Tuesday, May 27, 2008

With a Little Help From My... Norwegian Glossary

Finding genealogical treasures in a foreign language you can not read is one of the most frustrating things a researcher encounters. All that hard-won wealth of information within reach, and, argh! You can't understand any of it!

Arranging translations can be equally as frustrating, unless you are fortunate enough to be near a genealogical society that has interest groups with native speakers who are willing to take the time to help. Never underestimate the amount of time and frustration that translation involves, even for an expert. The older the document, the more likely it will contain some archaic language/script, or elements of a localized dialect that are certain to challenge your translator.

Fortunately, for those involved in Norwegian genealogical research, there are many organizations that have provided tools to help. Take a look at the Norwegian glossary of genealogical terms published online by NAHA (Norwegian-American Historical Association). You can print out the list and carry it with you wherever you go to do research. No longer will you assume that the word "barn" in Norwegian has something to do with farm animals.

å ø æ

When does a foreign language glossary come in handy? I find it especially useful when trying to glean tidbits from Norwegian bygdeboker (local histories) obtained through interlibrary loan. It is amazing how much information you can pick out from a foreign language text when you recognize a few choices words in conjunction with the dates given.

Also, keep in mind that some Norwegian language databases are becoming increasingly English-friendly. Look for a button or term to click on, in order to have the page translated for you (this is akin to that EASY button we've all seen on TV). Want an example? Go to the home page of one of my favorite research databases, the Norwegian census: Digitalarkivet, and look at the very top of the gray side bar on the left. See where it says: "English"? Click on it and see what magic occurs.

Another good move for a serious researcher would be to take a class or two in the foreign language of interest. I'm not necessarily talking about quitting your day job and applying to the local university. There are many areas around the country offering low-pressure, low-cost community classes, and language instruction is sometimes offered to the members of various organizations, like Sons of Norway, which also holds language camps for children and youths (kids have ALL the fun...)

In Seattle, we are fortunate enough to have the Scandinavian Language Institute, which offers classes on a quarterly basis. The classes, which meet at various locations once a week, emphasize pronunciation, conversation, and having a good time. Just taking a beginning class in Norwegian had helped me immensely when it comes to understanding the different alphabet and recognizing useful terms in documents. Not only that, but after a basic class, you will no longer turn away shyly the next time someone asks: "Hvordan har du det?"


  1. Speaking of the Norwegian language, Google Translate has just added it to the assortment of languages available for translation.

    Read my post at 100 Years in America for more details on the news.

    Small-leaved Shamrock
    A light that shines again
    100 Years in America

  2. Thanks for the update, Lisa. I was wondering when Google would get around to it. Translators can be useful for small phrases, but I don't trust them with substantial amounts of text. Better than a swift kick, as they say!

  3. Moro å se en blogg fra en norsk-amerikaner, jeg har en del familie der. Bare spør om du trenger hjelp til noe.

    Translated just in case:
    It's fun to see a blog from a Norwegian-American (or is American-Norwegian?), I have some family over there. Just ask if you need any help with anything. ^_^

  4. Thea,

    Thank you for your kind offer. Yes, most Norwegian-Americans are intensely proud of their heritage.

  5. I've noticed that! I've heard that you even eat Lutefisk... I don't know anyone who actually eats that, it smells like death.

    Oh and the whole "Uff da" thing, I thought that was pretty funny. :p

  6. Hi Thea,

    Oh no! I don't eat lutefisk... but, for many Norwegian-Americans (especially the older generation), it's a symbol of the hard times their ancestors encountered and lived to tell about. (See my blog entry "No Ode to Lutefisk")

    Yes, the whole "Uff da" thing is pretty funny, but believe it or not, my immigrant great grandparents actually talked like that, and so did their children. In fact, the whole American thing of celebrating Norwegian heritage must seem pretty funny to someone who lives in modern Norway (just as modern America is different from the way it used to be). But, all of it is really just an appreciation of one's ancestors and the way of life they brought to the melting pot of the new world: living history, if you will.

    Good to hear from you!

  7. I hear rumours of Norwegians who eat Lutefisk for christmas, I feel kinda sorry for them. :p
    My grandmother made it once, I thought she had died that's how bad it smelled!

    It's really sweet how you show how proud you are of your ancestors. I would really like to go to the Norwegian-American areas sometime to see what it's like. And maybe I'd bring some brunost. ;)
    Do you have brunost (brown cheese) over there?
    OH! And do you use the cheese slicer?