When I mention I translate French records professionally, I often get people shrugging at me. I can almost tell what they’re thinking:
“Why would you possibly want to hire a translator? The index tells you everything you need to know.”
Not so fast.
Listening to the presentation from Ancestry.com at this year’s PMC was eye-opening. It turns out that Ancestry decides what they’re going to index based on financial decisions. Basically, they’re focusing on what’s going to bring them the most income. And that means they’re missing a lot.
To give you an example, I pulled up a marriage record for two of my ancestors last night. The index had the year, the location, and the names. That’s all most marriage records contain, right? If you’re working in older US records, possibly.
That is not the case in Quebec. There was an established form to follow which included the exact date of the marriage; where the spouses were living; their ages (or if they were minors); the names of their parents including mother’s maiden names; the fathers’ occupations and residences; how the marriage was announced (there was a legal requirement to announce it in a limited number of ways); and the witnesses, including their relationship to the spouses.
In my case, that gave me a significant amount of new information. I discovered several new siblings for my ancestors, determined their fathers’ occupations for the first time, and hit a genealogical gold mine. My ancestors had a dispensation in the fourth degree for their marriage. What does that mean? (Thanks to the family member who helped me interpret!) They likely had a great-grandparent in common. So, I now know that the lines intersect somewhere.
Now, if the records use the same form, why can’t you just use a word list? The reality is that the priest (the usual recorder) had to include a certain amount of information but didn’t have to put it in any specific order. That can make matching entries difficult to impossible. You will likely miss words if not large amounts of information. And I’m not aware of any word list that explains that different dispensations.
A second example: a death record for an ancestor who was buried in her home parish but died in a neighboring town. Since the death was only registered at burial, the index and a quick glance at the record would suggest she had died in her home parish – a significant error. This record needed far more than a word list would provide.
If you can’t read the record, don’t rely on the index. You’ll be missing most of the record.