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Heavy Artillery, Barbed Wire and Mind Reading


February 17, 2015 by Susan Prillaman

In the third edition of A Guide to Documentary Editing, Mary-Jo Kline and Susan Holbrook Perdue bring life to a topic that could otherwise induce sleep. In their hands, transcription should be performed literally “and published without emendation, conflation, or the other heavy artillery of textual editing,” brackets are likened to “typographical barbed wire,” and “second-guessing an earlier transcriber does not extend to mind reading.” I may never look at documentary evidence in the same way again.

In Chapter 4, “Factors Affecting Transcription Methods,” Kline and Holbrook make the point that the task of documentary editing includes much more than hand-written or printed, published or unpublished texts. There are oral histories and other verbal works, maps, images, doodles, artifacts, and extra-textual items like tables, formulas, photos and diagrams. I was particularly interested in their discussion of “artifactual documentation,” though disappointed in the short shrift given to maps.

Luckily, the authors include plenty of resources to address particularly thorny issues. For instance, the reader is directed to Edward A. Levenston’s The Stuff of Literature: Physical Aspects of Texts and Their Relation to Literary Meaning regarding the likes of pesky typography, spelling, punctuation and layout. Beyond punctuation and the like, Kline and Holbrook further identify potential issues of interpretation that may be imbued by a multitude of factors: multiple source documents, language, time period, editor’s knowledge, media, or “when the ‘transcription’ is a photograph of a three-dimensional artifact.”

It was interesting to note that while transcription and editing may be performed by the same individual, each is considered a distinct activity, where, while important that it be done well, transcription is technical, tedious and boring; the “science” to editing’s “art.” Alternatively, substitute “archivist” for “documentary editor” and “accessioning” for “documentary editing” and the space between editing a document and accessioning a collection is closer than one might initially think:

“The documentary editor’s goal is not to supply the words or phrases of a vanished archetype but rather to preserve the nuances of a source that has survived the ravages of time. Documentary editing, although noncritical in terms of classical textual scholarship, is hardly an uncritical endeavor. It demands as much intelligence, insight, and hard work as its critical counterpart, combined with a passionate determination to preserve for modern readers the nuances of evidence.”

 In what I perceive to be something of a summary statement, Kline and Holbrook caution readers, “It is not the business of documentary editors to introduce new readings into a documentary text for the sake of historically unrealized clarity.” Reading this I was taken me back to my first job for Flying Fingers Typing Service. Beginning to work on a freshman paper, I found myself attempting to bring some semblance of “clarity” to the paper. Quickly realizing it was not my job to re-write the paper, I started again and prepared a literal rendition of the hand-written text. On delivery of the finished paper, the client was pleased. “It looks so good my professor won’t believe I wrote this paper.” “Oh, I think he’ll know,” was the only response I could muster.


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