at the bottom of the first page. On the second page of the website, you provide your name and e-mail address, your deadline (this is the only service I've run across that expresses an interest in when you want your translation), a description of your translation, the English you want translated, and agree to the stated rules. Then you press <Submit>. Don't forget "please" and "thank you".
● The Free Russian Translation Forum
The Free Russian Translation Forum can be found at
This forum provides translations of small amounts of English (into Russian) and Russian (into English) text. Small is not defined, but it is likely only two or three sentences. To use this service, it appears that you need to register and log-in. Be certain to thank your translator for his or her help.
● Irish Gaelic Translator.com
Irish Gaelic Translator.com can be accessed at
This forum, which you'll need to join, promises human translation of English into Gaelic and Gaelic into English. The premise of the forum is that Gaelic isn't suited to machine translation. The amount of text that will be translated per request is unspecified. As always, don't forget "please" and "thank you".
Sylang can be accessed at
It will provide free translation by a human of up to 100 words of English into French or French into English. On the access page, you identify the type of translation that you need, agree to the Terms of Service, and provide your e-mail address and name, your text to be translated, and your instructions for the translator, including your "please" and "thank you". Currently, the service is in hiatus because of a lack of translators.
Free Human Translation Help for a Word, Phrase, or Sentence
If you need help with a word or phrase or, at most, a sentence, you can ask people on a relevant genealogy mailing list. I've found people on the lists very willing to help. When you make your request, please don't forget "please," and after you've been provided with an answer, even if you consider it to be off the mark, don't forget to say "thanks." People will remember if you're a jerk, and subsequent requests for help may go unanswered.
The best genealogy mailing lists to start with are the following Usenet newsgroups, all of which have Web "mirrors":
soc.genealogy.benelux - covers Belgian, Luxembourger, and Dutch genealogy
soc.genealogy.french - covers French genealogy
soc.genealogy.german - covers German genealogy
soc.genealogy.jewish - covers Jewish genealogy
soc.genealogy.hispanic - covers all Hispanic genealogy
soc.genealogy.italian - covers Italian genealogy
soc.genealogy.nordic - covers Danish, Faeroe Island, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish genealogy
soc.genealogy.slavic - covers all Slavic genealogy
If you have Usenet, access these newsgroups with that. Otherwise, use their Google Groups mirrors, which are at http://groups.google.com/xxx/topics, where you substitute the newsgroup name given above for "xxx".
If your language question leaves everyone scratching their heads, don't be shy: ask if there is another list where your question might be answered.
Remember, these lists are only good for translating words, phrases, and, at the most, sentences.