Spending some time in Switzerland - die Schweiz (German), La Suisse (French), Svizzera (Italian), I quickly learned the importance of figuring out place names in the different languages. If you're in Zurich and want to get to Geneva, look for train signs that say "Genf." Whereas going the other way, you'd be in Genève and look for Zürich signs. More familiar to many Americans: München for Munich, Wien for Vienna and Köln for Cologne, but a lot of names are tougher.
Extra Challenge Finding Ancestors' Hometowns
When learning about ancestors who immigrated to the US decades or centuries ago, you get a double challenge. Not only is there the translation, but borders have changed dramatically over the decades and centuries. My great-grandmother's hometown of Bad Reinertz (Bad "baat" just means bath) in Silesia is now in Poland and has become Duszniki-Zdrój.
One trick is to look up the place name you know in Wikipedia, which often includes even villages that no longer exist, in multiple languages. You may have to cast about for various spellings - in the case of Reinertz, Wikipedia does not show any Reinertz, only Reinerz (same pronunciation), the German spelling.
We pulled together some of the more relevant places for people doing German genealogy. A few aren't so tough to figure out. Schlesien isn't sooo different from Silesia, but I was pretty surprised to learn that Siebenbürgen is how Germans say Transylvania! Likewise I'd never guess that a town we call Brunswick is a city and duchy in northern Germany and is properly known as Braunschweig.
Some Favorite Place Name Translations
Want a Larger Glossary?
Here's also a link to our fuller list with about 70 place names that might be more common for people to come across as they are researching German-American ancestry back "across the pond."
When Wikipedia doesn't recognize the name, try a general internet search and see if you find a relevant variant. You may get swamped with irrelevant hits - Reinertz, for instance, is a common family name, and top hits include a business in Belgium. If you can, include the name of the province or district, maybe the local river, something to focus the search on the relevant town. It's like looking for Washington or Madison or Middletown in the United States - there are just so many of them!
Do you have any Swedish, German, Danish, Dutch or Norwegian documents you can't read? We can help. Get more info here.
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