Vetting Rewards

By Joul Smith

Vetting rewards. It may not be the sexiest part of transcribing, but scrutinizing the products of the Winche (Folger V.b. 366) transcribathon has improved my technical skills as a transcriber and re-oriented the value I place on my work with recipes. And as a graduate student whose work and study revolves around early modern English, I’m developing “skill” and “purpose” for my future profession by vetting.

At first, vetting sounds grueling and intrusive. Here’s the process: I collate the various transcriptions, determine which versions are the best, reformat them into one text that can be correctly interfaced with Dromio (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s transcription tool), edit them (by re-transcribing if necessary), then pain-stakingly tag every word that matches a specific category (And for recipes, it’s almost every other word.). In my graduate classes, this is usually the work of transcription trolls. They would sneak in after you spent hours hashing out the general spine of a difficult hand and use your hard work to finish a transcription that was only possible because of your initial dedication to the text. Then they would brag about their skills as a transcriber (Yeah. I’m still getting over it.). In the case of the Winche manuscript, for instance, a recipe for “A Drink for the Sciaticae” has a crossed out “bru,” which three highly accomplished transcribers labeled three different ways: “bri,” “bro,” and “be.” Close examination shows that the “u” matches the hand’s “u” and the line “bru one ounce of licorish brused,” seems to demonstrate an editorial thought-process—worthwhile, but now I’m the troll.

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Yet in the end, vetting stretches my capabilities and makes me a better student of early modern English, paleography, and the digital humanities. For example, I want a researcher to authentically experience “two pailefuls of pumps water” in Winche’s “How to dry Meats Tongues,” but the “pailefuls” is spelled strangely and the hand hardly helps. Furthermore, the “s” in “pumps” could be an “e,” but it’s unclear. I firmly believe it’s an “s” because it matches what seems like the speech pattern indicated in the heading: “Meats tongues.” Put it all together, and we have a unique measurement, “pailefuls” and an intriguing kind of ingredient “pump’s water” that all needs to be tagged through overlapping features that preserves the original text. At junctures like “pumps,” vetting isn’t a straight-forward, objective activity, despite our solid principles and rigorous criteria. For you worriers, I put on my graduate-level-expertise hat and marked it as an unclear “s” which responsibly renders an accurate and authentic version of Winche’s recipes for future researchers.

As you can see, there is fruit in this exercise (sometimes literally), and it isn’t just the result of correcting transcription. Sure, it sharpens my paleographic eye, increases my early modern recipe lexicon, and improves my ever-expanding digital skill. But when I correct a milestone overlap in TEI syntax, I’m not just fixing XML, I’m transferring the knowledge of the Winche manuscript to those who want and need it but can’t access it easily or at all.

Joul Smith, Graduate Student, University of Texas, Arlington