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Behind the Scenes of Finding Your Roots: My Translation Experience

Cyndi Lauper. Lena Dunham. Iliza Schlesinger. Paul Ryan. Pamela Adlon. Nina Totenberg. Isabella Rossellini. What do all these people have in common?

They have all been on the popular PBS show Finding Your Roots, with Dr. Henry Louis Gates – and I have been lucky enough to work with their ancestors’ German documents. 

Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the translation process of Finding Your Roots….

I still remember the first time I got the e-mail. We were living in Boston at the time, and I had just walked the thirty minutes to my cute little coworking space, complete with interior brick walls, delicious coffee, and East Coast vibes. 

Sitting down at my desk, I opened my e-mail to see what translation requests had come in that day. Immediately, “Finding Your Roots, PBS” jumped out at me from the list of senders – what could that be? I had previously done translations for The History Channel, but anytime a TV show contacts you, your heart just jumps.

I took a deep breath, clicked “open”, and quickly scanned the note from the Season 5 producer:

“Dear Katherine,

Nick Block suggested I reach out to you. I’m a producer with Finding Your Roots, a family history show on PBS. 
 
We have a 1920s era German diary that we need translated. Are you available?” 

“Um, of course!”, I excitedly think to myself. Finding Your Roots is a beloved show in the genealogy world, and being a small part of it sounded amazing. I quickly replied, asking the producers to send me a few sample pages, and provided my hourly rate. They confirmed, sent me the required hiring documents, and then it was official – I was a contractor for Finding Your Roots!

If you’re not familiar with the show, Finding Your Roots is a fascinating family history show that dives deep into the ancestry of well-known people, such as actors, politicians, comedians, and others. On the PBS website, the show is described as such: 

For more than a decade, renowned Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has helped to expand America’s sense of itself, stimulating a national conversation about identity with humor, wisdom, and compassion. Professor Gates has explored the ancestry of dozens of influential people from diverse backgrounds, taking millions of viewers deep into the past to reveal the connections that bind us all.

Famous guests have included Barbara Walters, David Sedaris, Melissa McCarthy, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, Dustin Hoffmann, John Lithgow, Julia Roberts, and many, many more. This past season, Season 10, Finding Your Roots hosted a special episode, Viewers Like You, in which, in response to popular demand, they explored the roots of everyday Americans like you and me. 

Image Credit: https://www.pbs.org/weta/finding-your-roots/

So how does translating for the show work? As I have now translated documents for Seasons 5-10, I can speak from my own experience – Finding Your Roots is wonderful to work with. I usually receive a request from one of the McGee Media series producers an entire year or so before the planned episode will air – but they have a lot of future research to do on their end, so the translation turnaround times are usually tight! 

In the e-mail, the producer sends me the document(s) they will need translated, but there is one thing I do not know – whose ancestors that document is for! I don’t find out that information until much later, about a week before the show airs…keeping me in as much suspense as all of you!

Nevertheless, I still need to ask my normal translator question: “Can you tell me any names of people, dates, and towns related to this document?” Since the documents are often hundreds of years old, the last names are often different enough that it doesn’t immediately give away whose ancestors I am dealing with. And knowing the context of the document, for any client, helps significantly in deciphering the mystery words in the handwriting. Although I always verify any information given, knowing where to start looking for any more difficult handwritten words provides a significant head start in my research.  

And then I get to work! While these translations are exciting to do, they work the same as I would do for any client. I first transcribe the handwritten text into typed German, verifying the mention of any towns with Meyers Gazetteer and verifying any last names with Geogen or other last name tools. 

The historical map on meyersgaz.org always helps me in my translations research!

I then follow my normal – albeit very meticulous – translation process. First, I translate the typed German into English, going line by line. My goal is to keep the meaning of the original document the same while making the new text sound completely natural in English. Once the document is translated, I then go back to the beginning – double-checking word by word by word that I have every translated phrase one hundred percent accurate and have not missed anything at all. Finally, once I know that every German word is accounted for, I put the German text away. 

I now look at the English text as a standalone document – reading it through and making sure it sounds like it was originally written by a native English speaker. If there are any awkward “Germanisms” that come from me having had too much German language in my head from looking at the original, I edit them, changing these phrases to flow and sound natural in English. I love to write, and this is my favorite step of the process – how can I make it sound like original English while keeping the exact German meaning? I like to think that this is my specialty, as it is a challenge I love.

Once that step is complete, the translation is officially done and ready to be sent off to the producer! If the producer has any follow-up questions, I may hear from them once or twice more, but then that is it, until about a week before my episode airs.

Documents that I have translated for the show include Red Cross Tracing Cards to locate missing Jewish people post-World War II,  an 1878 address book for Schleswig-Holstein, an 1891 business advertisement for terazzo flooring, 1920s Jewish emigration documents, multiple 19th-century church records, family registers that list family members from as far back as the 1730s, 19th and 20th-century civil birth, marriage, and death records, and, one of the most interesting ones, a street-car accident legal dispute from 1945 related to Cyndi Lauper’s ancestors!

One other interesting project I’ve been able to do with Finding Your Roots is a short recording project – on how to pronounce certain German towns and words. Can you imagine being Dr. Gates and having to make sure you pronounce all foreign words correctly?! Sending these little voice memos hopefully made the pronunciation seem a bit easier. 

A week or so before the new season begins, I get the exciting e-mail: the episode on which my work will air, and the person for whose ancestors I did the translations! This past season, Season 10, was for actress Lena Dunham and comedian Iliza Schlesinger. For Lena’s episode, I translated many documents related to the Seltenwirth family – you can hear the name mentioned in the episode itself. For Iliza’s episode, I did translations that were used for research related to the Holocaust victims and survivors in her family. I never know until I watch the show what translations they will or will not show – so I am just as excited to find out as all of you!

And then comes the cool part – seeing my name in the credits! Funny story: In 2023, at the RootsTech Genealogy Conference, Brian Rhinehart of Civil War Records walked up to my booth. He then introduced himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Brian. Our names were next to each other in the credits for Finding Your Roots for the episode with Kathryn Hahn and Pamela Adlon.” “Oh wow,” I said. “I’ve never met anyone that way before!” 

Just like all of you, I love the show – they do a wonderful job of highlighting our love for genealogy and showing the rest of the world just how fascinating it can be. I feel very lucky to get to work with such a wonderful organization. I hope you’ve enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look!

It’s always fun to get to take a picture with my name in the credits! Can you guess which picture I was two weeks post-partum in? Got to be brave to show that one! 🙂 

Do you watch Finding Your Roots? Who’s been your favorite guest so far? Let us know in the comments!

24 Responses

  1. This was a very interesting look into the translation process and how professionals assist in the research process for the show. I never realized how long it takes to prepare for an episode! But it makes sense with as much research that has to be done with a lot of specialists who travel all over the world.

    1. Thanks for reading, Jeanne – I’m glad you enjoyed it! And yes, they put so much work into it!

  2. I love to watch Finding Your Roots, and I loved to hear about your experience working behind the scenes for the show. Katy, they are lucky to have you to translate German genealogy documents! It’s a great match. Glad that you have so much fun…thanks for sharing.

  3. We love to watch each episode. One of the most recent ones aired was the Viewers Like You episode which featured the ancestral family of one of my former coworkers. Now we are hoping to see another upcoming Viewers episode in which one of my distant cousins has requested help in locating our ancestral family from Germany. Maybe you will get to help with that research.

    1. Oh wow, how cool that it was your former coworker! So many people wanted those spots! And I’d love it if I got to help for a future Viewer’s episode 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for sharing! For many of us researchers this would be a DREAM ask to receive in our mailbox. You’ve worked hard and earned every bit of the recognition. Congrats!!

  5. Loved hearing about your experience and learning about your translation process! Over the years, I’ve tried to make my translations (from Dutch) flow as if they were written in English, but those steps seem like a better process. We, your loyal fans, also get a buzz out of seeing your name in the credits!

  6. Have been watching Finding Your Roots for many years! Told my last client (I am Registrar for Daughters of the American Revolution) where is Henry Louis Gates, Jr when you need him!!!!! She is black and anxious to become a member of the DAR, but her hold up is proving a plantation owner was the father of her relative Ann Wilcox born a slave in the United States. We are using DNA and hopefully we will be able to establish the relationship to one of his sons. Genealogy is fun but can be frustrating at times! Thanks for helping out in what you do!

  7. I never miss an episode! I answered the casting call when they searched for non-celebrities. But, as everyone now knows, mine was not chosen. My Schetrompf mystery remains…

  8. Thanks for the inside experience. I’ve watched the show since the very first episode. I love Dr. Gates. I’ve watched all outside projects too. I came very close to applying for the last episode of this season, three people doing their family genealogy who had hit brick walls. Maybe next year!

    1. Wow, since the very first episode is impressive! Would love it if a member of our community made it on the show, how cool would that be!

  9. Love your experience and the show. One of this seasons guest turns out to be a distant cousin of my husband dating to before the Revolutionary War. How cool is that?

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with Finding Yoir Roots and also your methodology!
    Right now I have to say I enjoyed Brendan Fraser’s time at Funding Yoir Roots. He said something about how appreciative he was about his Irish ancestor and what he did so he, Brendan Fraser, had what he had in America. One of the reasons I do genealogy is to learn about my ancestors’ lives.

  11. Lead Researcher, Nick Sheedy, came to Sacramento, California a couple of years ago for an interview on the local PBS station (KVIE – Studio Sacramento). A friend and I went down & were in the audience (fairly small group). It was a very interesting experience: background on the research and filming processes, info on certain celebs and Nick’s background – he has very deep California roots!
    During the Q&A session a man asked: “My family name was changed at Ellis Island, how……..?” I was impressed with Nick: he circled around & gave a very roundabout & diplomatic answer explaining a bit before he got to the point that names were not changed. Then gave the man a couple of pointers.
    They rerun that episode every so often and I always watch it. I am one of those who has watched FYR since the first show & love it

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