top of page


  • Writer's pictureJulie Wilmot

Deciphering Records in Foreign Languages

Updated: Apr 26, 2018

Deciphering Records in Foreign Languages

At some point while exploring their ancestry, most people will encounter records written in a language other than English. Many people in the Northeast have French-Canadian ancestry, and will turn to the ever-popular Drouin Collection, comprised of records usually written in French. Others will end up exploring Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish records in European collections. Still others will search for Spanish-Mexican records South-of-the-Border.

At first, deciphering these records may seem to be an insurmountable task. It isn’t. I tell you this because I do not speak French, Portuguese, or Italian; yet I have managed to decipher records in those languages, and others.

The secret to understanding these records is to identify how they were recorded. For example, every set of records is usually organized in a particular way. Portuguese baptism records in Figueira da Foz, Coimbra, Portugal, are organized in the following manner:

Date of baptism/Parish/Priest or person conducting baptism/Sex and name of child/Birthdate of child (this often differs from the baptism date)/Parents, and their occupations and residences/Grandparents/Godparents

The baptism is then attested to by the priest and the godparents. The child’s name also appears in the margin of the page, which allows for faster searching. The records have yet to be indexed, and must be examined page-by-page. These records are available online at

Portugal, Coimbra, Registros Paroquiais, 1459-1911

It is beneficial to purchase an English/Foreign Language dictionary when beginning research in another country. They are affordable and widely available, and I find them to be more accurate than online translators.

With a dictionary, you should be able to determine in what order the information has been recorded. Once you do, the records become far easier to understand. You can then search for your ancestors’ records and translate them.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page