French Letter Writing Guide

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Before You Write

Before you write a letter in French to obtain family history information, you should do these things:

  • Determine exactly where your ancestor was born, married, or died. Because most genealogical records were kept locally, you will need to know the specific town where your ancestor's records were kept. See the France Finding Town of Origin and Tracing Immigrant Origins FamilySearch Wiki article for help in finding hometowns.
  • Use a gazetteer to determine which community serves your ancestor's locality. Your town might be a village too small to have its own civil registration office or parish church. Gazetteers can tell you the larger town which holds jurisdiction over that village.
  • Many records for French-speaking countries are now online. For Wiki articles with direct links to online records, click on the France department, Belgium province, Luxembourg province, or Quebec county.
  • If you have access to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, determine if it has records from the area where your relative lived. The best sources of information in French-speaking areas are records of births, marriages, and deaths kept by civil registration offices or parishes. The library has microfilmed these records for many localities, but not all. They are currently being digitized with hopes of having everything digitized by 2020. Use the FamilySearch Catalog to determine what records are available through the Family History Library.

Research by Mail

Write only when you cannot find the information any other way. The following list shows the kind of information you may be able to obtain through correspondence from several kinds of organizations in French-speaking nations:

Genealogical Societies

Request that the letter be forwarded to a member interested in the same family, locality, or group of people.

Request a list of people who might consider making a short search of records in a nearby repository for pay.

Professional Researchers

Offer to pay a researcher for a search of records in a nearby repository.

Civil Registration Offices

Request a birth, marriage, or death certificate for a direct ancestor.

Departmental or Provincial Archives

Ask where the records of a specific town are kept and what dates the records cover.

Ask when their archives are open to the public.

Local Parishes

Request transcripts of baptism, marriage, or burial records.

Addressing the Envelope

Genealogical Societies

  • The book Genealogical Research Directory: National and International by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty lists the addresses of most genealogical societies in French-speaking nations (Sydney: Johnson and Sainty, 1993; Family History Library book 929.1025 G286grd1993).

Address the envelope to:

Monsieur le Président
(Name of the society)
(Address)
(Postal code) (Town)
(NATION)

Names and addresses of researchers for hire can be found in genealogical periodicals.

Civil registration offices

(France, Belgium, and Luxembourg only.) Address the envelope to:

Monsieur l'officier de l'état-civil
Mairie de (Town)
(Postal code) (Town)
France

France or Belgium Archives

Find archive addresses with the help of the International Council on Archives' International Directory of Archives (Archivum Series, vol. 38 [Munich: Saur, 1992].

Address the envelope to:

France

Monsieur le Directeur
Archives départementales
(Postal code) (Town)
FRANCE

Belgium

Monsieur le Directeur
Archives de la Province
(Postal code) (Town)

Local Parishes

Canada

Address the envelope to
Monsieur le Curé
(Town), Québec

Catholic Parishes

Monsieur l'Abbé
(Parish) see, see Catholic Directory
(Postal Code) (Town)
France (or Luxembourg or Belgium)

Postal Codes

When addressing your letter, you will need to write the postal (zip) code before the name of the town when writing to France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Write the postal code after the word "Canada" when writing to Quebec.

How to Send Money

  • You can arrange an international bank order through Western Union or MoneyGram.
  • Another recommended method: Simply telephone Ruesch International Financial Services at 800-424-2923. Ask for an international bank draft for the equivalent of $10 (or another amount) in either Canadian dollars or Belgian, Luxembourg, Swiss, or French francs. There is a $2 service charge. Have the check made payable to the organization you are contacting. Ruesch will give you a transaction number to write on your own payment check to them. Send the payment to:
Ruesch International Financial Services
International Division, 10th floor
1350 Eye Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

When they receive your payment, Ruesch will promptly send you a foreign currency draft (check) you can mail to Europe or Quebec.

  • When writing to a parish it is also a good idea to send a donation of $15 as a courtesy. Do not send a personal check, which is difficult and expensive to exchange. Cash is most easily converted to foreign currency, but there are always risks in sending cash. Consider using the international bank draft also for that purpose.
  • Some researchers do not send money when writing to a civil registration office, archive, researcher, or genealogical society for the first time. These organizations may prefer to bill you for their services. Some may ask you to make the check payable to their account number. If you want, you may write an institution to determine their fees before making a request. However, this will significantly increase the time it takes to get information.

What to Expect

It may take six months or longer for you to receive a reply to your request for information (airmail improves the response time). The results of writing to civil registration offices (or parishes in Quebec) can vary greatly. You may get more information than requested, or you may get no answer at all. Some will not answer until money is sent. Some may be unable to provide information.

Because some information is not easily obtained by writing directly to a registrar (or priest in Quebec), you may need to hire a local private researcher. We suggest that you inquire about a competent local researcher when you write.

When you receive a reply, send a note of thanks or acknowledgement. You may wish to do this in a follow-up letter requesting further information. Refer to your earlier letter and their return letter by date. If they have assigned you a reference number, include that number as well.

Use French-English dictionaries to help you understand the reply. Sometimes you can hire accredited genealogists to translate for you.

If you do not receive an answer, write again sending a copy of your first letter. Do not send more money unless you verify that your first letter did not arrive.

How to Write a Letter in French

  • Your letter should include the following:
    • the date (at the top)
    • the name and address of the addressee
    • a greeting
    • a short, specific, genealogical request
    • identification details about the ancestor
    • a comment about return postage (and sometimes reimbursement)
    • closing remarks
    • your signature
    • your return address (including your country)
  • Be brief and simple. Do not ask for more than one or two pieces of information in a single letter.
  • The following English-to-French translations will help you compose your letter. 'Do not use this guide as the letter itself! That might insult the recipient and lessen the chance of a reply.
  • Read the sentences in English and choose those that best express what you want to say. Alternative phrases are shown in parentheses ( ).
  • Be sure that your sentences are arranged logically. You may want to write your letter first in English using the following sentences, then replace the sentences with their French translations. *However you proceed, make sure you type or neatly print your letter and, when necessary, add any diacritical marks and special characters (such as à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, ö, û, ù) with a pen.

Gender

Three of the words in the French translations need to match your gender. The words are intéressé(e), obligé(e), and reconnaissant(e). The feminine ending is listed in parentheses. If you are a man, use intéressé, obligé, and reconnaissant. If you are a woman, use intéressée, obligée, and reconnaissante.

Writing Dates

Write dates in the European style: day-month-year. Write the name of the month out and write the year in full. For example, write 10 décembre 1889, not 12-10-89 or even 10-12-1889.

January

janvier
February février
March mars
April avril
May mai
June juin
July
juillet
August août
September septembre
October octobre
November novembre
December décembre

Letter to a Genealogical Society

Many genealogical societies can be contacted by e-mail. This will save postage costs for both you and them.

English

French

1. Dear President:

1. Monsieur le Président,

2. My ancestor (fill in ancestor's name) emigrated from your region in (fill in year).

2. Mon ancêtre (fill in ancestor's name) a quitté votre région vers (fill in year).
3. (He) (She) was from (fill in the town). 3. (ll) (Elle) venait de (fill in the town).
4. (He was born) (She was born) about (fill in date). 4. (Il est né) (Elle est née) environ (fill in date).
5. I have not been able to identify this place which appears to be in your area. Perhaps I do not have the correct spelling. Do you have any suggestions? 5. Il ne m'a pas été possible d'identifier ce lieu exact d'origine dans votre région. Peut-être que l'orthographe a été déformée. Auriez-vous quelque recommandation à ce sujet?
6. The spelling of the surname, (fill in surname), is not certain. What is the likely spelling in your area? 6. L'orthographe de ce patronyme, (fill in surname), n'est pas certaine. Pourriez-vous suggérer les orthographes possibles pour votre région?
7. Could you tell me if the surname (fill in the surname) is common in your area? Is there a member of your group who is studying that surname or the families in (fill in the town)? Would you kindly forward my letter to that person? 7. Pourriez-vous me dire si le nom de famille (fill in the surname) existe dans votre région? Y a-t-il un membre de votre groupe qui étudie ce nom ou les familles de (fill in the town)? Voudriez-vous être assez aimable pour lui acheminer ma lettre?
8. Do you have a list of people who are willing to do research for a fee? 8. Avez-vous une liste de personnes qui se chargent de faire des recherches rémunérées?
9. Is there a periodical published by your association? Please tell me the conditions and benefits of subscription and how to run a genealogical query. 9. Est-ce que votre association publie une revue ? Quelles sont les conditions et les avantages de souscription et comment pourrais-je insérer une question dans la revue?
10. With my greatest thanks, please accept my sincere greetings.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

10. Avec mes plus grands remerciements, je vous prie d'agréer, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

Letter to Professional Researcher

English

French

1. Dear (Sir:) (Madam:) 1. (Monsieur,) (Madame,)
2. I need the help of a genealogist for some research. I would be very grateful if you would send me your rate and conditions, including traveling expenses if necessary. 2. J'ai besoin de l'aide d'un généalogiste pour quelques recherches. Je vous serais très obligé(e) de bien vouloir m'envoyer votre tarif et conditions, y compris bien entendu, frais de déplacements éventuels.
3. Can I write to you in English? 3. Puis-je vous écrire en anglais?
4. Please find enclosed a family group sheet with all the information I have. 4. Veuillez trouver ci-joint une feuille de groupement de famille avec toutes les informations que je possède.
5. Would you be able to research the ancestors (of the husband)? (of the wife?) (of both spouses?) 5. Pensez-vous que vous pourriez rechercher les ancêtres (de l'époux?) (de l'épouse?) (des époux?)
6. I would like to find all the children of each family as well as the children's death dates when they died under the age of eight years. 6. Je désire avoir tous les enfants de chaque famille trouvée, ainsi que les décès des enfants morts en dessous de huit ans.
7. The marriages of the children interest me also. 7. Les mariages des enfants m'intéressent aussi.
8. I am not interested in the marriages of the children except for the direct line. 8. Les mariages des enfants ne m'intéressent pas excepté la lignée directe.
9. I do not need a complete transcription of each document but a short transcription of the genealogical information found in the documents and the source of information. 9. Je n'ai pas besoin de transcription complète des documents mais simplement une transcription des informations généalogiques trouvées dans chaque document avec la source d'information.
10. Please complete the family group sheets and do not worry about transcribing the documents. 10. Veuillez compléter des fiches familiales sans vous inquiéter de transcrire les documents.
11. If I use your services, it is my intention to pay you with a draft in converted currency. Please tell me the name to write on the draft. 11. Si je décide d'employer vos services, je compte vous payer par mandat international en monnaie de votre pays. Veuillez bien me dire le nom de la personne à qui le mandat doit être libellé.
12. Awaiting your answer, (Sir.) (Madam.)


Sincerely,

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

12. Dans l'attente de votre réponse, je vous prie de croire, (Monsieur.) (Madame.), à l'expression de mes sincères salutations.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

Letter to Civil Registration Office

English

French

1. Dear Civil Registrar: 1. Monsieur l'officier de l'état-civil,
2. I would be very grateful if you would send me a complete copy of the (birth) (marriage) (death) certificate of (fill in relationship).

Relationship choices:

my father
my mother
my grandfather
my grandmother
my great-grandfather
my great-grandmother
my parents
my grandparents
my great-grandparents
one of my male ancestors
one of my female ancestors
2. Je vous serais très obligé(e) de bien vouloir m'envoyer, si possible, la copie intégrale de l'acte de (naissance) (mariage) (décès) de (fill in relationship).

Relationship choices in French:

mon père
ma mère
mon grand-père
ma grand-mère
mon arrière grand-père
mon arrière grand-mère
mes parents
mes grands-parents
mes arrière grands-parents
d'un de mes ancêtres
d'une de mes ancêtres
3. (Supply pertinent information)
a. Given name and surname:
b. Date of birth:
c. Place of birth:
d. Father's given name and surname:
e. Mother's given name and maiden surname:
f. Husband's given name and surname:
g. Wife's given name and maiden surname:
h. Date of marriage:
i. Place of marriage:
j. Date of death:
k. Place of death:
3. (French labels for information items)
a. Prénom et nom:
b. Date de naissance:
c. Lieu de naissance:
d. Prénom et nom de son père:
e. Prénom et nom de jeune fille de sa mère:
f. Prénom et nom de son mari:
g. Prénom et nom de jeune fille de sa femme:
h. Date de mariage:
i. Lieu de mariage:
j. Date de décès:
k. Lieu de décès:
4. With my greatest thanks, please accept my sincere greetings.

(Your signature)

(fill in your name and address)

4. Avec mes plus grands remerciements, je vous prie d'agréer, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

Letter to a Departmental or Provincial Archive

English

French

1. Dear Director: 1. Monsieur le Directeur,
2. Do you have the civil and parish registers for the town of (fill in town name)? For which years? 2. Possédez-vous les registres d'état-civil et paroissiaux de (fill in town name) ? Pour quelles années ?
3. Are there other years available somewhere else? 3. Existe-t-il d'autres années consultables en mairie?
4. Please tell me the days and hours that you will be open during the month of (fill in the month). (See page 3 for names of the months. Use d' in front of avril, août, and octobre.) 4. Voudriez-vous bien m'indiquer les heures et jours ouvrables pendant le mois (de) (d') (fill in the month). (Use d' in front of avril, août, and octobre; use de in front of the other months.)
5. Could you send me the name and address of a person who could do research for me? 5. Pourriez-vous m'envoyer les nom et adresse d'une personne qui pourrait faire une recherche pour moi?
6. Could you send me the name and address of the genealogical association for your region? 6. Pourriez-vous m'envoyer le nom et l'adresse de l'Association généalogique de votre région?
7. With my greatest thanks, please accept my sincere greetings.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

7. Avec mes plus grands remerciements, je vous prie d'agréer, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

Letter to a Local Priest

English

French

1. Dear Parish Priest: 1. Monsieur le Curé,
2. I am researching ancestors, and I would be very grateful for any information which you could find in your registers on my family. 2. Je suis en train d'effectuer des recherches sur mes ancêtres et je vous serais très obligé(e) pour toute information que vous pourriez trouver dans vos registres sur ma famille.
3. (Supply pertinent information)
a. Given name and surname:
b. Date of birth:
c. Place of birth:
d. Father's given name and surname:
e. Mother's given name and maiden surname:
f. Husband's given name and surname:
g. Wife's given name and maiden surname:
h. Date of marriage:
i. Place of marriage:
j. Date of death:
k. Place of death:
3. (French labels for pertinent information)
a. Prénom et nom:
b. Date de naissance:
c. Lieu de naissance:
d. Prénom et nom de son père:
e. Prénom et nom de jeune fille de sa mère:
f. Prénom et nom de son mari:
g. Prénom et nom de jeune fille de sa femme:
h. Date de mariage:
i. Lieu de mariage:
j. Date de décès:
k. Lieu de décès:
4. Could you trace my ancestors back to the previous generation? 4. Pourriez-vous remonter mes ancêtres à la génération précédente ?
5. I would like more information on the family of (fill in the person's name). I would be very grateful if you could obtain the names and birth dates of his/her brothers and sisters as well as the marriage of their parents. 5. Je voudrais davantage d'information sur la famille de (fill in the person's name). Je vous serais très reconnaissant(e) si vous pouviez obtenir les noms et dates de naissance de ses frères et soeurs ainsi que le mariage des parents.
6. Please find enclosed $15 for reply postage and donation to your parish. Let me know the balance owed you. 6. Veuillez trouver ci-joint 15 dollars pour les frais de réponse et une donation à votre paroisse. S'il vous plaît, veuillez bien me dire la balance qui vous est due.
7. With my greatest thanks, please accept my sincere greetings.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

7. Avec mes plus grands remerciements, je vous prie d'agréer, monsieur le curé, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

(Your signature)

(Fill in your name and address)

Follow-up

English

French

1. Thank you for the information you sent on (fill in date). 1. Je vous remercie pour les informations que vous m'avez fait parvenir (fill in date).
2. I need further information about one of the individuals you mentioned in your letter: (fill in name). 2. J'ai besoin d'informations supplémentaires sur (fill in name) que vous mentionnez dans votre lettre.
3. I am very grateful for the information that you had the kindness to send me. I take the liberty to impose again on your kindness and ask you to please send me the complete copy of the (birth) (marriage) (death) certificate of (fill in name). 3. Je vous suis très reconnaissant(e) pour les informations que vous avez eu la gentillesse de m'envoyer. Je me permets d'abuser de nouveau de votre amabilité pour vous demander de bien vouloir m'envoyer la copie intégrale de l'acte de (naissance) (mariage) (décès) de (fill in name).
4. I requested a certificate from you on (fill in date). See the enclosed photocopy. Perhaps you did not receive the request. I am still interested in obtaining this certificate. Please inform me how much I should send you. 4. Je vous ai écrit le (fill in date) vous demandant de bien vouloir m'envoyer un acte d'état-civil. Veuillez trouver ci-joint la photocopie de ma lettre que vous semblez ne pas avoir reçue. Je suis toujours intéressé(e) à recevoir ce document. S'il vous plaît veuillez bien m'aviser de la somme à vous envoyer.
5. I am enclosing a copy of a letter I sent you on (fill in date). Please write and tell me if you can do this research. 5. Je vous joins une copie de la lettre que je vous ai envoyée le (fill in date). Je vous serais reconnaissant(e) si vous pouviez me contacter et me faire savoir si vous pouvez faire cette recherche.

Example Letter

[Date] 20 juillet 1994

[Addressee] Monsieur l'officier de l'état-civil
Mairie de Nulle Part
67999 Quelque Part
FRANCE

[Greeting] Monsieur l'officier de l'état-civil,

[Genealogical Request] Je vous serais très obligée de bien vouloir m'envoyer la copie intégrale de l'acte de naissance de mon arrière grand-père.

Prénom et nom: Jacob BELLER

Date de naissance: 19 novembre 1857

Lieu de naissance: Nulle Part, Bas-Rhin, France

Prénom et nom de jeune fille de sa femme: Anna ZIMMERMAN

Date de mariage: 19 janvier 1882

Lieu de mariage: Fairbury, Livingston, Illinois, USA

[Closing] Avec mes plus grands remerciements, je vous prie d'agréer, Monsieur, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

[Signature]

[Return Address] Jane Doe
674 "Q" Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84103
USA