Prompted by the work I’m doing on the Wycliffite Bible project, I’m going to throw some thoughts at the wall and see if any stick.

Transcription is a significant part of the project work at the moment: an early step in the process of editing. In fact it’s how my first day started after an initial meeting and learning how to make a cup of tea in the faculty kitchen. Transcription was also a significant feature of my work for my DPhil thesis—I was handling, and sometimes quoting from, a lot of unpublished, unphotographed material. (Because if you work on the most successful English poem before print the rise of digital facsimiles hasn’t done much for access—but this is a topic for another time.)

Transcription’s a skill. We’re taught it, or have to teach ourselves, or muddle our way to grasping it through some combination of the two. On the MSt course here the palaeography exam requires you to transcribe and (roughly) date manuscripts from images. My interview for my current job began with a timed transcription test: how much of these two pages from different manuscripts can you transcribe accurately in ten minutes each? More broadly, transcription’s an activity which underpins editing and calendaring, or in other words it’s necessary for the things which are necessary for pretty a lot of the other work carried out by medievalists.

Transcription is already an abstracting, interpreting process. And transcription for editing is not very diplomatic: many features of the manuscript page go overboard. At least, that’s what you get in the ‘finished’ transcription of the copy text. I’m trying to save files which preserve things like manuscript punctuation for my own study.

The transcriptions in my thesis were slavishly diplomatic. Partly, being slavishly diplomatic had a rhetorical value, of course. Without being cynical about it, I suspected, and still suspect, that it’s good to demonstrate to your examiners an ability to be rigorous and slightly obsessive about manuscript features. That helps to license moments of speculation and more playful acts of close reading elsewhere. But that slavishness was also genuinely valuable and I think appropriate to the questions I addressed.

Even obsessively diplomatic transcription is sacrificial, however. Transcription can’t take ‘being a facsimile’ as its ultimate aspiration. We have facsimiles for that! In any transcription we give up a great deal of things. We destroy multiplicity, we remove colour, we strip away a whole cluster of scribal habits, shape, illustration, we impose anachronistic orderings and classifications. This observation could be a trite ‘gotcha’: why bother with evidence at all, &c &c. But I don’t think that’s right. We sacrifice things in order to put other things in front of the reader, or in order to provide workable evidence for some other scholarly procedure. And sacrificing these things is not a judgement that in other contexts they are unimportant. If I may misappropriate and misuse a quote, ‘forgetting is just as necessary as remembering.’†

Thinking more broadly about the distortions, omissions and alterations inherent in the process of editing, I’m tempted to suggest, rather cheekily, that some book producers might welcome these processes. Most scribes themselves fought against variation with all the limited resources at their disposal and they left messages asking for correction (as did writers). And in many manuscripts’ cases at least one person must have wanted the text to be disseminated—though we know from occsaional complaints about the dullness of their material that scribes didn’t always share the sentiment! So perhaps many book producers would be pleased by the idea that, centuries later, their work is being used to enhance our knowledge of the texts they laboured over.

We’re lucky enough to live in an age where, more than ever before, we don’t have to choose between, on the one hand, establishing the ‘probable truth’, a stab at reconstructing something closer to the authors’ text, and, on the other hand, recognising and making available the processes of accidental variation and deliberate reconfiguration evidenced in the surviving manuscripts. Editorial decisions aren’t bad in and of themselves. The trick is to take them seriously, keep them in mind and be explicit about them.

(A friend suggested I append some advice about transcription tests. In my experience, the key to success in transcription under pressure is to prepare properly, and then to manage your mind. The worst, most panicky part is that initial moment of contact with a new manuscript when it seems unreadable. Ignore this feeling. Even highly experienced palaeographers sometimes run into this when encountering an unfamiliar manuscript (I’ve asked). Within seconds one’s eyes begin to ‘tune in’, and I recommend reading through whatever you have to transcribe without writing anything first. Everything will then be much clearer.)

† Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953), 396.

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2 Responses to Transcription

  1. Pingback: What are we going to do about the ‘dull’ books? » Daniel Sawyer

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