3 Translation Tips for Foreign-Language Captions on Old Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Ann Sandler’s mother-in-law left behind a mystery photo.

The family doesn’t know who’s in the photo and they can’t read the caption on the back. It’s in a language they don’t recognize.


Many immigrant families brought with them images of family and friends they’d left behind. Without the translation, the details in this picture and in the family history don’t add up. Here’s what’s known:

  • 1910 appears on the back of the photo. This man’s clothing clues—collar, suit and mustache—agree with that time period.
  • The name of the photographer is on the mat. A general Google search for “Makart Portrait” found a 19th-century Austrian painter of the same name. Hans Markart, the painter, died in 1884. Perhaps this photographer was a relative.
  • The mother-in-law’s family wasn’t from Austria. They immigrated from Poltava, Russia, in 1910. There are approximately 800 miles between Poltava and Vienna. Perhaps this young man was studying in Vienna.

Is the date on the photo a coincidence? Probably not, but clues are hidden in the foreign script. What can you do when faced with foreign writing on a photo?


  • Try Google Translate. You can type words into the translator or upload a PDF or Word document.
  • If you can identify the language, find someone who knows it (such as at a research library affiliated with a heritage museum, through an ethnic genealogical society, or through an such as the Association of Professional Genealogists).
  • You can post it on Facebook or on your blog in the hope that someone can read it. That’s why I need your help: If you can translate this caption, it’ll help Ann place this photo in her family history. Feel free to share this post to reach more people.

Can’t wait to discover what this says. Let’s solve this mystery!

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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