Home » Books in General » A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything.

A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything.

12 February 2018

From Atlas Obscura:

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read.

Watson’s company, Transcription Services, has a rare specialty—transcribing historical documents that stump average readers. Once, while talking to a client, she found the perfect way to sum up her skills. “We are good at reading the unreadable,” she said. That’s now the company’s slogan.

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill. “I see the job as a cross between a crossword puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle,” says Watson.

. . . .

The British Library had the company transcribe not just Austen’s work, but also manuscripts from the Brontës, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Donne, and other luminaries.

“You can actually see how they have changed their manuscript—how Jane Austen changed Pride and Prejudice as she’s writing it,” says Watson. “That blows my mind a bit. You see it, and you think—that’s so much better after she’s edited it than before.”

. . . .

Some of the documents Watson transcribes are written by a trained hand; others are scrawled by people with limited literacy, with handwriting she compares to “a spider walking across the page.” Older scripts—court hand, for instance, which was used by lawyers and clerks beginning in the medieval period (and eventually became stylized into illegibility)—have long, narrow strokes and letters jammed together to save space, making it a challenge to find where one word ends and another begins. Some styles of writing lean heavily on space-saving abbreviations: An extra flourish on a letter “p” can turn it into a “per” or “par,” a “pro” or “pre,” depending on the exact position of the extra line. Other documents rely on phonetic spelling and are impossible to understand without reading aloud. Sometimes a manuscript is damaged, or ink has bled through from one side to the other. In these cases, the clearest portions can act as a decoder for the rest: An indistinct word might have the same shape as a legible one—a clue to puzzle out what was written all those years ago.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

For those who are not certain where, exactly, the Isle of Man is, you may find this lovely island and its (according to Wikipedia) 83,737 residents in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland.

Getty has some lovely photos here.

Here is the flag:

The three legs are called a triskelion or triskele and are based upon a pre-Celtic symbol found at Newgrange, a prehistoric monument in Ireland dated to 3200 BC. A triskelion was also found in Malta dated to an even earlier time. A triskelion is included on the flag of Sicily.


Books in General

5 Comments to “A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything.”

  1. PG: As you say a lovely island but oddly enough the home to pretty much the most dangerous motorcycle races in the world. There are many places where beauty and death come together but this always struck me as a rather strange one.

  2. I had heard about the motorcycle race. Narrow roads and stone walls are undoubtedly picturesque, but less than ideal for staying on a motorcycle.

  3. My motorbike mad husband’s stamping ground when he was young. We have a friend who won that race. If you watch MotoGP where riders fall off at speed and mostly (but not always) get up and walk away you can understand the part that the walls and trees of the TT play in the Isle of Man deaths. But still they do it. By the way I’m pretty good at transcribing difficult historical material as well. Years of experience. You have to ‘get your eye in’ for the quirks of a particular writer!

Leave a Reply