Transcription 101: Learn the basics of transcription.

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read and transcribe old historical texts but had no idea on where to start? If so, then I am here to give you my basic tips on how to transcribe historical document. When transcribing you must keep in mind that you are not reading modern text, therefore the techniques you were taught for reading shouldn’t be used in transcribing. In this blog I will be using the Wednesday 17th December 1789 Royal Menu as a template to teach the basics of transcription.[1]

It might seem daunting at first to transcribe due to the handwriting, but this should not stop attempting to transcribe a historical document. To begin, there are different techniques that can be used to transcribe. When I transcribe the first thing I do and  would suggest to do is some research and find out any historical background information of the document; this includes when the documents was written, who wrote it and why it was written, this will give you context for your document. The document that I am using as an example of transcription was written in December 1789, therefore placing it into historical context was written during the Georgian era. It is also stated as a Royal Menu, thus from this we can take that the document will hold food items and meals.

This is the date at the top of the Royal Menu.

The next step I would suggest is to skim read the document, not only does this help through the possibility of being able to pick up on a couple words and letters, but it then makes the process of transcription easier as you start to get used to the handwriting. A mistake that is often made is that people translate words rather than transcribing them. Taking a look at the document, the food ‘brocoli’ appears multiple times; it is very easy to read this as our modern day word ‘broccoli’, but this wrong and can cause many mistakes; as this translating rather than transcribing. Therefore by taking a document letter by letter may seem a long process, but it helps you transcribe accurately and not make the error of translating.

‘Brocoli’

If you are finding it difficult to read the document or are unable to figure out letters, do not panic or give up! The best advice for this would be to leave it and come back after with a pair of fresh eyes; and by this point you may have figured out the word or letter from it being repeated within the document. If you still are unable to identify the word or letter, there are many useful online tools and resources which can be used that offer guidance. One of the tools I used for this document; it offers the alphabet, and this allows me to identify letters that I was unable to solve initially.[2]   

You may also come across different lines, dashes or even little squiggles throughout a document. Some of the can be used as decoration for the end of a word, while others separate text. One common letter that comes in multiple early modern history English texts is what is commonly called a long s, which sometimes can look like an ‘f’ or ‘ʃ’. This is just simply the letter‘s’. Taking a look at the royal menu we can see that the abbreviation of ‘Oys.’ is common throughout the document. Previously ‘oyster sauce’ was stated as menu item; therefore it can be figured out that ‘Oys.’ is an abbreviation for oyster sauce. Other more common abbreviations can be seen in the form of what looks like an infinity sign connected with a ‘c’; this translated to modern day is ‘etc’, however written in transcription it is ‘&c.’     

An example.

Remember it is difficult to transcribe everything on the first go and this does not mean that you won’t be able to transcribe the document. It is fine to leave the document and come back to it later with fresh eyes, there are also online resources that help transcribing which you can use. It is also vital that you do not translate when you are transcribing, as this can change the original lettering of a word and in some instances change the meaning of a word. Once you have conquered and transcribed your first document you will develop your transcription techniques, which will make it easier to transcribe further documents. If you are going to transcribe a document let me know what techniques you use and how you got along in the comments. Also now that you can read, why not check out what foods were eaten during a Georgian Christmas here?!

[1] LS9-226_0015; 17 December 1789

[2] Andrew Zurcher,. English Handwriting 1500-1700, an online course https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc/index.html [accessed 5 April 2019]



2 thoughts on “Transcription 101: Learn the basics of transcription.

  1. Really good pointers on starting out on a transcription project! Were there any words that you hard particular trouble with on this menu, and if so, how did you figure them out?

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