12 July 2012

Understanding Historical Spanish Documents in the U.S.

Need help understanding Spanish language documents in your historical research?

In recent years I've compiled quite a collection of books and articles related to the law, using laws for genealogical research, and interpreting historical documents. I'm reviewing my collection and updating my notes in preparation for the "Statutes and Story: Laws and Social History in Family Research" workshop next week at the Angelina College Genealogy Conference. One of those books in my collection is a must have for any genealogist working in the areas of the U.S. once claimed by Spain and Mexico. Whether studying the laws or anything else in any locale where Spain once ruled this book is useful:

J. Villasana Haggard, Handbook for Translators of Spanish Historical Documents (Austin: University of Texas, 1941).

Haggard describes his reason for compiling the book. It is one that I suspect leads to many of our most useful how-to books: he needed to do something and couldn't find a book already published that explained how to do it well. So he compiled one, with help from his colleagues who were also subject matter experts. He made notes during a decade or more of work and then documented what he learned to help others. He points out that even an expert in a language needs to know more when translating historical documents. He had the same problems genealogists encounter during research: different paleography, faded ink, crumbling paper, long sentences with no punctuation, and understanding the different way of looking at things hundreds of years ago.1

Especially important is Haggard's statement:
One must not mistake verbatim translations, paraphrases, imitations, parodies, or any other thinly veiled approximation for the serious work of translation. A verbatim version of an original cannot properly be called a translation, for a translation should be first and foremost a faithful rendition of the substance as well as the form of the original.2

A good reminder that we shouldn't rely heavily on machine "translations" of our historical documents. We need additional analysis by someone knowledgeable both with the history of an area, the culture, and the language.

Haggard planned to update the handbook and publish a later edition.3 I haven't been able to find one. If anyone knows of a later version please let me know. This 1941 version is obviously typed on a typewriter and may look quaint to modern eyes. But the information is invaluable. Twenty pages of bibliography. Nine pages showing letter forms used in different centuries. Many document samples with translations. Symbols and abbreviations used. A short history of the development of language and writing in Spain. And so much more including a procedure that starts with reading the document twice before anything else is done.

By the way, even though Google is my go-to source for a lot of things, when looking for electronic copies of books I don't go first to Google Books. The PDF files on Google Books do not allow searching within the text after the PDF is downloaded to my computer. The citation below leads to a searchable PDF version at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Many other sites also provide searchable versions. I download the PDF from Google Books only when I can't find any other option. Yes, I know I can find tools to make the PDF searchable. But if someone else has already done so, I see no need to repeat their work.

1. J. Villasana Haggard, Handbook for Translators of Spanish Historical Documents (Austin: University of Texas, 1941), iv-v; Digitized Books, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (http://libsysdigi.library.illinois.edu/oca/Books2008-09/handbookfortrans00hagg/ : accessed 30 January 2009).
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Ibid., iii.

To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Understanding Historical Spanish Documents in the U.S.," Deb's Delvings Blog, posted 12 July 2012 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

© 2012, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, All Rights Reserved

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