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Polyglot Perspectives: Archiving Loretto’s Multilingual Collections

Posted on January 30, 2024, by Reba Weatherford

Imagine I handed you a document and instructed you to file it in its proper place. What’s the first thing you might do? Hopefully, you would read through the document to determine its author, contents, and purpose. Knowing who wrote it, what it says, and why it was written would be the first steps to guide you in knowing where it should be filed. But what if the document that I gave you wasn’t in English? Or any language that you could speak or read? What might you do then? How would you go about determining its author, content, and purpose when you can’t comprehend the words that are written on the page? Although my job isn’t nearly as simple as just filing documents, this scenario is similar to challenges that I face regularly at work here in the Loretto Heritage Center. Except for a few years of French in high school and a couple units of German on the language learning app Duolingo, I do not speak a second (or third, or fourth) language. However, as I decide how to properly archive Loretto’s historic documents and other materials, I regularly deal with documents written in a multitude of languages.

So back to the document that I have handed you… if it is in a language that can easily be typed using a QWERTY keyboard (think English, Spanish, French, etc.), then you might first turn to Google’s translation feature. If it is in a language that can’t be typed, you can take a photograph of the document and upload it to Google (or a similar translation application), although this is not as accurate. Google’s tool is quick and easy to use, and it can detect the language that you are typing even if you don’t know what it is. However, there are a few problems that arise when using Google to translate your document. For one thing, Google does not translate with respect to regional variations in language usage. Consider the Spanish word chucho, which has different meanings depending on where you are in the world. In El Salvador, it is used to describe a little dog; in Chile, it means “jail.” Google translates it as “mutt.” This could definitely cause some issues in trying to sort out the meaning on a document. 

Another problem with using Google is that its translations tend toward translating based on the current usage of the words. Often the documents we are translating are more than a hundred years old, and even in that short of a timeframe, usage of words can change. Other issues arise based on what is being typed into the translation application.  When script is difficult to read, the best way to decipher it is to use the words and letters I know to guide me on others, but when the language is not English, it can make it harder for me to decipher what is being typed out.  This means that I could potentially be inputting the wrong information into Google and therefore getting a bad output.

Now about that document I’ve handed you: perhaps by this point you are wondering what languages it could possibly be in. How many different languages do we actually see in the Loretto archives, and why might we run across them? While it is not comprehensive, the slideshow that follows provides some examples of documents or materials I could hand you in the Loretto archives, with indication of which collection they belong in.  


Reba Weatherford

Reba Weatherford is the Archivist for the Loretto Heritage Center. She enjoys researching local history, genealogy, and writing about her findings.
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  1. Avatar Barbara Nicholas on January 30, 2024 at 9:06 pm

    Reba, I love this collection of languages held in our Archives. Thank you!

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