Food for Thought

March 11, 2018 at 9:52 am (books, research) (, , )

In A Guide to Documentary Editing (an online source!), by Mary-Jo Kline and Susan Holbrook Perdue, a chapter concerns “Transcribing the Source Text”. With few exceptions, I have done all transcribing myself — from tiny diaries the size of my hand to letters crossed so densely that deciphering became a real struggle.

As you might imagine, work done in the spring months of 2007 – working at the Archives (mainly, the Hampshire Record Office) with the actual documents – all the names and places were new; and Emma’s diaries (for example) mention a literal “community” of so many different people. A true “cast of thousands”.

But the one thing I’ve always been quite decided on: transcribe what you see. So I include crossings out as word(s) crossed out, insertions with an indication of what words were inserted; and I keep track of the organization on the page: be it paragraphing, pagination, crossed sections or additional correspondents on the same letter.

Obviously, I’ve gotten to know the “players” far better than I did then (ie, ten years ago).

So well do I know the main cast of characters, when someone once contacted me about a letter written to “Dear Ivy” I _really_ had no clue who the recipient might be. The letter existed only in transcription, and that done many years before, no access to the original letter by the transcriber (never mind me).

Only when another letter turned up, by which time, having read the contents, did the shoe drop: Ivy was actually Liz – which WAS a known person: Lady Elizabeth Compton. But, not knowing the people, the transcriber took the descending stroke of the last letter as a ‘y’ and the rest morphed into Ivy.

Another letter carries a similar story. This one WAS present in manuscript, but the name of the signature had been guessed at. The moment I saw the signature, the name told me exactly who it was: The woman who wished (with all her heart) that Maria Smith would consent to the marriage proposal of the woman’s son. (Which she did NOT do.)

And names are probably the HARDEST part of transcribing. A word, even if misspelled in the original, can be puzzled out; a name … unless you can track it down, an unknown name remains the longest with a question mark next to it.

signature_mary austen

So what REALLY grabbed my attention in “Documentary Editing” was the following section, before which was a discussion of keeping track of how the transcription is to be accomplished so that all transcribers do the work with the same constructs in place:

Theoretical as well as practical considerations argue for a careful record of transcription methods. Even solo editors responsible for their own transcribing are well advised to keep such a log, for transcribing sources is a learning process. As the editor-transcriber moves through the collection, he or she will inevitably learn to recognize meaning in patterns of inscription that earlier seemed meaningless or baffling. Only by keeping track of their hard-won knowledge of what matters and how it is to be translated can editors hope to be consistent or accurate. Drawing on her experience as the editor of Mary Shelley’s letters, Betty T. Bennett has suggested that “the transcription of the letters by the editor” be considered a “requisite standard” for all editors of correspondence. She points out that “the act of transcribing the letters may be one of the most valuable tools the editor has for reviewing the subject. In transcribing word after word, one comes as close to the act of writing the letters as possible and can consider words as they unfold into a thought” (“The Editor of Letters as Critic: A Denial of Blameless Neutrality,” 217).

That last section REALLY speaks to me! I’ve long said I prefer to _do_ the transcribing (which means a literal backlog of diaries and letters to do), but what a poetic way to think: that in transcribing one is close to “the act of writing the letters”.

Must admit, I’ve usually had thoughts (especially in those I struggled to decipher) more along the lines of how did they read this letter; must have been a sunny day… Or they handed it off to someone with good eyesight!

I’m luckier than most, as only in the diaries of Charles Joshua Smith (Emma’s brother, Mary’s husband) have I come across erratic spelling, contracted names and general words. Thankfully, I had just transcribed his wife’s diaries – so I had learned a lot about the family, their business, their concerns, their friends and neighbors.


Mary Smith’s neat hand

Otherwise, letters carry the usual: would, could, should, with the first letter and a superscripted (often underlined) ending ‘d’; dear often followed the same rule. Xtian for Christian. You get the drift.

One thing that struck me, back in 2007: the usage by this English family of what I (an American) would think of as “American” spelling: neighbor rather than neighbour, for instance. But the speller and the auto-correct were not fans of words like ‘chearful’ (I got into the habit of [sic] just in case the auto-correction wasn’t caught AND it told me NOT to correct it, when I later read thru the text).

This chapter, “Documentary Editing,” also mentions something of interest to Jane Austen and her editor R.W. Chapman: “For a compelling discussion of the need to remember the effect of punctuation on oral patterns, see Kathryn Sutherland’s review of Chapman’s editions of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.” This followed a section on being attentive to prior-century usage, words, phrasing, creative spellings, etc. and the need NOT to “correct” what may in fact NOT be a “mistake.” [If I find more on Sutherland’s ‘review’, I’ll put up a link.]




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