The Art of Translation and Discovery

One of the artifacts that my family has had in their possession is a one page document hand written in German. It is a document written in the late 1800’s. The document appears to contain brief statements with dates and names. The hand written document has been a mystery through time and generations within the family. It was assumed to have been a document written by one of the members of the Sperber family. The document was kept with a number of other documents in an envelope by John Wolfgang Sperber. I assumed that it was written by John Sperber.

The Handwritten Sperber Document

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The one page document was kept with John Sperber’s marriage certificate and his naturalization papers. [1] As important as these two documents were to John Sperber, the one page hand written document was perhaps equally special but an enigma. Perhaps it was John Sperber’s handwriting.

John Wolfgang Sperber was the maternal grandfather of Harold William Griffis. John Sperber married Sophie Fliegel. They had six children: Rose, Anna, John Frederick, Kathryn, Louis, and Ida May. Ida, the youngest of the six children, was Harold’s mother.

The Family of John Wolfgang Sperber and Sophie Fliegel Sperber

Throughout the years that I had the document in my possession, I would periodically seek out someone who spoke or could read German and ask if they could translate the document. The typical response I got was, “It’s not modern German”, “I can’t decipher the handwriting”, or “The letters on some of the words are unintelligible”.

I had high hopes of success with giving a copy of the document to a dear friend who was Austrian. He basically came back with all three of the aforementioned typical responses.

The German Language and Writing German in the 1800’s

The German language has evolved over time and has many dialects. It is also a language that has been written in many styles. By the time the 16th century rolled around, there were numerous variants and standards in the German language. Slowly, they united. From the 16th to the 18th Century, the southern and central German dialects came together to form Neuhochdeutsch, otherwise known as New High German, the version of German that is spoken today with small modifications. 

German was the language of commerce and government in the Habsburg Empire, which encompassed a large area of Central and Eastern Europe. Until the mid-19th century it was essentially the language of townspeople throughout most of the Empire. [2]

German Language in 1850 [3]

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Until the early 20th century, German was printed in blackletter typefaces in Fraktur, and in Schwabacher; and was written in corresponding Kurrent and Sütterlin style handwriting. [3]

“Making sense of German historical documentation can be a challenge because the old German cursive alphabet kept changing. For those of you working on your family tree, reading the old German cursive alphabet is an exercise in frustration. Digging into genealogical records with aids to help you read them is almost impossible. Even if a person wrote Kurrent, individual writing styles, can make ledger entries frustrating to decipher.” [4]

Kurrent is an old form of German-language handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing, also known as Kurrentschrift (“cursive script”), deutsche Schrift (“German script”) and German cursive. Over the history of its use from the 15th into the first part of the 20th century, many individual letters acquired variant forms. The Kurrent alphabet is loaded with sharp angles and strange changes in direction. For example, there are three different “s’s”, depending on where the letter falls in the word. It is also confusing since the letters may look like completely different letters in modern writing. German writers used Kurrent cursive style as well as the  Latin cursive style. [5]

Seeking Assistance on Facebook

I found a Facebook group, Germanic Genealology, Heritage, Language & Culture. [6] The group is a global support community focused on Germanic genealogy, heritage, language and culture and accepts members by request. I thought I would take a stab at posting the document on the group’s discussion thread to see if anyone could aid in translating the document.

I quickly received a comment from one of the group members. The individual proffered the results of a Google translation service that was generated by a software platform named Transkribus. [7] Transkribus helps you to convert old letters, documents and chronicles from old German scripts such as Kurrent, Sütterlin, Fraktur or Antiqua into readable text. Transkribus software uses artificial intelligence capabilities to translate documents.

While artificial intelligence is making notable advancements, the results of using on-line translation software, even for software that proclaims to be sensitive to historic contexts, are not perfect. As the support person indicates after providing the results of the translation, “there is much manual work to be done”. Translation, regardless of whether it is a mere letter or a literary piece, is an art form and requires the human touch. [8]

For privacy, I have not revealed names of those who assisted me in the translation. The following was the initial thread of discussion involved with producing a translation of he document.

Facebook Threaded Discussion on the Sperber Document – Part 1

Source: Facebook Discussion Thread | Click for Larger View.

While I truly appreciated the assistance and the effort provided by the fellow discussion group member, I was hoping to receive additional ideas or personal attempts at a translation.

I perused the group’s discussion threads and came upon an individual who had translated a two page letter that was hand written in the 1800’s. I thought I would reach out to this individual to see if I could receive assistance.

Facebook Threaded Discussion on the Sperber Document – Part 2

Source: Facebook Threaded Discussion | Click for Larger View

The reply was quick, within hours, and the person was so polite and apologized for not immediately responding! The individual proceeded to transcribe the handwriting on the one page document and then provide a translation, all within one response!

Facebook Threaded Discussion on the Sperber Document – Part 3

Source: Facebook Threaded Discussion | Click for Larger View

The ability to not only transcribe the hand writing but then provide a translation was amazing!

Since I assumed it was a document written by John Sperber, the individual who provided the translation assumed the individual was male and indicated that the last sentence was a bit puzzling. Perhaps the writer of the document used the wrong term “stepfather” and also references the “mother” as Joann.

Reading the first part of the translation lead me to believe the document was actually written by John Sperber’s wife, Sophie Fliegel. It made more sense that it was written by Sophie. “Our mother Julie” was certainly not referring to John’s literal mother. While John might have affectionately referred to his mother-in-law as ‘our mother’, it makes more sense that this was a letter written by Sophie Fliegel. The document also refers to “father Kristof Fliegel”.

Facebook Threaded Discussion on the Sperber Document – Part 4

Hence, I believe the English translation of the ‘mystery document’ is as follows:

A Family Discovery Based on the Document

While the first two statements written by Sophie Fliegel Sperber, document the dates of death for her parents, the third statement found in this document raises a question of fact regarding the kinship structure of the Sperber family. The last sentence of this translated document raises a question regarding who is the father of Rose Sperber. The document indicates:

Rose was 1 year and fourth months old when I got married to Johann he is her stepfather. ”

Looking at the following word ‘Johann’ in the document suggests it is a hand written variant of Johann, not Joann as the translation originally suggested:

Based on a reference cited by [9] you can type in a word in a German on-line form and it will produce a Kurrent script version of the word.

Example of Producing Kurrent Script for the Name Johann

The “o” is not apparent in the written version of Johann in the document but the “J” and “h” are similar in Kurrent script. It appears as if Sophie may have simply produced a downward stroke from the “J’ and then wrote an “H”. As the Facebook group translator indicated, “There are many writing mistakes” in the document.

“When people write in a hurry, details and clarity are often sacrificed. Hence, one misses distinctive features… . There are other features when hurried script is involved, such as merging letters…” [10]

It is apparent that Sophie Fliegel Sperber is referring to her husband, ‘Johann’ or ‘John’ Sperber as the stepfather of Rose.

Rose Speber: An Example of Premarital Sexual Practices in the 1800’s

One basic fact about the Sperber family that stands out is the birth date of the oldest child, Rose Sperber, and the date of marriage of John or Johann Sperber and Sophie Fliegel. I had assumed that Rose was born out of wedlock. It is important to use multiple records to learn if someone was born out of wedlock or ” illegitimate”.

“Using indirect and direct evidence will help conclude the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a person. Sometimes it is not plainly stated, but oftentimes analyzing each record and using them together will make one capable of making a conclusion.” [11]

Based on simple math, if Sophie and John were married Feb 2 1857 (see footnote [2]) and the one page document written by Sophie states that Rose was “one year and four months old” when Sophie and Johann were married, then Rose was born around October 1855 and was conceived around the beginning of 1855.

With the absence of birth records for Rose Sperber, based on various Federal and State Census tabulations, Rose Speber’s birth year has been identified as either 1855, 1856 or 1857. [12]

It appears that Rose Sperber was conceived around the time of Sophie’s arrival to the United States, at the beginning of 1855. [13] Sophie arrived in the United States from Germany with the family on January 26, 1855. There is no mention of an infant or a child under one year old on the ship manifest list. It is not evident that Sophie had a prior marriage. She still had her maiden name when she married John Sperber in 1857.

What was perhaps common knowledge in one generation is not necessarily passed down to the next generation or two.  This makes sense.  While out of wedlock births may have been commonplace and possibly accepted in various communities, it was and still can be a very sensitive topic and not one generally talked about openly.

In the Late Middle Ages, a third of the population was probably born extramaritally. From 1400 to 1600, the illegitimacy ratio dropped markedly, but from 1650 to 1850, it seems to have gradually risen from around five to nine percent in most European states. [14]

For the community, unmarried pregnancy was less a moral issue than a practical one of arranging support for the child. Most of the women in the colonial times and in the 1800’s married the father before the child was born, but for those who remained single, the process of establishing paternity was straightforward. The woman told the midwife the name of the father during delivery. If the situation lead to formal proceedings, the courts, on the assumption that a woman would not lie at such a time, then held the man responsible for the economic support of the child. [15]

Regardless of the sensitivity of out of wedlock births, Sophie and John lived within a time period where illegitimacy rates were high and in many communities out of wedlock children were accepted and treated equally. The reason for the increased illegitimacy rates in Europe and the United States are subject to academic debate but they nevertheless existed.

Source: Shorter, Edward. “Illegitimacy, Sexual Revolution, and Social Change in Modern Europe.”The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 2, no. 2, 1971, pp. 237–72. JSTOR, | Click for Larger View.

“The illegitimate fertility rate soared between 1750 and 1850, from one end of Europe to another.. In all but a handful of villages and cities for which data are available, illegitimacy rose, departing from modest plateaus of one to three percent of all baptisms, to often ten or fifteen per cent. Also prebridal pregnancy, women who are already pregnant when they marry, climbed dramatically. The percentage of first children born less than eight months after marriage in parish register data also rose along with illegitimacy in most places.” [16]

I have not discovered any census records in 1860 that capture the young family of John and Sophie Sperber. It is not known who Rose’s biological father is. It is assumed that Sophie lived with her daughter in her father’s home. Within a year, she met and had a short courtship with John, they fell in love, they were married and started their family. Rose was accepted as John’s own daughter.

The One Page Document

Before Sophie passed away in 1897, she wrote this undated short note composed of three events that were important to her. John kept this note along with his marriage certificate and naturalization paper. It was an important document to him and perhaps was significant in many ways.


Feature image: Alphabet in Kurrent script from about 1865. The next-to-last line shows the umlauts ä, ö, ü, and the corresponding capital letters Ae, Oe, and Ue; and the last line shows the ligatures ch, ck, th, sch, sz (ß), and st. Kurrent (German: [kʊˈʁɛnt]) is an old form of German-language handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing, also known as Kurrentschrift (“cursive script”), deutsche Schrift (“German script”) and German cursive. Over the history of its use into the first part of the 20th century, many individual letters acquired variant forms.Source: Kurrent, Wikipedia,This page was last edited on 5 January 2023

[1] The other two documents kept with the one page handwritten document were John Sperber’s marriage certificate and his naturalization paper:

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[2] Claire Dinh, Tracing the Evolution of the German Language and German Prepositions through an Interdisciplinary Approach, Senior Thesis Department of German Haverford College April 25, 2016

Sarah Waldmann, The History of the German Language, Babbel, 22 Oct 2020,

History of German, Wikipedia, This page was last edited on 29 June 2023,

German language, Wikipedia, This page was last edited on 30 June 2023,

Salmons, Joseph A History of German: What the Past Reveals about Today’s Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012

[3] Costas Melas, History of the Germanic Languages, Frameshot of a Youtube Video, 6:19 minutes of part of a 6:53 video,

[4] Karen Ann, The History of Old German Cursive Alphabet and Typefaces, German Girl in America Blog, 22 Jan 2021,

On the History of Old German Script, the Walden Font Co., page accessed 6 Jan 2023,

Pommern Podcast, Learn to Read Old Script –  Introduction, Kurrentschrift, and Capitals, YouTube Video,

[5] German language, Wikipedia, This page was last edited on 30 June 2023,

Kurrent, Wikipedia, This page was last edited on 5 January 2023,

Kenton Library, Deciphering Old German Documents–Tips and Tricks for Easier translation, YouTube Video,

FamilySearch has a number of web links that potentially can be helpful in deciphering German handwriting:

Germany Languages, Family Search, This page was last edited on 5 December 2022,

[6] Germanic Genealology, Heritage, Language & Culture, group managed by Stephen C Wendt, Facebook,

[7] Translate Old German Scripts with Transkribus, Read Co-Op,,the%20help%20of%20artificial%20intelligence.

See also: List of Names in Old German Script A comprehensive list of German given names, written in old script, with possible variations., Family Search

[8] Liraz Postan, Translation: Art or Science?, 8 Jan 2020, Blend,

[9] There is a reference to a German based website that produces a Kurrent script based version of a word or series of words that you type into a web form. Similar to an on-line translation service but instead of producing a translation, the form produces a script version of the typed German word.

The website in the following citation no longer exists but a version of of the website was found at:

Barbel Bell, Deciphering German Script 13-24,, 18 Jan 2008, page 18,

[10] Barbell Bell, Deciphering German Script (Kurrentschrift): A Guide for Genealogists with particular Reference to Documents written from the 1500’s to the early 1900’s,, 4 Jun 2008, page 11.

[11] Illegitimacy in the United States, FamilySearch, This page was last edited on 17 May 2022

[12] The following New York State and U.S. Federal Census tabulations list Rose Sperber Knopf as being born in 1855 or 1856:

Census Records for Rose Sperber Knopf

Birth Year
1865 N.Y. State Census91856
1870 U.S. Federal Census141856
1875 N.Y. State Census191856
1880 U.S. Federal Census251855
1892 N.Y. State Census361856
1905 N.Y. State Census491856
1910 U.S. Federal Census531857
1920 U.S. Federal Census601860
1930 U.S. Federal Census 731857
1940 U.S. Federal Census791861
New York, New York, U.S.,
Extracted Death Index, 1862-1948

Year: 1870; Census Place: Johnstown, Fulton, New York; Roll: M593_938; Page: 183A, Line 35

Year: 1880; Census Place: Brooklyn, Kings, New York; Roll: 854; Page: 493D; Enumeration District: 217,  Line 45

Year: 1910; Census Place: Brooklyn Ward 28, Kings, New York; Roll: T624_981; Page: 5b; Enumeration District: 0892; FHL microfilm: 1374994 ,Line 81

Year: 1920; Census Place: Brooklyn Assembly District 20, Kings, New York; Roll: T625_1177; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 1302, Line 46

Year: 1930; Census Place: Brooklyn, Kings, New York; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 0402; FHL microfilm: 2341269, Line 73

Year: 1940; Census Place: New York, Kings, New York; Roll: m-t0627-02610; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 24-2421, Line 6

Census of the state of New York, for 1865. Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York., Fulton County, Johnstown, Page 387, Line 35

Census of the state of New York, for 1875. Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York. Fulton County, Johnstown, E.D. 02, Page 428, Line 32

New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1905; Election District: A.D. 20 E.D. 26; City: Brooklyn; County: Kings, Page 12, Line 22

1892 New York State Census. New York State Education Department, Office of Cultural Education. New York State Library, Albany, NY., Kings County, Brooklyn Ward 18, E.D. 50, Page 10

Index to New York City Deaths 1862-1948. Indices prepared by the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group, and used with permission of the New York City Department of Records/Municipal Archives.

[13] New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island, 1820-1957, The National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010; January 26, 1855 arrival, Ship: Zurich, Lines 3-7.

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[14] Michael Obladen; Dishonoured: The Fate of Infants Born out of Wedlock. Neonatology 3 October 2022; 119 (5): 652–659.

[15] Illegitimacy in the United States, FamilySearch, This page was last edited on 17 May 2022

See also:

Abigail Trafford, Unwed Motherhood Insights from the Colonial Era, 8 Jan 1991, The Washington Post,

Lisa Lisson, How to Research You Illegitimate Ancestors, 16 Oct 2017, Are you my cousin? Genealology,

How to find the father of an illegitimate child, 3 Jul 2023, Who Do You Think You are?,

Donna Przecha, “Illegitimate Children and Missing Fathers,”, accessed July 03, 2018,

[16] Lee, W. R. “Bastardy and the Socioeconomic Structure of South Germany.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 7, no. 3, 1977, pp. 403–25. JSTOR, Accessed 3 July 2023.

Shorter, Edward. “Illegitimacy, Sexual Revolution, and Social Change in Modern Europe.”The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 2, no. 2, 1971, pp. 237–72. JSTOR, Accessed 4 July 2023.

Shorter, Edward. “Female Emancipation, Birth Control, and Fertility in European History.”The American Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 3, 1973, pp. 605–40. JSTOR, Accessed 4 July 2023.

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