Translating French Records: Baptismal Records

If you’re looking for Roman Catholic records in the Ottawa Valley area, you’re almost certain to run into some French entries in the parish registers. But no worries, and please do not panic. Even if you don’t speak a word of French beyond “bonjour” and “merci beaucoup,” you canread and understand the relevant records.

First, realize that these records, whether written in Latin, French, English, Italian or whatever, all adhere to the same formula. The parish register was no place for authorial innovation and brilliant flashes of originality. So if you know the English-language formula (which you surely already do), then you’re already halfway there to figuring out the French. Second, learn a few key French terms and phrases which correspond to their English equivalents, and you’ve arrived at an understanding of the record (in fact, in many cases the bigger challenge will be to make out the priest’s handwriting, though you can do that too, once you understand what terms and phrases you’re looking at).
This entry deals with baptismal records, with marriage, burial and census records to follow in later entries.

Here’s the baptismal record for George William Cahill, a grandson of James Moran and Margaret Jamieson:
Le treize de mai Mil huit cent cinquante neuf par nous prêtre soussigné a été baptizé George William né le vingt sept d’avril du légitime marriage de George Cahill et de Mary Moren de cette paroisse. Le parrain a été John Connely et la marraine Anne Shirly qui n’ont pu signer.*
And here’s my translation (note: I’m not a professional translator or anything like that, so my translation is purely utilitarian and no doubt inelegant):
The thirteenth of May one thousand eight hundred and fifty nine by we the undersigned priest was baptized [or: we the undersigned priest baptized] George William born the twenty-seventh of April of the legitimate marriage of George Cahill and Mary Moren [Moran] of this parish. The godfather was John Connely [Connelly] and the godmother Anne Shirly [Shirley] who could not sign.
Note that William is the child’s middle name, not his surname. In the case of a child “born of [a] legitimate marriage,” the priest typically did not give his/her last name in the text of the record, because the surname was understood to be that of the father (the surname will be found in the margins and/or in the record’s heading, though).
And please don’t be offended if the French-Canadian priest misspelled your English (or, more probably, Irish, since we’re dealing with RC Ottawa Valley records here) ancestor’s name. I’ve seen some truly bizarre renderings of French names by English-language (which is to say, generally, Irish) priests, after all. But nobody really cared about spelling before, roughly, the early twentieth century, anyway. And these priests were doing their best to create accurate, written records for people who spoke another language but who often didn’t write in any language at all. So the spellings were phonetic renditions from another language, which created ample opportunity for spelling variations.
Here are just a few of the French terms and phrases that you might encounter in a baptismal record, with English translations (but I’m too lazy to do numbers, which are easily google-able in any case):
FRENCH ENGLISH
janvier January
février February
mars March
avril April
mai May
juin June
juillet July
août August
septembre September
octobre October
novembre November
décembre December
nous prêtre soussigné we the undersigned priest
baptême baptism
baptisé (masculine) baptized (for a boy)
baptisée (feminine) baptized (for a girl)
né (masculine) born (for a boy)
née (feminine) born (for a girl)
du légitime marriage de of the legitimate marriage of
de parents inconnus of unknown parents
le parrain godfather
la marraine godmother
cette paroisse this parish
hier yesterday
avant-hier day before yesterday
la veille de day before
signer to sign
qui n’ont pu signer who could not sign
*Ste Anne (Calumet Island/Ile du Grand Calumet, Pontiac Co., Québec), Register of Baptisms and Marriages, 1846-1859, p. 143, George William Cahill B. 29, database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca/: accessed 26 April 2010), Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967.