The Limit of Representation

  1. 1. Elena Pierazzo

    King's College London

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In the proposed paper, I reflect on the theoretical implications
and methodology of diplomatic digital
editions which have arisen out of a three-year AHRCfunded
project devoted to Jane Austen’s holographic fictional
manuscripts. The title of the paper is deliberately
ambiguous in order to mark the dual nature of a topic
that applies to both transcription and publication.
For transcription the TEI Guidelines offer a large variety
of elements to transcribe and describe primary source
documents at almost any level of granularity and detail:
“to all intents and purposes”, Driscoll remarks, “there is
no limit to the information one can add to a text – apart,
that is, from the limits of the imagination” (2006:261).
But the availability of an element does not imply the necessity
of using it—and this is a crucial point, as we will
For publication, Tanselle notes, “the editor’s goal is to
reproduce in print as many of the characteristics of the
document as he can” (1978: 51). Although this may be
valid for print, it is of little help in a digital environment,
where you can represent much more2. This can be positive,
e.g. to avoid most of what Michael Hunter calls the
“confusion of brackets”3, but it leaves open the question
of where to stop – a question only made more complicated
by the extensibility of the TEI.
Driscoll states that:
In the determination of how much information should be
included [in the transcription of a manuscript], the decisions
facing the producer of an electronic transcription are
essentially the same as those facing the producer of any
transcription (2006:257-8).
However, even if the decisions are of the same kind in
both media, they may have quite different resolutions for
a digital edition, as the new medium allows the transcription
and output of many more features, as I just noted.4
Nevertheless when designing a digital transcription a
scholar needs to define her/his own boundaries:
An electronic edition is like an iceberg, with far more
data potentially available than is actually visible on the
screen, and this is at the same time a great opportunity and
a temptation to overdo things. When so many possibilities
exist, there is a danger of technological considerations of
what can be done taking priority over intellectual considerations
of what is actually desirable or necessary in any
particular case. (Hunter 2007:71).
But when does stopping imply a loss of information and
when is it simply wise? More to the point, what is the
information that needs to be represented and which is
desirable but not essential? Can this essential information
be feasibly encoded in the transcription? And can
it be conveniently represented in the visual output?
And again, if the edition includes a digital image of the
source, should the limits change or is the diplomatic edition
altogether worthless5?
The answers to most of the previous questions depend
on the research goals and the editor better judgement in
interpreting which feature contained in a source is relevant,
and which is merely ornamental: as Claus Huitfeldt
demonstrates, in fact, there is not such a thing as
an objective diplomatic transcription (2006:194-6).
Nevertheless those involved with print have been able
to produce guidelines and lively discussions, while their
counterparts in the digital medium seem more or less to
be avoiding the topic6.
According to Tanselle, essential features that need to
be retained in a diplomatic transcription of modern holographic
documents are: punctuation, spelling, letter
shape (long s, i-j, u-v, for instance), capitalization, abbreviations,
authorial errors, deleted readings, added texts
(maintaining or marking their positioning). In a digital
framework we can do more than that, for instance we can
measure dimensions of gaps, distinguish a wider range
of letter shapes, reproduce the colour of the ink, the temporal
sequence of the revisions, etc. On the other side
Hunter does not hide his uneasiness toward typefacsimile
editions, stating that: “the aim is to produce an edition
which does justice to the content of the manuscript, paying
attention to its actual appearance but not fetishising
this”, adding, though, that as markup languages allow
the editor “to have his or her cake and eat it”, it is possible
to push the representation forward and, for instance,
“if the editor sees a value in preserving the abbreviated
forms […] they are welcome to do so” remarking though
that “I would not bother” (2007:85, 80).
The XML markup language, especially when used according
to the TEI Guidelines, allows editors to encode
features that could serve for different displays of the text.
Thus from the same text we can easily produce diplomatic,
semi-diplomatic, reading and edited texts. We
can have our cake and eat it. But encoding for multiple
outputs is sometimes not very easy; compromises may
be required. In the transcription of Jane Austen manuscripts we see, for instance, interlinear insertions being
placed in positions that do not correspond to logical insertion
points: in this case we had to chose which aspect
to privilege, the semantic of the text or the appearance
of the source document, the former being relevant to the
production of a reading edition and the latter for the diplomatic
It is clear that there are limits to the representation of
documents, and those limits are both conceptual and
pragmatic. Once the document has been transcribed, a
certain level of distance between the physical object and
the transcribed object is inevitable. Hunter again:
different handwritings and letter forms, but also ink blots,
different methods of striking through words, or exact details
of layout, for which only a pictorial facsimile suffices.
The chief thing which a type-facsimile can do is to distinguish
words in pen or pencil, or in different hands, but
even this might be better achieved by a commentary on a
photographic or digital reproduction (Hunter 2007:75).7
In fact, no transcription, however accurate, will ever be
able to represent entirely the source document. Some
characteristics of the manuscripts are irremediably lost
by transcribing it, e.g. the variable shape and spacing of
handwritten glyphs versus the constant shape of digital
fonts. As Hans Walter Gabler says, “clearly the diplomatic
transcription is already a distinct abstraction from
the document” (2007:204). On the other hand, the more
details we add to our transcription and the more accurate
it is, the greater the density of the markup, with consequent
loss of readability and loss of editorial control over
the text. Even if stand-off markup can help to address
this problem, the “cost” of the markup remains relevant.
This paper will use the experience of the Jane Austen
Project to address the following questions from a theoretical
and pragmatic point of view:
• What cannot be represented in a transcription?
• What can be represented but at too high a price (i.e.
requiring too high a level of encoding) to be feasible?
• What should not be represented?
• Which features can be encoded but cannot be reproduced
with existing digital publication standards
(i.e. HTML/CSS)?
• To which display should a given feature belong?
The paper will open up discussion on essential aspects
of editing texts in a digital environment by attempting to
define a minimal shared protocol in digital transcription
of documents. The author hopes that many other contributions
will follow.
Driscoll, Mattew J. “Levels of Transcription”. In Electronic
Textual Editing. L. Burnard, K. O’Brien O’Keeffe
and J. Unsworth (eds). New York, 2006, pp. 254-61.
Gabler, Hans Walter. “The Primacy of the Document in
Editing”. Ecdotica 4 (2007), 197-207.
Hunter, Michael. Editing Early Modern Texts: an introduction
to principles and practice. New York, 2007.
Huitfeldt, Claus. “Philosophy Case Study”. In Electronic
Textual Editing. L. Burnard, K. O’Brien O’Keeffe and J.
Unsworth (eds). New York, 2006, pp. 181-96
Kiernan, Kevin. “Digital Facsimile in Editing”. L. Burnard,
K. O’Brien O’Keeffe and J. Unsworth (eds). New
York, 2006, 262-8.
Robinson, Peter. “Where we are with Electronic Scholarly
Editions, and where we want to be”. Computerphilologie
4 (2002); available at http://computerphilologie.
Sperberg-McQueen, C. Michael. “Text in Electronic
Age: Textual Study and Text Encoding, with Examples
from Medieval Texts”. Literary Linguistic Computing 6
(1991), 34-46.
Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Editing of Historical Documents.”
Studies in Bibliography 31 (1978): 1-56.
1Sperberg-McQueen 1991:36: “When I observe […] that
X and Y must be tagged (or taggable), I mean not that
everyone should be required to tag X and Y, but that any
general-purpose markup scheme must provide tags to
enable researchers to tag X and Y when they wish so”.
2And indeed Robinson 2002 remarks his frustration toward
digital editions that do not present “material in a
manner significantly different from that which could
have been managed in print”.
3For instance, speaking of square brackets, he says:
“these have been used for almost diametrically opposite
purposes – to indicate deletions in the original; to denote
text lost through mutilations; or to denote editorial supply.” See Hunter 2007:118-20
4See, for instance the so-called “ultra diplomatic transcription”
which integrates facsimile images and transcription,
used by the HyperNietsche Project; an example
of which is to be found in Gabler 2007:205 at http://
5“The image-based scholarly edition subsumes the purpose
of a diplomatic edition and removed the fruitless
frustration of trying to preserve the exact layout, illumination,
and physical appearance of a manuscript in
printed form. ”(Kiernan 2006:266)
6But see Huitfeldt 2006:190.
7See also Sperberg-McQueen 1991:34: “What computer
process are representations of data. […] Representations
are inevitably partial, never disinterested”.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None