Jan or Janos: Tips for Translating Names

While you may have inherited your immigrant great-grandmother’s sparkling blue eyes, and great-grandfather’s curly hair, there may be something you didn’t—their name as it was when they immigrated. It is important to consider ethnic variations of both the given names and surnames of your ancestors in records, particularly immigration records, church records, and censuses taken shortly after their arrival.

Not every immigrant used their ethnic name in these types of records, but if you’re starting to suspect that perhaps your ancestor swam over or joined the witness relocation program, you might want to investigate some ethnic variations.

Given Names
My grandmother whose first name was Bertha was enumerated in 1910 as Brony, which was short for Bronislawa, the Polish version of her name. Ironically, she was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and her father, who had been born in Poland gave the English version of his name--John. When Elizabeth Szucs arrived in the Port of New York in 1906, her name is listed on the manifest as Erszebet Szucs.

Fortunately determining the ethnic equivalent of your ancestor’s name typically isn’t too difficult. BehindtheName.com is a great resource. Type your ancestor’s name in the search box and then from the box on the right, select “Related Names” and you’ll be rewarded with a list of related names from various ethnic backgrounds. The site lists well over a hundred variations of Elizabeth alone from countries around the world.

If you don’t find the name you’re looking for there, type something like “german given name” or “hungarian first name” into a search engine and in most cases you’ll find multiple resources.

Check your local library as well for reference books.

Surnames and Variations
One of the first lessons in researching your family history is “Un-learn how to spell your family’s surname.” This is something you definitely want to do when you’re researching an immigrant ancestor.

You may find phonetic variations of your surname based on how it is pronounced. The family of John Mekalski also used the spelling Menkalski. Once a little research was done into Polish pronunciation, a possible explanation becomes apparent. The Polish alphabet includes nine letters with diacritics that are pronounced differently from their Latin counterparts. One of these is ę, which is pronounced like the en in men--as in Menkalski.

Another consideration is feminine and masculine endings. John Menkalski’s sister is listed in a Philadelphia marriage index as Bronislawa Menkalska using the feminine ending -ska.

You may also run into patronymics, where the child’s last name incorporates the father’s given name. For example, Jan Petersen’s son Lars, would be Lars Jansen; Lars’ son Hans would be Hans Larsen, etc.

Investigate the surname traditions for your ancestor’s country of origin. There are numerous surname books available for many ethnicities that discuss surname origins, traditions, and phonetic considerations. Use a search engine to search for your ancestor’s native language and words like “surnames,” “pronunciation,” “suffixes,” “prefixes,” etc. You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at how many resources you uncover.

You may also find reference materials and services available through ethnic genealogical societies. Seek out mailing lists like those at RootsWeb and the message boards on Ancestry.com. You’ll find there are a lot of experienced genealogists out there who are willing to share their expertise with you.

The more you learn about the names your ancestors used, the better your luck will be in locating him in immigration and other records. We’d love to hear more about your experience in locating ancestors with ethnic names. Please share your story in the comments section below.