Monday, July 21, 2008

Research in Many Languages

Last week I went to downtown D.C. to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to try to do some research about the Schwartz family in Poland. So far we know what happened to three of my grandfather's seven siblings during World War II and the Holocaust. That leaves four more.

The archival research facilities at the Museum, and the support provided by the staff, are remarkable. The professional researchers there appreciate how difficult it is to track people through the welter of the 1930s and 1940s, and how many records were destroyed by war. They even provide free photocopying!

But for monolingual people like me, the project is daunting. The relevant records could be in any of four languages. A few are in Polish, from before the war. With many exotic pronunciation rules, Polish words confound me. Schwartz, for example, is most often spelled "Sczwarc" in Polish, but also could be spelled a couple of other ways. Other records are in German; some are in Russian, with that old nemesis, the Cyrillic alphabet. And the recollections of Holocaust survivors are mostly in Hebrew, which makes Cyrillic look easy!

These linguistic challenges create real misunderstanding. In The Lost, author Daniel Mendelsohn (a linguist himself) describes how his search for the story of a lost family was misdirected by his misinterpretation of a Yiddish word used by his grandfather. (There's a lot more in the book, too.)

We have already had a concrete experience of that. Our Ukrainian research associate, the first person to read my grandmother's passport who knew the Cyrillic alphabet, has questioned what town she was actually born in! This could be a long road.
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1 comment:

Andy said...

Interesting perspective on the LHT. It was one of the bikes that I seriously considered when shopping for The New Ride.

Like your observation about the clunkiness, the odd placement of shifters, etc, I was able to convince myself to spend more $$$.

Looking forward to reading your comments on the Great Adventure!