Transcribing handwritten texts from the Shakespearean age
January 18, 2017 4:10 AM   Subscribe

Shakespeare's World is a collaboration between Zooniverse and the Folger Library's Early Modern Manuscripts Online project. On the Shakespeare's World website anyone can contribute transcriptions of bits of manuscripts from Shakespeare's time. The project benefits not only Shakespeare studies, but also historians of the early modern period and the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary. Roberta Kwok wrote an article about the project for the New Yorker.
posted by Kattullus (9 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
“We discovered by experiment that a Ph.D. student will only look at fifty thousand galaxies before they tell you what you can do with the rest of them,” Lintott said.

finally, an answer to the question of what do you do for free labor when even a graduate student rebels. "Anyone can contribute!" does sound better than "nobody gets paid," I guess. I guess.

various Smithsonian museums have a ton of these projects too, I've looked at a few. I actually do believe that the furthering of human knowledge is its own reward, and also that this stuff is kind of fun. just so you know I'm not a profit-driven transcription monster. but reliance on the amateur hobbyist with no need for compensation, even for not-so-urgent stuff like this, gets to me a bit.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:17 AM on January 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Oh great, now all I can hear in my head is

naNAa naNA na Naa na Na
Shakespeare's World
naNAa naNA na Naa na Na
Shakespeare's World
Transcribe a letter
that's really old
Thaaat's Shakespeare's World!
posted by rmless at 7:42 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

reliance on the amateur hobbyist with no need for compensation, even for not-so-urgent stuff like this, gets to me a bit.

Unpaid labor in the service of non-profit organizations with the goal of bettering society is often known as volunteerism, and is rarely thought of as exploitative.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:55 AM on January 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

Now, this makes me smile. Thank you.

I used to live on the margins of this world, for a little while, and I've sometimes wondered how I could get back.

In grad school and for a little while after, I helped transcribe Late Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Specifically, English translations of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy.

Our big project, which was eventually published by a university press, was John Bracegirdle's Psychopharmacon. Bracegirdle, Vicar of Rye, translated the whole of the Consolation into English in the most fascinating way. In Latin, the Consolation alternates between sections of prose and poetry, or "meters," a structure translators have handled in a wide variety of ways. Bracegirdle did something novel: the prose sections became blank verse, and the meters were transformed into a wonderful sampler of English prosodic resources.

Bracegirdle's is the longest and perhaps the most significant non-dramatic example of blank verse in English before Milton. His choice of the form to render the Consolation's narrative prose sections was mostly excellent, and he handles the line with dexterity.

In any case, about the transcription: a prof I knew acquired a microfilm of MS BL Additional 11401 from the British Library. This was in one of those cardboard boxes with a lid secured by a sepia-colored string you wrapped around a little disk secured by a tiny rivet. I miss those things. Anyway, by midnight requisition, we obtained an olden-style projector that could be modified to project a microfilm image, large and bright-enough, on the wall.

We began with a quick run-through of the whole thing, noting various points of interest, patterns, mysteries, etc, as prep for the slow journey ahead. This was about 1992-93, so we had Wordperfect 5.1 fired up. Then we simply proceeded, line by line, through the whole thing. One of us stood right on the edge of the projection and read aloud, while the other sat nearby, keyboard on lap, and watched and listened. At the end of each line, we'd trade quick notes about odd bits of orthography and so on, agree on a reading, and commit it to the doc. For sanity and voice-preservation reasons, we traded those tasks every few hours. Over time, we evolved lots of little systems for highlighting things that needed a second look, macros to hunt down various patterns and exceptions, and a style of reading aloud that must have sounded insane to passersby.

All the technical stuff like learning to read Elizabethan hands was, and remains, fascinating to me. But what I really took away from it was the bridge through time that a manuscript builds for us.

Spend hours - hundreds of hours - with a handwritten document, and you begin to feel you know the actual human who set it down. Given the two hands in the MS, it's possible or even likely Bracegirdle used an amenuensis in preparing his presentation copy. That made the connection even more poignant, in a way - someone once did exactly as we were doing: working from a handwritten source to create a fair copy. Even though I've never seen the original - half a continent and an ocean from that little office in Cedar Falls, Iowa - the microfilm was clear enough to see oddities in the hand, mistakes, second thoughts, smudges, and so on. It's a physical object over which another's mind and eyes and hands once passed. I think if I ever turn the pages of the manuscript itself, I might weep.

And then there was the experience itself of snowy mornings and sweltering afternoons spent in that darkened office, a little sunlight leaking through the blinds, the blue field on the monitor, the clackety-clack of the keyboard. The dopey pedantic jokes we made. The delight in my prof's voice as we discovered something together. (We fell out of touch years ago.) We had no illusions about our task - it wasn't the Hengwrt, after all. But even when it was sheer drudgery (and it sometimes was, especially after about the third time through) I had a sense that it was a singular experience, that I was lucky to be there, giving Bracegirdle, and by extension my old friend Boethius, a small but durable foothold in the millennium to come.

And the text my son sent me when he found the published edition in the university library was pretty sweet, too.
posted by Caxton1476 at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2017 [15 favorites]

Well this is extremely difficult. It seems impossible to contribute without formal training in how to read these.
posted by dilaudid at 9:12 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I studied paleography at the Folger and have done some of the recipe transcriptions on this site! I used to study early modern coook books and have held some of these books.

It is really difficult to do this without a little training and a lot of practice. Especially reading women's writing, because they were not formally trained in how to write and their spelling is often irregular, even by the standards of the day.
posted by apricot at 11:29 AM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Formal transcription is surprisingly difficult, regardless of the source. You wouldn't know this if you'd never done it, so it's great that projects like these give more people the opportunity. In certain situations, you are faced with complex dilemmas: do you transcribe what you see or what you think it should be? It's not always possible to be sure which you are doing. The output - the transcription - is not so much the text as a series of observations about the text, rendered through a very different writing system (there's no early-modern scribal abbreviations on my keyboard, although Unicode can handle some of them). What comes out the other end is an amalgamation of the text; what one wants others to read; and a sort of pen-portrait of the transcriber: your habits and abilities, how you felt at the time. It's a profoundly humanistic process.

For added interest and accuracy, transcribe the same text with someone else and compare.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:40 AM on January 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've done transcription on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. (They have mostly 19th Century handwriting, which still takes skill to read, but is a lot easier than what you get on Shakespeare's World, and some of the projects on the Smithsonian Transcription Center are typed materials.) It's extremely rewarding to finally decipher some bit of handwriting, and find out more about people and places of the past. At the same time, I know that my transcription will be available online to anyone, will now be searchable, and that it will be useful to people who can't read the old handwriting.

You can see a short talk on youtube by a Smithsonian Transcription Center volunteer transcriber Siobhan Leachman (she also does other projects elsewhere). She explains more eloquently than I can why she does it, and how to attract volunteers to these types of projects.
posted by gudrun at 2:54 PM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by Caxton1476 at 8:33 AM on January 18

That story and that username could not be more perfect together.
posted by not_the_water at 12:08 PM on January 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

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