Decoding difficult handwriting
Thread poster: Keziah Cooper

Keziah Cooper
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:31
French to English
Apr 27, 2015


Firstly, I'm sorry if this is posted in the wrong place - I had a good look around but I'm new to proz, so if this is an inappropriate post for this forum I'm sorry!

I'm translating some letters from French to English at the moment, and they're all quite old, and messily handwritten in ink which has spread and seeped into the page a bit. Unfortunately, I'm having trouble reading about 1 in 5 words - the handwriting style is messy but also unusual, with some capitals in the middle of words, some words squashed at the end of a line, and some words which just look like squiggles!

I was wondering if anyone knows any good resources for learning to read bad handwriting, or any strategies you use? I've googled it and found a few websites, but they tend to be explaining how to read French handwriting in general, rather than messy handwriting.

If anyone has any ideas I'd be very grateful!

Best wishes,


Lori Cirefice  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:31
French to English
Some ideas Apr 28, 2015

Hopefully the surrounding context will help you, and you can also try these hints I found on the web:

"Comparez la façon dont les mêmes lettres et chiffres sont écrits. Si une ou deux lettres sont difficiles à lire, cherchez les mêmes lettres dans des mots connus qui peuvent être lus."

You might want to get some help from native French people, perhaps someone from a generation close to the time when the letters were written, if that's possible, and there are no confidentiality issues?


Kalyanasundar subramaniam
Local time: 00:01
Tamil to English
+ ...
Decoding difficult handwriting Apr 28, 2015

Scan and make the hand written document as a PDF file. Please ensure the scan quality is good. Then zoom the words that are not legible one by one to a size, where it does not blur and you can make them out. From my experience most illegible words can be understood by zooming it to any size between 150 to 200 % in Adobe Acrobat. Once magnified the contours of each alphabet in words would be clear and can be deciphered with reasonable accuracy.In case you have doubt over some words, based on the context you can almost find out the word or ask some experts in French and get it clarified.


Local time: 19:31
Italian to English
it takes practice Apr 28, 2015

I know this isn't really answering your question, but I think deciphering old handwriting is a skill you acquire over time. I am sure you have already made great strides and know that a certain heavy squiggle means a certain letter combination. There are also people who specialize in reading old documents in various libraries and archives who might be able to give you a hand or at least some pointers. If it is a matter of just puzzling through, consider posting images of snippets of some of your problems in this thread and there may be quite a few eyeballs willing to give it a go.


Triston Goodwin  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:31
Spanish to English
+ ...
Photoshop? Apr 28, 2015

I'm not sure how helpful this will be, but what I do is upload the image (I usually work with scanned pdfs) to Photoshop, where I can clean up the image a little.

The process I follow is to:

Erase the background to get a clear view of the text

Straighten the text out and, if blotchy, you can select the text, move the selection line inward (the "marching ants" ^_^) and delete the outside of the text, which helps highlight the letters a little more clearly.

After that, I really just depend on the context and, should that not be enough, a well placed [Illegible] will do the trick.


Keziah Cooper
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:31
French to English
Thank you! May 2, 2015

Thank you - these are all such helpful ideas! I sat with a friend yesterday and painstakingly went through every scrawl and we have most of them down and the missing bits can mostly be understood through context. I've also sent it to an elderly relative who speaks French - thank you for that advice! I think the client is ok with it, but I've got 3 more to do so this advice will be very useful!

Thanks again,


LEXpert  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:31
Member (2008)
Croatian to English
+ ...
Cryptological approach May 2, 2015

I approach it as a codebreaker might...
Anything that appears within an actual context (as opposed to isolated scribbles) can usually be deciphered based on what it is surrounded by and focusing on the most likely options for the subject matter and the language. If you have enough text as a sample, you can usually find the same scribble somewhere else in the text but hopefully in a more legible context.

The suggestion to ask a native speaker is a good one. Generally, native speakers seem more adept at reading handwriting than nonnatives.


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Decoding difficult handwriting

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