The Art of Diplomatic Transcription

Work is continuing on our volume of Burns’s songs for George Thomson. As part of this, I’ve recently been focussing on the original texts of the songs as submitted between 1792 and 1796. These are contained in Burns’s letters to Thomson, now held in the Morgan Library & Museum, a couple of city blocks away from the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately!) the Burns team in Glasgow has microfiche reproductions which I’ve been examining as a starting point.

Transcription is one of those tasks that might appear straightforward, even mechanical, but in reality takes a great deal of care and reflection. Increasingly standard in academic circles is what is known as ‘diplomatic transcription’ and this is the approach we use. In short, the aim of a diplomatic transcription is to reflect as accurately as possible what is actually on the page, rather than interpreting or standardising the source. This is a challenging process, given the variance and ambiguity that is present in all but the most exacting handwriting.

Anyone who has attempted any quantity of diplomatic transcription will be aware of the decision-making required. To what degree does one reflect inconsistencies in spacing, indentation, font size, etc? Where do we draw the line between significant and meaningless discrepancies?

We are fortunate on the Burns project to be dealing with an author with a fairly clear hand, yet there is plenty of grey area when addressing his manuscripts. Often capitalization is a challenge in Burns, as is the location of punctuation, while the formatting of his stanzas can be meandering. It is tempting to standardise such points, as we might naturally do when reading. Yet diplomatic transcription demands a faithful reproduction, allowing editors to approach the text in its raw state.

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