Archival Processing Methodology: Part 5 – Languages

One of the aspects of the Vinson Collection that make it such a valuable research tool is its international scope. However, this also presents one of its challenges because with that global scope comes a wide variety of languages! They include English, French, German, Italian, Afrikaans, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, and even more. The variety in these languages presents a few different issues.

The first challenge in processing these materials is to identify which language it is. This job is made much simpler through the use of Google Translate. For those of you not familiar with this tool, one can enter the text they have and either select to translate it from Language A to Language B. Or even more helpfully in our case, it can be set on Detect Language and it will attempt identify the language based on the words that you input. Where even this impressive tool can sometimes fail you is with the languages using non-Latin character sets, since one cannot easily just type in the text to translate. In this case, one can utilize the “on screen keyboard” option, which is extremely helpful for Cyrillic languages.

However, if Google Translate fails us, all is not lost. Often based on our own knowledge, we can guess a region or potential country for the language. Then using the wealth of resources available online, we can pull up images of the characters and compare each language to the item we have. We also frequently consult with coworkers around the library to see if anyone else has the knowledge to identify a different language.

If all of these efforts fail (which, on rare occasions, they do), we resort to “unidentified languages” as the description in the finding aid. Then, once the collection is open, we hope that a patron might come in and be able to identify these few mystery languages.

The second challenge, once one identifies the language (or even if it can’t be), is to figure out what type of item it is. Though it is not necessary to get a full translation, one needs to be able to understand enough of it to get a sense of what it is. Is it a catalog? Great! But is it a catalog for one model? Multiple models? Fleet vehicles? Thankfully, the pictures are extremely helpful to identifying these distinctions. Though the distinctions sometimes grow fuzzier in a subseries like General Publications, one can still usually use context clues to infer what type of item at which one is looking.

Languages of materials are noted on the finding aid at the subseries level. For example, there will be a note that the Trade Catalogs: Specific Models are in languages X, Y, and Z or General Publications are all in language X. Additionally, an attempt is made to provide quantitative description, so that a researcher can tell that the material is almost all in English with one or two things in Dutch or something like that.

Past methodology posts discussing arrangement can be found here.

Emily Cottle is Project Archivist/Cataloger for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

2 thoughts on “Archival Processing Methodology: Part 5 – Languages

  1. Interesting article. As Uncle Taylor’s niece by marriage, I am familiar with some of the foreign language materials in the collection as he would sometime sha stories about his trips,where he went and when he collected them. As a State Dept. Diplomat, I also have passing familiarity with many of the languages you describe, so am happy to help identify characters /lanuages. Uncle Taylor’s extended family contains members fluent in a number of languages,including Spanish, French, Norwegian, Italian, and with passing familiarity with Danish, Afrikans, Swedish, Russian. Let us know how we can help. We are eager to see the collection (again) once public and are thrilled with the work, and updates on the blog.

    • Thank you so much for your offer to help! I definitely appreciate it. Fortunately, upon getting out the materials to scan to send to you, they were identified by a fresh pair of eyes, so for the moment we are without any mystery languages. (Let’s all cross our fingers that it stays that way!) However, should that change, you will be first on my list to send them to! Thanks again!

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