Posts Tagged ‘isle of man’

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A 17th century “commonplace” book. Linda Watson, a transcriber on the Isle of Man, can decipher pretty much any document.

One of the great things about word processors (well, typewriters, too) is that people with terrible handwriting can make themselves understood. The secretary who used to be the only person in the company who could read the boss’s handwriting can now spend time on more valuable work.

But documents written out long ago still need to be deciphered, often for legal purposes. Enter transcriber Linda Watson on the Isle of Man (a British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea). Watson has built an unusual talent into a business employing transcribers in an array of languages.

Sarah Laskow writes at 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. …

“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.

“She fell into this line of work about a decade ago, when a cousin asked for help deciphering a family will and she discovered that she has a talent for interpreting the strange, scrawling writing of the past. … Since then she’s had a steady stream of projects from amateur genealogists, grad students struggling with their long-sought primary source material, and libraries. 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. …

“Most of the documents that people need to understand, though, are wills and legal papers, which have their own pleasures. ‘The inventories I love,’ she says. ‘It’s like someone comes to the front door and says, come on in to my house and have a look around.’ … A woman described each piece of her wardrobe, down to her second-best red flannel petticoat, and specified which great-niece or -nephew should receive each item. …

“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. …

“Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

“In the business of reading old documents, Watson has few competitors. … ‘I’ve seen some documents done by the software, and they just make you laugh. I think I’m safe in my job for a good while yet.’ ”

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

4/27/18. I just learned anyone who can read handwriting can join a transcribe-a-thon. There are events for transcribing the papers of Frederick Douglass, among others. Here is one the Massachusetts Historical Society is holding to get the voluminous diaries of John Quincy Adams online: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2248.

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