Using [Square] Brackets (and parenthesis) in Transcriptions (and Translations[!])

I've been working on a transcription project with my friend, and today while trying to find an objective explanation for why I was choosing square brackets [ ]  in some places and parenthesis ( ) in others, I ran into a genealogy standard that goes completely against all my reasoning and logic having to do with the letters you choose to use when you transcribe an old Czech document.

  • record obsolete letter forms with their modern equivalents rather than their modern look-alikes. EXAMPLES: the long s, which looks like a modern f, is transcribed s; the thorn, which stood for the sound made by th but looks like y is transcribed with the modern letters th; the form for capital F, which looks like but is not ff, is transcribed F; and an archaic w may look like no but is transcribed w;

The entire premise of this transcription rule presupposes that 1. all obsolete letter forms have a single, clear, obvious modern equivalent, which is simply not true in Czech. It also presupposes that 2. you must be a native (or very high level) Czech speaker in order to correctly transcribe old Czech documents because of the nature of old Czech's lack of spelling conventions which lasted into the 20th century. Of course, I know I'm never going to be a native speaker, and I definitely do aspire to be a high level Czech speaker; it's just that I fundamentally disagree with the idea that it's not possible for my transcriptions to be meaningful (and very high quality) without a near-perfect knowledge of Czech. Because with Czech, it's not just a handful of thorns and capital F's, it's more like...pretty much every phoneme in the entire language had multiple "obsolete letter forms." How do you define "a letter form", anyway? For example, "ss" should be transcribed as "š." But what about "sch"? It makes the same sound, but it is definitely three letters. My maiden name is often written Waschiczek or Waschitczek in the old records. If I write it as Vašíček, that is more than 50% different from the original. My intuition tells me this is a terrible idea, that it should stay as Waschiczek in my transcription. If I choose to correct cz to č every time, but not sch to š, then I end up with Waschiček which is totally arbitrary and stupid.

There are also some major problems with standardizing old Czech from a research standpoint; you risk losing specific information that would help inform your search.  For example the previous post which I wrote was about the Czaderski family: It wasn't until I searched the Czech National Library website for the surname starting with "Cz" that I even got any useful results! It's so fuzzy, too - the name is Polish in origin, and in modern Polish it is written with a Cz. Yet if you chose to follow this BCG standard, you could make an argument that it should be transcribed "Č" in the original records, since there the "Cz" stands for "Č", at least when a modern Czech speaker sees it, and the records here are written in Czech (and German) despite the fact that this guy was Polish.

Not even Polish. He was Silesian.

I really strongly feel that the above rule was written from an anglocentric point of view, and it is quite frustrating trying to make it match the Czech paradigm because Czech simply doesn't work this way. But more about that later after I've refined my thoughts...

Here is my explanation about square brackets and parenthesis in transcriptions and translations.


Basically never use parenthesis ( ) in transcriptions unless it was written with a parenthesis in the original. In the 18th and 19th century Czech records which I transcribe, this is rarely - if ever - the punctuation of choice. Instead, they often use weird signs, often like this: //: blah blah blah blah :// to denote parenthetical statements.

Square brackets [ ] on the other hand are used abundantly all over transcriptions. For example:

  • When an unknown word is abbreviated and it's unclear, you can use square brackets [ ] to write the entire word. For example: "Exh[hibit]." By the way, an example of a word that would not really be unclear is "No." as an abbreviation for "Number." The thing is, every instance of an abbreviated word in Czech is going to be unclear for a native English speaker. So while it would be clear to a native Czech speaker that "mil. vrch" means "milostivému vrchnosti" (or pick whatever case ending you like), that's totally unclear without "mil[ostivému] vrch[nosti]" in the transcription. By the way, there are gajillions of instances of "mil. vrch." in these records. "To His Gracious Majesty" "To His Gracious Manorial Lord" - etc. Another popular example is "o Stým Jiří" which should really be "o S[va]tým Jiří" - referring to St. George's Feast Day.
  • Use square brackets [ ] when you want to add clarifying words or abbreviations that are not present in the original document at all. For sure the most common example of this is for currency. It is probably included somewhere, like a the top of the form, or the top of the list, and it is referenced with ditto marks, but sometimes it is just a lot easier for the reader if you go ahead and include it in the transcription. For example: "4 [fr] 2 [xr]" or "10 [ß] 36 [gr]."
  • Use square brackets to clarify something that is unclear or wrong. Probably the most common example would be "z [s]" - both "z" and "s" (and "se") are Czech words (yeah, English speakers, we are all staring like deer in the headlights at a consonant as a word?! But 'fraid 'tis so). These words have very different meanings, but were often used interchangeably before spelling conventions were a thing. People just spelled fownettihklee. Another example of a word which is misspelled in the original making it really unclear and difficult to understand: "a 10 p cento sobě vrchnost obnaruje [obraňuje]." Obnarovat is nonsense and means nothing in Czech, though if you had a creative mind you might somehow combine the prefix "obe" (around) "narvat" (to pick, to pluck, to stuff, etc.), though I have no idea what the heck that would really mean. Clearly this was a case of a pre-typing "typo". Translation: "And the manorial lord reserves 10 percent of...for himself." That ellipses, by the way, represents a huge long phrase which comes before and therefore which isn't really relevant to the discussion, but this challenge comes up all the time with English having a fixed word order and Czech being much more flexible, enduring extremely long, convoluted sentences full of parenthetical statements which are perfectly clear to Czechs (well...most of the time) because of the case endings.  You can read the whole 1756 record here in all its dreadful loopy glory.
  • If the text is illegible and you are guessing, you should use brackets with a question mark. The number of question marks often denotes the number of missing letters. Examples: "Vor[šila?]" or "V[???]ila"
  • Finally, you can use square brackets [ ] when you are adding a longer note that clarifies the text. If it is longer than a word or two, you should put it in italics within an indented paragraph. Another way to handle it is to add foodnotes or endnotes, in which case ditch the square brackets entirely; they're unnecessary. Here is an example of a note: "[this symbol refers to a margin note on the left side of the page]"


Square brackets are used all over translations of Czech text to English, probably in higher frequency than in transcriptions. Why? Because... English!

Probably the main problems you will run into in English that do not require parenthesis are word order and articles.

You simply must switch the word order, in almost every sentence at least slightly for it to make some kind of sense in the English translation. Otherwise, sound like Yoda you will. "císařské kral[ovské] poddatké podle starého obyčeje do obce oddávati" is not "Imperial Royal Taxes according to the old customs in the village to give." It's definitely, "to give Imperial Royal Taxes according to the old customs in the village." By the way, [he was required] might be included at the beginning of that sentence.

I've found it extremely helpful to start the translation by identifying the verb in the sentence, and very often it is found at the end of the sentence. Often times the Czech verb will contain the subject, which can be confusing for the reader. A high frequency phrase which you will see all over the land records is, "povinen jest" - "he is bound" or "he is obliged" to do whatever.

And as for articles, Czech doesn't have them at all. So you can either consider that you are always adding extra to the original and always put [the] silly things in [a] set of brackets, or you can simply just focus on translating for meaning. I consider that the "the"'s and "a"s are implied in the Czech meaning, so I don't ever use square brackets for these. Plus, there would be like five per sentence, and that would be extremely hideous and painful to read. No, but seriously, it really might actually distract the reader and impede their understanding of the meaning, a very good argument against their overuse!

Here are some of the examples of when I most often use square brackets in translations.

  • Abbreviations! Again, you are going to want to stay true to the original when you can but mostly the translation is to express the meaning. So in a translation, you might write, "Michael Waschiczek gained the property of this Dom[inikal] Gärtlergrund." Why didn't I translate Gärtlergrund, you ask? Basically, I never translate farm professions or words describing the property because, quite frankly, there is no good one word translation for them. Instead, I often explain the meaning of these words in a note to the side.
  • Implied words in Czech are very often not implied in English. They need to be stated explicitly. "[The nobility receives] 1 length of yarn fabric free of charge, but if the manor desires more spun fabric, they [the nobility] are obliged to pay 12 x per spool." Without specifying who is doing what, this is not actually a sentence in English, and makes no sense whatsoever. In an earlier example, "On St. George's [Feast Day]" it is really unclear about it what this means without explaining the feast day part!
  • Prepositions. In Czech, you just say, "Léta Páně 1778" - literally "Year of the Lord 1778". But in English, this is a set phrase using the preposition "in" and possessive pronoun "our." So you can translate it like this, "[In] the year of [our] Lord 1778." Honestly, that's getting a bit nitpicky; since it is a set phrase, you might just translate it, "In the year of our Lord 1778."
  • To clarify who or what you are talking about. Quite often this is handled in Czech with case endings, but we don't have that luxury in English. "Also [if Jiří should] exchange the property he bought, the manorial lord reserves 10 percent of the unpaid remainder of the purchase price; and as soon as it [the purchase price] is fully paid, then the buyer according to his will and liking shall have the ability and right to transfer, swap, mortgage, sell, or bequeath [the property] to his children, without any obstacle of mine, my heirs, and the successors of Vratimov's estate[.]" Try reading that without the stuff in brackets and tell me it's not confusing! Or again, "Jiří Novák...assumed [the use] of this land with all its accessories, in [its] bounds, borders, and benefits as well as obligations as were previously used." Without saying "its", you might be talking about Jiří Novák's bounds, borders, benefits, etc., which frankly makes no sense. Adding that one little word clarifies everything. English can be a real pain, can't it. Another example: "In this same Grundbuch [on] Fol. 17 and 18 [is] recorded verbatim the [farm's] appraisal of 30 April 1827." It is so much easier to understand when you know what the appraisal is for, isn't it?
  • Punctuation! Basically, when you translate from Old Czech to English, you are going to end up using a liberal dose of commas (and even periods!) which never existed in the original. Like in the above example: "...without any obstacle of mine, of my heirs and successors of Vratimov's estate[.]" There was a paragraph break. There was no period in the original. It was definitely implied. I added it in brackets.

BUT...back to the idea about brackets making it really difficult for the reader to understand the meaning of the text. Combine this with the idea that the goal of a translation is to preserve the meaning and, where possible, the form of the original text.

It is not always possible to preserve the form. It just isn't. And guess what, punctuation is an example of something that is used really differently in Czech than in English, even today. For example, did you know that in sentences in modern Czech with multiple clauses you have to separate each clause with a comma? For example, did you know--->,<--- that in sentences in Czech with multiple clauses you have to separate each clause with a comma?

Oh yeah, and periods in Czech can mean the same thing as -nth or -th. So it's the "17. století" in Czech, but in English it is "the 17th century."

In Old Czech, sentences barely have any punctuation. It is like it was against the linguistic diet of the day, only seldom sprinkled in one's sentences.

Aaaand...Guess what. Parenthesis are punctuation marks.

If we are translating for meaning while also trying as hard as we can to preserve the form, but fully admitting that the form will necessarily change, then there is a case to be made for why punctuation marks used in translation which preserve the meaning should not be put in square brackets [ ].

Take this phrase: "dle v knize gruntovních listin ad roku 1850 listu 140 pv: de praes. 14. unora 1851 N. Exh: 47 vtelená svadební umluvy dtto 14. unora 1851."

Without parenthesis or any additional commas, the translation looks like this:
"According to the wedding contract from 14 February 1851 recorded in the land book of documents which was kept from the year 1850 on leaf 140 pagina versa and presented on the 14th of February".

We need punctuation for this to make any sense in English because without it, it is completely ambiguous what was on leaf 140 and what exactly was presented on the 14th of February and whether the wedding contract was kept from the year 1850 and how that even makes any sense because it is supposed to have been dated in 1851. English is too ambiguous.

So we can add some commas, and it doesn't help much:

"According to the wedding contract from 14 February 1851, recorded in the land book of documents, kept from the year 1850, on leaf 140 pagina versa, and presented on the 14th of February".

Was the wedding contract recorded in the book of land documents? Or was it kept from the year 1850? Or is it on leaf 140 pagina versa? Or all of the above?

No, instead I want to translate it like this: "According to the wedding contract from 14 February 1851 [which was] recorded in the land book of documents (kept from the year 1850) on leaf 140 pagina versa and presented on the 14th of February".

I definitely do not want to put the parenthesis in brackets like this [(], because that makes my eyes bleed in pain. Anyway, the translation is to preserve meaning. In Czech, the meaning is clear. In English, the same meaning would be expressed with parenthesis.

In the end, when to use square brackets [ ] and parenthesis ( ) is just a judgment call about whether the additional text strays too far from the original text, i.e. if it is an interpolation (i.e. interjection or remark) by the translator, or if the meaning was clear in the original and your translation is your interpretation. In the above case, it's not my own interpolation, it's clear from the meaning of the original Czech.

Conclusion: I should probably be using far less square brackets [ ] in translations than I currently do. I suppose it is just a function of my lack of confidence in understanding the meaning in Czech. As I have reviewed my transcription and translation skills and progress over the past year and a half while writing this post, I can see strong evidence of vast improvement. I can also see the same phrases coming back over and over again, and my translations of them changing slightly to better reflect their actual meaning. I do not always remember these difficult to translate phrases, which is really frustrating to me. I should make a list of them somewhere...

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