Unity and Scrutiny

Our students presented their editorial work on the letters from Chamisso to de La Foye last Wednesday. My overall impression was extremely positive concerning the encoding. Concerning the approach of the manuscript (especially the transcription and the commentaries), the results varied a lot. I think this reflects the challenge of teaching students several competences in only one class. We taught:

– German and French literary history of the early 19th century;

– Archival and philological approach to handwritten letters (which elements are relevant, what can be considered a reliable information, how do you construct reliable information on the basis of a handwritten letter);

– Comparison between a 19th/early 20th century prints and the original manuscript (levels of censorship);

– XML-encoding after the TEI-P5 Guidelines as we implemented them in our own project guidelines (which are not completely stable and have had to be modified on the fly to deal with specific problems of the corpus in the process).

All of this mostly from scratch. I did not realize at the beginning of the semester that this meant we would not be able to really work on commentaries. We have a special feature that allows some commentaries to appear only in one of both versions. Those that appear in the diplomatical version only are meant to comment on manuscript-relevant phenomena (elements that are corrected or striked through and don’t appear on the reading version). The commentaries for the reading version are meant to give more information on the general context for readers who might not know much about it. We did not get as deep into the differentiation of those two levels as I had expected we would.

Some students worked on only one letter during the whole semester though, so they had the opportunity to focus on very specific aspects. That’s the point that surprised me most. Their scrutiny did not apply to the elucidation of the context, or to understanding the relationships between the persons that are mentioned, or to the knowledge horizon that can be reconstructed, but was mostly focused on the rendering of the manuscript details. I mentioned in an earlier post that we were asked to introduce the category “diagonal”. I granted that and regret it now. It has been implemented not to tag elements that were written by the author, but something that was added by an archivist or by someone who tried to put order in these papers. Which means that 1) it does not contribute to define the text and 2) it would be a huge work to treat that kind of addition in the same way on each and every letter. This is one point where we will have to get rid of some fat.

There has also been some debate concerning the big “6” that appears on the envelope (more seldom a “10” or a “9” or a glyph that some refuse to interpret as a number). This “6” has been generally interpreted as a note made by a postman. I think this is as far as we should get on that question. The fact that the 6 is written all over the rest of the envelope text can be commented, but it will not be rendered in our visualization. Also, the question was asked of how we should deal with single letters that are overwritten within a word. I remember encoding them in my Beausobre and Tieck letters, but there were not so many of them. Apart from the fact that the visualization of that kind of phenomena, when you find them in a larger scale in a text, does not look good (as I said, we will have to reconsider our visualization eventually), this seems to be a huge time investment to be done properly for that corpus.

Two things seem necessary to me now. The first one is to clarify for everyone in the team the relationship between text and image, because we obviously have different notions of it. It felt to me like I spent the whole presentation repeating “You don’t have to render it on the text’s side, because the picture shows it, the reader can see it”. I have to think about a way to define this more clearly, especially because we will be giving a follow-up class on that corpus (to be precise, Anna and Sabine will) in the next semester.

The second thing is that, in order to maintain some unity in the whole edition, it is necessary to think of a space where to explain the specifics of each corpus. Sometimes you can’t really tell if Chamisso writes ss or ß. I have had this problem with Tieck too, but since Tieck is generally coherent in his use of German grammar, I have chosen, when I couldn’t read it properly, to render it with the sign he generally uses in that context. For Chamisso, it is more complicated to define his personal grammar – mostly because his grammar is not coherent. So the decision was to interpret the ambiguous letters (ss/ß or capital letters at the beginning of a word where you can’t really be sure they are capital letters) after the grammatical logic. This should be explained in the small editorial notice that will now accompany the corpora individually, together with a basic bibliography.

Also, I will be opening a section “women writers” over the summer. And we are on our way to a cool webpage name. We already have gotten rid of the numbers and are now called: http://tei.ibi.hu-berlin.de/berliner-intellektuelle/ . hu-berlin.de stands for Humboldt University. ibi stands for Institut für Bibliothekswissenschaft (the institute hosting the server). And tei… well, obviously, the server is conceived to host projects based on the TEI…


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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