Lost in Transliteration

When I moved to Japan, my name changed to Maa-sa Jyu-e-tto, and was written in katakana (not Roman letters), the alphabet reserved for foreign words imported into Japanese. Out of deference to the exigencies of Japanese, I (mis)pronounced my name the way the Japanese did.


Immigrants in the big wave of American immigration (1880-1911) often had their names changed by English-speaking officials. “The Census taker’s ability to understand the non-English speaker is the key to how the name gets spelled,” says Sara Weissman. Sara is a research department librarian, who offered a class on genealogy research at the Morris County Library in Whippany, New Jersey, which I attended last week.


When you're doing family research, you have to look for other spellings of family names. Misspellings were common and depended on the country of origin of the official. When reviewing ship manifests and other shipping records, keep in mind that the different shipping lines used different transliterations. The German lines had the most thorough information and the best understanding of languages that don't use Roman letters. The US and British shipping lines were the worst. The Dutch somewhere in the middle. In official records, one name could be spelled Dansick, Danzig, and Dangiz.


The names are slippery. Don’t think of the name the way it is spelled now. You have to try non-Roman-alphabet spellings of names and use a name that sounds like the name, but is not an exact match. Try name variations. Use the transliteration system called Soundex Indexing System in Census (soundex, as in, sounds like). See link below. If your ancestor’s name includes a German O, use O. In the case of an  umlatted O, use an O and U. “My great-great grandmother’s name is spelled JohannA in her sons’ baptismal records in Norway. But I couldn’t find her marriage record until I used the older spelling JohannE,” said Weissman.


Officials also took it upon themselves to change names. We saw an example from Sara’s ancestors. When her Irish paternal grandfather boarded the ship to come to America, the ship’s official wrote Kenney but then changed his mind, crossed it out, and wrote O’Kenney. She showed us the record: Kenney was crossed out and in the margin was O’Kenney. Her grandfather kept the O’ through his naturalization, after which he reclaimed his actual name.  


Be creative and resourceful. Your immigrant ancestors were.



Association of Professional Genealogists


Soundex Indexing System

One Comment
  1. Thanks for reminding us how resourceful our immigrant grandparents were. It was a joy for me to find that my grandmother came in through Ellis Island. I found her entry recently through ancestry.com.

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