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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - February/March 2004
Losing names in translation


Many genealogists who trace their family history find themselves with the additional burden of losing their name in translation.
Mark Dennen believed that his surname was rare when he began exploring his family history. Knowing it was Irish in origin, he began his search among the records of Ireland. He was surprised to discover that Dennen was a derivative of O'Doineannaigh and that there were many who descended from that surname. Rather than having few who shared his origins, the opposite turned out to be the case. From Dennen to Dennehy to Denenshe, there were many who had similar names, and all were related. Whether slightly or dramatically, names often changed when families emigrated to America. In order to Americanize themselves, some immigrants Anglicized their name by translating it literally. Thus Rousseau became Brooks, and so on.

Language and cultural difference forced many immigrants to undergo significant changes as they adjusted to their new home. Some names were deliberately changed by families who preferred to be assimilated quickly into the lifestyle of their new country. Families named Schmidt who emigrated from Germany sometimes adopted the name Smith once they were established in America.

For years, there was a common conception that many names that were changed at Ellis Island used to be accepted, but that idea had since been challenged. In an article on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) site, Marian L. Smith, a historian with the INS, reveals that immigrants were given more attention at Ellis Island than had been previously thought. She notes that passenger lists of names were compiled abroad before departure. According to records, a third of immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island had emigrated from foreign countries and spoke other languages.

Even Christian names were sometimes abandoned in an immigrant's new country, not necessarily through any legal process but rather for the sake of convenience.

Around 1882, Koleda Schaffer immigrated to America with her father following the death of her mother in Bavaria. She took a job as a domestic with a New England family. When the children in the family found it too difficult to pronounce the name Koleda, she changed it to Anna.

The American name she had selected appeared on her tombstone as well as her death certificate. Her own children later remembered hearing their mother say that her name had been Koleda before she changed it. Since there was no further reference to her given name, no legal record remains of it in America.

Chinese names often feature adaptations of the same origin. Wang, Wong, and Huang all derive from Wang, since traditionally the ruler or king (translated as Wang) would name the people in villages he visited. While the spelling of the name might have changed once an immigrant reached America, the origins remain.

Ironically, the common ancient English names that represent occupations such as Miller or Cartwright usually survived intact. Names representing locations like Woods or Barnes also survived because they required no translation.

In cases where immigration records cannot be found, a thorough knowledge of siblings' names is helpful. Siblings often made the passage from the old country to the new, confirming the family connection when original names get lost in translation.

For more information; Changing Immigrant Names
<http://uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/history/articles/NAMES.htm>.
American Names/Declaring Independence by Marion Smith, INS Historian
<http://uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/history/articles/NameEssay.html>.

Karen Frisch has spent years getting lost in cemeteries. With a background in Victorian studies, teaching, and writing, she has traced her lineage back thirty generations. Her interest in genealogy began as a child when her grandmother gave her a collection of old photographs from Scotland. For more information, please contact GEMS of Genealogy, Bay Area Genealogical Society, Inc., PO Box 283, Green Bay, WI 54305-0283.


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