Thoughts on the Psychology of Transcription

For the past five days I’ve rededicated myself to transcribing my copy of the first edition of John P. Jewett’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While in my dissertation I outlined my techniques of transcription–and I strive for the utmost rigor–here I’d like to reflect a bit on the psychology of transcribing.

One of the joys of transcribing is discovery. In the Jewett edition, on page 68 of volume II, for example, one finds this passage: “Tom and Eva were seated on a litttle mossy seat, in an arbor, at the foot of the garden.”The three t’s in the intended word “little” are an error in the Jewett first edition.

I originally described this as a discovery, as something not previously noted. That was incorrect. I have since checked the Internet Archive, Wright American Fiction, and Early American Fiction. EAF silently corrects it. Wright corrects it in brackets. And Internet Archive reproduces the error. The last leads to a thought. It is difficult to catch obvious errors during transcription, which are at risk of being silently corrected (Note: For a textual scholar, silent correction of obvious errors is a bad thing. An accurate record is a higher concern than correcting obvious errors). A scanned text that is not proofread may well provide a good check for errors in the original. I happen to have taken a break immediately before resuming on the paragraph with litttle, so my level of attention was higher. I need to re-think my assumption that scanned texts provide few benefits to textual scholars. Juxta has aided with that re-thinking. Maybe they would be a good source of obvious errors, if one could just find a way to deal with all of the thousands of scan errors.

Absent scholarship’s small joys, the joys would be fewer. I think of transcribing as among the most intense types of close reading. But it’s not leisurely, and it is easy to become distracted. When I transcribed UTC in the Era, the first hurdle was to set a regular schedule. I always transcribed on Saturday mornings, and I tried to establish a pattern of transcribing twice weekly in addition to Saturday morning. I can transcribe for two hours. After that, the time is unproductive. The entire time transcribing cannot be spent like a machine, and it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to be distracted by the newspaper’s other stories, which was a benefit for my dissertation.

When I’m transcribing the book, the distractions are more frequent. The best technique is probably to set aside a quiet time twice a day (30 to 45 minutes per session) to transcribe. I think the most productive attitude is obsession with page counts. The second volume of UTC is 322 pages. If I transcribe 10 pages per day, it will take 32 days to transcribe volume 2. But if I transcribe 16 pages per day, I can finish in 20 days. Trouble starts when you skip a day, or two, because soon it will be a week, or a month, or two. It’s better to stay obsessed with managing a pace.

Because I have no illusions that the first transcription will be accurate, I work somewhat at ease. When you’re planning to compare this initial transcription to four other transcriptions (as I am) it does not have to be. I know there’s still to be a long process of collating against other transcriptions, checking each variant, correcting each error, double-checking that the correction was made accurately the first time, checking against a different transcription, and oral proofreading. All in good time. I see that I’ve only transcribed six pages today, Ophelia’s introduction to Topsy. So…back to work.

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