Transcription vs. edition?

There are those times, you know, when you are being dragged from one task to another, day after day, and come evening, are plainly exhausted without understanding why it is so, because you don’t feel like you have achieved anything.  You run from one fire to the other, trying to keep emergencies from burning the whole place down. These phases, I know it now, pass. But they require resilience and faith in their finiteness to be survived to. Yes, summer will come, and we will just drink beers and be a bunch of people that are happy to be gathered together (I am already dreaming of Friday’s DH-Berlin-Stammtisch)…

In the meantime, I have had several interesting discussions and not enough time to think about them, alas. One thing in particular is still on my mind.

I enjoyed a lot taking part in the panel discussion “From the archive to the book. The text’s way from the author to the book.” at the KOOP Litera Conference in Dortmund last week. I am not that often given the occasion of a dialogue genuinely conceived to be between archives and research in order to define what could be a good basis for common work. The idea of taking as much advantage as possible of fundings that make common applications of a research project and an archive possible, and even the idea of asking the funding agencies to increase those funding options, were welcomed by everyone. I love the idea, I see future in there. Even if I also see that it will only be a short-time solution leading to even more turnover everywhere, but I have no idea how to solve that problem, really, so big as it is (again: does anyone?).

But it is not the unresolved question I wanted to write about.

The discussion also dealt with editors being invited to put their transcriptions of manuscripts online as soon as they have them, and do an edition later, so to speak independently from this quick (and improvable) publication of the transcription. As much as I see the benefit of having searchable text online fast (or at least on a time scale that is not the one of big edition projects), I am somewhat skeptical about the sense it makes to say that you “put a transcription online”. You can’t do so without editing. Maybe it is not the same kind of edition as when you make a book with a commentary twice as long as the text itself. But still. You have to decide what to do with abbreviations, with the glyphs, with the tons of information that are on the page, waiting to be transcribed. I am unsure about that kind of practice, or at least about the way you define a work step which was certainly conceived as transitory when it was discussed, but only makes sense, I think, as a full-fleshed digital edition involving at the very least editorial decisions on the rendering of the text and linking to authority files.

Rich metadata sets would, I think, do that kind of job better. You could not scroll through the text, not do any full-text searches, that is true. But the links to the authority files, the keywords, the linking to existing editions (even partial ones) would fulfill the function of a transitory search medium enabling to “discover” a manuscript better than a transcription which would not avow to what it really is.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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