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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Lost in translation

After writing about some mysterious spelling changes of surnames for my last 52 Ancestors blog, I went on to think about those who changed their name deliberately in order to fit in better after emigration or migration to a different language-speaking area.

I’ve written previously about a small group of British citizens – all sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons of German immigrants – who fought in the British Army in WWI and who made a conscious decision at the time either to keep or to change their original surname. If even many of those who were engaged in the armed forces found it preferable to adopt an Anglo-Saxon surname, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise how awkward it must have been for other recent immigrants and their descendants, and unsurprisingly the London Gazette published dozens (if not hundreds) of announcements of name changes for British families with German origins during the war years.

Although Swiss citizens were obviously neutrals in 1914, one of my husband’s relatives who moved to Canada just before WWI still decided to modify his name from von Allmen to d’Allmen in order to sound less Germanic.

While these families might well have retained their original surnames without the pressure of anti-German sentiment due to the war, others chose to change it at the time of emigration or soon afterwards.

How did they choose their new surname? Three possibilities:

· Translation

· “Sounds like”

· Other…

An obvious way of adapting a surname to a new country was to translate it, thus Meunier became Miller, Lebrun and Braun became Brown and - my favourite - Rübsamen became Turnipseed. (Anecdotally this method seems to have been particularly popular with early emigrants.)

Most of my WWI examples chose a surname which loosely resembled their original name: Giesenberg became Gee, Rosenberg became Rossiter, Klingenstein became Kay, Frankenstein became Frank, and so forth.

I spent a long time searching for my distant cousin Lucy Dowding, who married a naturalised German emigrant named Harold Julius Jäger, a doctor who acted for many years as a police surgeon in London. They seemed to disappear from England after the 1911 census, and I theorised that they might have returned to Germany until I rediscovered them under the name Broughton – Lucy’s mother’s maiden name! They could easily have translated their surname to Hunter or adopted a vaguely similar name such as Jagger or Jackson, but for some reason they chose another option.

My husband is Swiss, and part of his family migrated from the German-speaking canton of Bern to the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel. It was relatively uncommon for migrants to modify their surname, but a very distant von Allmen relative who migrated in the early 1700s (long before our own branch) became known as Ducommun-dit-l’Allemand. (Our surname means “from the common pastures” and would be something like Meadows or Green in English.)

Among our first- and second-generation Swiss migrant relatives it’s much more common to find children baptised/registered with the German version of their forenames when they were actually known by the French version (or vice versa). Fortunately these aren’t usually very hard to work out: Marie/Maria, Pierre/Peter, Henri/Heinrich etc are pretty obvious, in the same vein as Latin names in older parish registers.

The one forename which threw us was my husband’s 3x great-uncle Ullrich von Allmen, known after migration as Louis. The names are totally unrelated, and we couldn’t work it out until an older relative pointed out that the familiar form of Ullrich (used by his family) was Ueli, which French-speakers would have heard/interpreted as Louis…

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