Transcription for the computer is a fundamentally interpretative activity, composed of a series of acts of translation from one system of signs (that of the manuscript) to another (that of the computer). Accordingly, our transcripts are best judged on how useful they will be for others, rather than as an attempt to achieve a definitive transcription of these manuscripts. Will the distinctions we make in these transcripts and the information we record provide a base for work by other scholars? How might our transcripts be improved, to meet the needs of scholars now and to come?
Accordingly, transcription of a primary textual source cannot be regarded as an act of substitution, but as a series of acts of translation from one semiotic system (that of the primary source) to another semiotic system (that of the computer). Like all acts of translation, it must be seen as fundamentally incomplete and fundamentally interpretative.
First, however, we must make clear that by “transcription” we mean the effort to report—insofar as typography allows—precisely what the textual inscription of a manuscript consists of. Obviously a transcription cannot exactly reproduce the relative precision or carelessness with which handwritten letters are formed, or their relative sizes, or the amount of space between words and lines; but it can aim to record every ink or pencil marking of textual significance on the manuscript—all letters, punctuation, superscripts, canceled matter, lines linking or excising passages, and so on. Judgment is necessarily involved in deciding what is in fact present, as when an ambiguously formed character resembles two different letters; but the transcriber’s goal is to make an informed decision about what is actually inscribed at each point. This definition of transcription will seem obvious to many people; the reason we make a point of insisting on it is that numerous discussions of the subject, including some of the most influential, allow for making certain classes of alteration when transcribing manuscript texts, as if a conscious program of alteration is compatible with the concept of transcription.
Transcription is the seemingly simple conversion of handwriting into print, a presumably mechanical matter. But the manuscript text before mee soon became an object that defied perception. Such a vexatious ‘not-me’ challenges our self-satisfied assurances that text-objects are definable, much less interpretable. […] In deciphering this and other scribbles, one has no recourse but to speculate upon intended meanings, to take leaps. Not only did I find that I had to take leaps to identify words, I also found myself hypothesizing about hidden words suggested by ‘false starts’ or partially executed words on the manuscript page, and partially or totally obscured words lurking beneath cancellation lines. And with a myriad of cancellations and insertions on each manuscript page, aI also confronted the issue of revision and the sequence of Melville’s revisions. The difficulty of ‘mere’ transcription gave me new insight into the problematic physicality of words.
Transcription is the clear (and publishable) transposition of deciphered, “restored” manuscripts and their major characteristics. It is accomplished thanks to a code that allows the situation (linear, interlinear, marginal, etc.) to appear along with the status (written, added, crossed out, added and then crossed out, etc.).
To use the TEI approach you need to believe in transcription. It is impossible for a transcription to reproduce the original object; it is always a selection of features from that object: the words but not their size on the page or the depth of the chisel marks, major changes in type style but not variations in the ink’s darkness from page to page or over time. Features that seem essential for a particular transcription can be encoded; what’s impossible is notating everything. And it may be that the creation of a digital description of a feature has little value for analysis: what you really want may just be the opportunity to see an image of the original, if the limitations of digital images are less damaging in your case than the limitations of transcription. A transcription might be regarded more as an index of words in page images than as a reasonable working representation of the text in works intended as mixtures of words and images and in very complex draft manuscripts where the sequence of text or inscription is difficult to make.
the term transcription is used with sometimes widely different meanings. […] In the context of scholarly editing, Vander Meulen and Tanselle (1999) offer the following definition:
… by transcription we mean the effort to report—insofar as typography allows— precisely what the textual inscription of a manuscript consists of. (p. 201)
If understood literally, this definition might seem to take transcription to denote an act (the ‘effort to report’). However, the term is just as frequently used, also by Vander Meulen and Tanselle in the article just quoted, to denote the product of that act, that is, a document. Elsewhere, the term is not infrequently used to refer to the relationship between documents—one document may be said to be a transcription of another document.
In general, one document (the transcription, T) is said to be a transcription of another document (the exemplar, E) if T was copied out from E with the intent, successfully achieved, of providing a faithful representation of a text as witnessed in E. Often the purpose is to make some representation which is easier to use than E is. For example, T may be easier for modern eyes to read, or easier to duplicate. Or T may be able to travel while E cannot.
T is a transcription of E if and only if:
(1) E and T are documents. (It follows that E and T each contain marks.)
(2) A reading of a document interprets the marks in that document as instantiating a sequence of types:
(a) The reading identifies some marks as constituting tokens.
(b) The reading assigns a total order to the tokens.
(c) With each token it identifies in the document, the reading associates a type.
(d) The sequence of tokens, taken together with the token–type mapping, generates a sequence of types.
(3) Some reading of E and some reading of T exist, which generate the same sequence of types.
Cela dit, nous considérons qu’il est très souhaitable de doter une édition génétique de transcriptions pour les trois raisons suivantes: 1) dans les cas des manuscrits d’écrivains, souvent mal calligraphiés, la transcription diplomatique ou linéarisée est une ‘stratégie de facilitation’, un instrument qui permet un accès plus confortable au texte, même s’il ne dispense pas du recours ou fac-similé pour appréhender les éléments graphiques (tracé, disposition de l’écriture sur la page, dessins, etc.) qui peuvent contribuer à expliquer la genèse; 2) l’existence d’une transcription linéarisée permet d’exploiter toutes les possibilités de recherche textuelle, depuis la simple recherche de mots jusqu’aux recherches sémantiques de type linguistique, génétique ou autre, surtout dans le cas où le texte transcrit a été balisé de manière appropriée; 3) d’un point de vue théorique il me semble souhaitable que, en plus du fac-similé et d’une transcription diplomatique, l’édition génétique offre également non seulement une transcription linéarisée, mais un véritable texte critique.
As already discovered by Huitfeldt and Sperberg-McQueen (2008, 296) the term transcription has been used to denote both an act (the act of transcribing) and also ‘the product of that act, that is, a document‘, or even ‘the relationship between documents – one document may be said to be a transcription of another document’. This ambiguity has lead to some confusion in the literature. Meulen and Tanselle (1999) have used the word transcription in opposition to critical text as possible parts of an edition (203). Similarly Gabler (2007) seems to imply that transcriptions and diplomatic editions are the same thing, speaking as he does of ‘diplomatic transcription‘ (204). In contrast, it is argued here that the terms transcription and diplomatic edition identify two different objects: one a derivative document that holds a relationship with the transcribed document, and the other a formal (public) presentation of such a derivative document. The editor will first transcribe a primary source, thereby creating a transcription; this transcription will be corrected, proofread, annotated, and then prepared for publication. Once published, this new object will become a diplomatic edition. The two products will possibly contain the same text, but while the first will be a private product, the latter will be a publicly published one. These two objects therefore represent two different stages of the same editorial process, although the first can exist without the second.
The documentary edition differs from transcription in the sense that a documentary edition is meant to be publicly distributed, while a transcription represents the private first stage of the editorial work; a transcription can become a documentary edition in the moment its creator (the editor) decides it is accurate enough and follows accepted scholarly conventions well enough to be distributed publicly.