Finding “Compositers Judgement”: Transcribing Broadside Ballads for Digital Media
Transcription: Concept and Contemporary Practice
This essay reflects on the English Broadside Ballad Archive’s effort to transcribe sixteenth- through eighteenth-century broadside ballads for digital distribution to twenty-first-century readers. The word “transcription” has Latin roots: a literal-minded translation of the word’s components, trans- (across, to or on the farther side of, beyond, over) and scrībĕre (to write), yields something like “to write across,” “to write beyond,” or “to write through.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s principal definitions of “transcribe, v.” include
1) To make a copy of (something) in writing; to copy out from an original; to write (a copy)
2) To write out in other characters, to transliterate; to write out (a shorthand account) in ordinary ‘long-hand’; formerly also, to translate or render accurately into another language.
Emerging from the sense of movement implied by the prefix trans- (across, beyond, over), we can imagine a set of questions that, I argue, can help us to understand the key issues we face when we transcribe: What is the origin of the content to be transcribed? Does this content stay in its native medium or move across or beyond that medium’s limits to a new one? If so, into what “other characters” or “language” will it need to be converted? Does the meaning of the text transition easily into the new medium? Will anything new become visible after transcription, and will anything be left behind?
For EBBA, transcriptions begin with high-resolution digital photographs of printed broadside ballads. Carefully studying these photographs, transcribers copy printed characters from the broadside into a Microsoft Word document. To ensure the greatest accuracy, EBBA uses “double-key” transcription, in which two people independently transcribe each ballad, and then a third person merges the two transcription documents and checks them for discrepancies and other errors. EBBA’s transcription goal is to create digital versions of ballad texts that are easily legible and richly searchable, so the characters copied from the digital photographs must be 1) familiar to modern readers, 2) as compatible as possible with the digital systems (word processors, web browsers, linguistic analysis software) with which users may access and analyze the texts, and 3) as “true” to the original ballad as technologically possible, conveying both the original's semantic meaning and its essential formatting.
EBBA provides two principal ways to view the resulting transcriptions: as text transcriptions and as facsimile transcriptions. The text transcriptions are displayed two ways: as plain text and as a TEI/XML marked-up document, which includes the transcription’s provenance and other metadata, and denotes the ballad’s constituent parts such as title, footer, line groups/stanzas, and typefaces. The facsimile transcriptions present the transcribed text in its original aesthetic context, divided into columns and interspersed with woodcuts and other ornaments that were essential parts of early modern readers’ experiences of ballads. Because EBBA includes photographs of the original broadsides alongside the text and facsimile transcriptions, the transcriptions are meant to function as clarifying supplements to the originals, not as permanent replacements. Indeed, each transcriber’s work can be checked against the original by especially scrupulous users, and errors are occasionally found this way. But since only the transcribed text is machine-readable, a mistake may cause inaccuracies in computer-generated textual analysis before it is identified. Still, as Martin Mueller argues in reference to EEBO’s transcriptions, the ease of accessing and reading transcribed early modern texts online trumps scholars’ wariness of inevitable transcription mistakes: “If a text is half-way readable, convenience and speed will trump quality every time. The text of choice is the text you can get to at 2:00 AM in your pajamas" (Mueller). If transcribed versions are indeed becoming scholars’ primary avenues into early modern texts, then it is surely worthwhile to seriously examine the processes and potential products of transcription.
To answer my own question—“Will anything new become visible, and will anything be left behind?” in the process of transcription—I contend that EBBA’s transcription process yields an important product in addition to the digitized text itself. The transcription process recovers early modern print workers’ presence in and influence over the text, a presence that is often overlooked when ballads are read in other ways. The elision of print workers’ importance (and even existence) originates at least partly with the Enlightenment-era legacy of technologizing “artisan work” (Darnton 2009, 242) and the concomitant cultural glorification of the author as a text’s sole originator (Maruca 2003, 335). In this vein, one might think that digitizing a previously-printed text completes an ideal trajectory where the author’s thoughts are finally “freed” from material constraints and can exist as pure idea. I hope to demonstrate instead that the transcription process foregrounds the early modern print worker’s active role as a meaning-maker, and that the present-day transcriber can come to see her own work in a similar fashion. That “the printed [or digital] product does not appear magically out of machinery,” as Lisa Maruca puts it (329), becomes inescapably clear to the transcriber whose own eyes and hands—like the early modern print worker’s—are active and agential conduits for a text.
Transcribing a text is an unusual experience, particularly for those who usually approach printed texts, partly because of the oft-assumed “transparency” of print described above. If we think of print as a transparent vessel for an author’s thoughts, then transcribers (like print workers) can seem like menial laborers. However, I want to urge us to consider transcription as a preliminary and essential form of “close reading.” Instead of reading to draw every morsel of potential meaning out of a text as a traditional close reader does, a transcriber closely scrutinizes the contours of every mark on the page for its potential for meaning-making. Consider the fact that the last word of this stanza, which looks like ice to a modern reader’s cursory glance, is actually see:
In Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683), Joseph Moxon repeatedly refers to the “Judgment” that print workers—particularly compositors—should exercise as they operate the printing press. The print worker’s judgment, in Moxon’s view, is an amalgam of contemporary convention and individual discernment. As Moxon writes,“it is Necessary that the Compositers Judgement should know where the Author has been deficient, that so his care may not suffer such Work to go out of his Hands as may bring Scandal upon himself.” By advising compositors to consider themselves as agents responsible for meaning-making, urging them to exercise their judgment (albeit repressively here), Moxon asserts that responsibility for the text is distributed among the author and the print workers, rather than resting solely with the former. Beyond print workers’ ability to influence the text’s meaning, Moxon also details how their judgment should be exerted in questions of inking, selection of typefaces, and spatial formatting. In accordance with Moxon’s vision of the judicious print worker, throughout this essay I suggest that the print worker (and by extension, the modern transcriber) has more in common with our post-Enlightenment concept of the meaning-making author than with the subservient, ideally invisible, scribe. In this argument I am not seeking to resurrect theoretical debates about authorial intent by asserting that we can (or cannot) know exactly what print workers’ intentions were. Rather, I simply want to recognize that print workers had intentions. Based on that reality, I want to assert that a text’s form, whether print or digital, is an artifact of a unique human-machine collaboration, and that the product of that human-machine collaboration is germane to our interpretation of the text.
Below, I discuss how EBBA transcribers reckon with early modern print workers’ judgment, instead of regarding “italicking” (as Moxon puts it) and other textual features as the work of “mere technology” (Warner in Maruca 2003). I will first address instances in which an EBBA transcriber has to significantly alter or “make new” the text’s modes of expression in order to move it successfully to a new medium. Second, I consider instances in which the transcriber more closely imitates or “re-makes” the ballad text. Whether a transcriber is “making new” or “re-making” the text, she is constantly engaging with past print workers’ judgment and exercising her own; both the transcriber’s and the print workers’ judgments shape the text and the meaning it expresses.
Transcription as Making New
Transcription often makes the original text “new” out of pragmatic necessity, as old modes of expression become antiquated or difficult to replicate in the medium of transcription. With this in mind, EBBA employs a semi-diplomatic transcription protocol. Semi-diplomatic transcription makes systematic substitutions for symbols or notation practices that the transcriber cannot render well or may be difficult for the intended audience to decipher. The alternative method, fully diplomatic transcription, seeks to be an exact copy of the original. A diplomatic transcription of the third line of “A ballat intituled Northomberland Newes,” for instance, would try to preserve the antiquated abbreviation for that, represented by the y and the superscript t above it (the y itself is a modernization of the Middle English thorn character, þ).
A diplomatic transcriber might do this by typing yt or þt. A semi-diplomatic transcription protocol could allow for expanding the abbreviation to that, so that the transcribed line would read more easily for a modern audience: “You know that at Tiborne there standeth a Nagge.” EBBA’s semi-diplomatic transcription rules would allow precisely such an expansion of an antiquated abbreviation. The full transcription protocol can be viewed here.
EBBA does most of its “making new” by selectively updating certain early modern typesetting conventions that might interfere with modern legibility and digital accessibility. One such alteration EBBA makes is to clarify letters that were typographically interchangeable before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as u and v, and i and j. EBBA also represents the long-s character with a modern short-s character, as the long-s fell out of typographic use around 1800 and tends to confuse modern readers since it resembles the modern f more closely than s.
For example, early modern readers would not have struggled at all to decipher the title of this ballad, “A Loue-sick maids song, lately beguild, / By a run-away Louer that left her with Childe." But a modern reader might read Loue for Love and Louer for Lover. She might also think in this ballad that Peg the Pie-woman’s nose has been “cut and flasht” instead of “cut and slasht.”
The long-s and other antiquated characters gradually become more instinctively legible to a transcriber, who will with practice start to recognize the word sit when it once appeared to be fit, and to differentiate wise from wife. The transcriber may also notice some rhyme and reason behind printers’ use of the long-s. Following longstanding print convention, the long-s tends to appear at the beginning or in the middle of a word, while the short or miniscule s appears at the end of a word. The transcriber may also notice that the initial or medial long-s often appears to sit very close to the letter that follows it. This is an effect of ligatured types that combined two letters into one piece of type. Some combine the long-s with other tall letters that frequently follow s in English, forming combinations such as sh, sl, si, and st, and thereby allow the compositor to pick up two letters with a single reach into the typecase.
Modernizing early modern print conventions in this way requires attention and judgment on the transcriber’s part, since ligatured types like sl and si can play tricks on the eye, and transcribers’ visual vocabulary takes time to expand. At the same time the transcriber can observe the patterns or idiosyncrasies in judgment that the compositor exerted in choosing his “sorts” or pieces of type.
In the case of common ligature glyphs, such those that combine the long-s with other letters or represent diphthongs like ae or ee, as the image below shows,
EBBA transcribers type the ligatured letters separately, as the next image illustrates.
However, in the case of the ligatured et symbol, the ampersand’s ancestor
EBBA uses an ampersand (&) to replicate the printer’s original effort to abbreviate, rather than typing e and t separately, or spelling out and. This also avoids confusing modern readers who may be unfamiliar with the Latin et. In the ballad “Tis Money Makes a Man,” the printer’s selection of several ligatured et characters, instead of the longer word and, allows the repentant narrator to efficiently enumerate three of his past wrongdoings on a single line:
The EBBA transcriber’s substitution of an ampersand for the original et maintains that spatial efficiency:
Another subtle but common alteration EBBA transcribers make is to turn letters that were originally inverted right side up. Of course, most of the time readers could easily make sense of such a mistake, but inversion may impede understanding when the inverted letter looks like a different one, as in the case of u and n.
Since it’s obvious from the context that the compositor was aiming to print tune, the transcriber rights the u. In pausing to turn inverted letters right side up, the transcriber encounters a trace of a momentarily distracted early modern print worker, whose presence can be harder to detect when the text runs smoothly.
Occasionally, EBBA transcribers encounter print that is far more garbled than a single inverted letter, as in this ballad, “The Durham Garland.” At the bottom of the first column, something clearly went awry. Some letters are bizarrely disordered, and some are inverted.
Perhaps the printer accidentally jostled the laid lines of type before setting all the furniture (see Colton Saylor's essay for more on this process) and lacked time or desire to re-set it all properly. Instead of replicating this (probably) accidental jumble, the EBBA transcriber does her best to reconstruct the text as it was most likely intended to appear. The transcriber consults other editions of the same ballad, studies the disordered print to make sure it is a reasonable match, and uses square brackets to indicate where she has had to conjecture, delineating the space of her judgment from the hapless compositor’s.
In addition to minor disasters such as the one above, EBBA transcribers also encounter remarkable instances of compositors making brilliantly unconventional use of their tools, such as in the ballad “The Whole Mape of Man’s Life.” Filed-down short-s characters are used in place of commas, particularly near the bottom of the first column.
The compositor also uses the superscript t character twice in place of an apostrophe.
The compositor seems to be making the best of a limited supply of type, relying on the fact that readers will, to a certain extent, see the character they expect to see rather than the one that is actually printed. The transcriber faces an obvious problem here: she has to decide whether to transcribe the letter (s or t) or the spirit (, or ’ ) of the characters printed before her. As in the case of antiquated abbreviations, following from our policy of semi-diplomatic transcription, an EBBA transcriber chooses the symbol that will help the reader best understand the printer’s expressed meaning—in this case, the comma and apostrophe.
By attending to the minutiae of the smallest printed marks of the page, we get a better understanding of how the demands of print and paper influence the language of a ballad. And when the text transcription becomes a facsimile transcription, these ways that EBBA transcribers have made the ballad text “new” have to be considered from the standpoint of graphic design, not just legibility. For instance, the expanded abbreviation for that in “Northomberland Newes,” described above, makes it more challenging to fit the line between the initial capital woodcut and the vertical intra-column ornament. Close inspection reveals that in the modern facsimile transcription, the letters in the third line of the first stanza are drawn extra close together in order to make the line fit. The early modern printer’s decision to abbreviate “that” was not arbitrary, but a mark of practiced judgment. The printer thinks semantically and visually at the same time, combining the meaning of the text, contemporary typographic convention, and the affordances of the printing press. The facsimile transcriber has to make the same considerations in a new context and with a different machine.
Transcription as Re-Making
In this section I explore what it means for EBBA transcribers to “re-make” rather than modernize certain aspects of a ballad, to defer to an early modern print worker’s judgment even when it conflicts with their own instincts.
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties transcribers have is suppressing the impulse to “auto-correct” a ballad’s original, non-standardized spelling. It can be hard to see the word couragious and not instinctively adjust the spelling to the modern courageous when typing it. Likewise, one must resist the urge to “correct” Battel to Battle two lines later.
Some EBBA transcribers have observed how the muscle memory developed in typical modern typing practice predisposes them to certain transcription errors: a common problem occurs when typing the word soul, which appears frequently in religious ballads such as “Saint Bernard’s Vision.” Twenty-first-century typists instinctively want to conclude the sequence o-u-l with d, as in would or could. EBBA transcription checkers, who merge the double-keyed transcriptions and look for discrepancies, occasionally catch instances in which transcribers have typed sould instead of soul as a result. When we recognize this evidence of muscular autopilot in our own hands, we begin to see the printed ballads before us as products of other hands with personal idiosyncrasies and historically-specific habits.
EBBA’s decision to preserve ballads’ original spelling with only a few specific exceptions is also based on a desire to share with readers the richness and downright fun of non-standardized spelling. For instance, “The West-Country Damosel’s Complaint” warns of comedy’s proximity to tragedy in its floridly-spelled subtitle: “Be kind, but Swear not more then what you mean, / Least Comick Jests become a Trajeck Scean.” And consider this wonderful spelling of “smoke” from “A Friends Advice”: “Man’s but a blast, or a smoak, or a cloud / that in a thought / or a moment he is dispersed.” Delightfully, several ballads including “Poor Robin’s Prophesie” render the word we now spell “Physician” as “Phisitian.” And it reads far more melodically for a suitor to tell “many a fluant tale” than “a fluent tale,” and sounds more edifying to eulogize someone’s “wholsom-Counsels” than “wholesome counsels.”
During the initial development of EBBA’s transcription protocol, the possibility of standardizing all spelling to modern conventions did arise. However, the team agreed that this changed the experience of reading the ballad too much, stripping away the language’s texture—and indeed, destroying too much evidence of print workers’ judgment. Moxon notes that while compositors can usually take the spelling from an author’s copy, it is “look’d upon as a task and duty incumbent on the Compositer, viz. to discern and amend the bad Spelling and Pointing of his Copy, if it be English.” Once a transcriber has accustomed her eyes and hands to ballads’ orthographic variation, it is possible to appreciate the flexibility of sounds and spellings, and to enjoy moments when a printer might have carefully deliberated how best to represent a word or phrase to his audience, such as the hyper-Anglicized rendering of the French phrase “à la mode” as “all-a-mode” in “The Prodigal Son Converted.”
Intentionally re-enacting the printer’s orthographical choices on the keyboard, reliving with a new machine the movements his hand must have made between the sort case and compositing stick, reveals the letter-by-letter agency of the broadside ballad’s maker.
As they do with spelling, EBBA transcribers defer to printers on questions of typeface, learning to mentally conflate the black letter and white letter fonts in the original ballad with EBBA’s prescribed substitutions. Just as careful transcribers of medieval manuscripts note the type of hand that they are copying, EBBA finds it essential to indicate to readers that a single ballad often includes a variety of typefaces, which can have aesthetic and pragmatic functions. Historian of typography Beatrice Warde asserts that “The best part of typographic wisdom lies in [the] study of connotation” (Warde 1956, 137-149), that is, recognizing that readers associate certain typefaces, and the contrasts between them, with specific kinds of texts, issues, and tones. Since black letter tends to be the predominant “default” typeface for seventeenth-century broadside ballads, EBBA transcribes black letter in plain Times New Roman font. Refrains and proper names tend to be printed in white letter or what we today call roman font, and are thus transcribed in italicized Times New Roman font for contrast. If a ballad’s white letter text is italicized, then the transcriber uses bold italic font. These font selections are also captured in the TEI/XML version of the ballad transcription so that the variation in the original typography is preserved in that machine-readable format as well.
In the TEI version, for instance, the white letter A in AS at the beginning of the stanza is marked as italic, as is the refrain at the end of the stanza. EBBA currently provides analyses of the ratios of predominantly black letter to white letter ballads over time, and it would be possible, using the TEI/XML version of the text transcription, to do more fine-grained analysis of the ratio and distribution of black- and white-letter characters within the same ballad.
Early modern printers’ rationale for typeface variation seems to have been pragmatic, aesthetic, and largely at their own discretion. In the 1670s, Andrew Marvell observed (a bit resentfully) that printers employed typefaces according to their own interpretation of the text: “For our Booksellers have many Arts to make us yield to their importunity...they promise us...that wherever there is a pretty Conceit, it shall be marked out in another character” (Marvell in Maruca 2003, 336). Pragmatically speaking, using a distinct typeface for proper names and repeated refrains, as is commonly done in ballads, could help conserve the finite number of sorts (pieces of type) for frequently used letters. Occasionally, though, a transcriber encounters a ballad where it appears that the printer ran out of one kind of sort and had to substitute with the same letter in another typeface. The ballad “Renowned Robin Hood,” for instance, features many speakers, all of whom constantly refer to themselves with the first person pronoun. The thus frequently-used I is sometimes in black letter and sometimes in white in order to make sure not to run out of I sorts. Varying the typeface for names of speaking characters, as well as for refrains, might also help singers easily find their places on the sheet in a performance context. Aesthetically speaking, skillful variation in typeface gives the document visual texture, beautifying the text even to illiterate eyes.
In the process of facsimile transcription, the transcriber’s respect for the print worker’s judgment extends beyond the visible marks on the original page. The process of coaxing the transcribed text back into its original spatial format reveals not only the printer’s expert (or inept) arrangement of the type, but also the invisible presence of the “slugs,” “spacers” and “furniture” that create the negative or blank space against which the inked impression contrasts. The use of negative space affects a reader’s aesthetic experience of the ballad, regardless of her level of literacy. Dramatic spacing can orient or overwhelm the reader, can create symmetry and contrast, and can emphasize certain words by isolating or enlarging them.
The facsimile transcriber must therefore perceive blank space as an element to be created. For example, these two ballads that appear side-by-side in the Roxburghe collection albums were set by compositors who made effective use of large type as well as substantial spaces between letters in certain words in the titles. On the left, the letters in “KILLYCRANKIE” have enough space between them to span the width of the two columns of the ballad text below. On the right, “LILLI-BOLERO” seems to have been internally spaced in order to mirror the width of “Protestant’s Triumph” above (though perhaps loose furniture caused it to slide out of perfect alignment). To replicate this kind of formatting, the facsimile transcriber adjusts the “kerning,” or space between letters. The term “kerning” (a function in word processing and graphic design software like Adobe Photoshop) is derived from the printing-based practice of creating “kerns,” or sorts that are specially shaped so that the edge of the letter extends past the edge of the slug, allowing that letter to be printed closer to the one on the adjacent sort (Felici, Graphics.com).
After trying to transcribe what a printer had previously set, facsimile transcribers begin to regard densely printed ballads as impressive feats of the printer’s spatial logic. In Mechanick Exercises, Moxon explains that the compositor must rely on his expert judgment in order to determine how much space a given text needs:
The Compositer therefore first considers what Bodied Letter his work is to be wrought on: then he carefully peruses the Copy, considering with himself whether it be evenly Written or unevenly Written, viz. whether it be throughout of an equal siz’d Hand, or whether part be close Written and part wide Written...Wherefore, the Measure being given, he Composes one Line in his Measure....This Line being Compos’d, he considers how much of his Copy it takes up, viz. whether it runs Lind Line for Line, or whether two Lines of his Copy make one Line in his Stick; or whether a Line and an half, or a quarter, or half a quarter, &c. and accordingly calculates what just number of lines [in the Copy] will make another just number of Lines in his Stick (Moxon 1683, 252).This edition of “The Woful Lamentation of Mistris Jane Shore” is clearly the product of the kind of careful planning that Moxon describes. The columns of the ballad are precisely as wide possible without crossing into the adjacent column’s space. In the second column, the line “But when I mourn’d my Prince grew sad” could have necessitated a wider column, but since no other line required so much space, the compositor judiciously dropped “sad” down to the subsequent line.
This is a common composing strategy; the compositor indicates that the dropped word belongs to the line above or below by placing an open parenthesis directly in front of it. EBBA transcribers are responsible for following the narrative of the ballad in order to notice strategically re-arranged lines like this one, and for then transcribing the dropped or raised word(s) within the metrical line of which they are a part. In order to maximize readability for today's audience, facsimile transcribers also place originally dropped or raised words where they "belong," metrically speaking, making use of the greater spatial flexibility afforded by graphic design software.
Thus the compositor of this particular “Jane Shore” broadside made efficient use of common space-saving techniques. The ballad contains some unusual space-savers too: the most remarkable feature of the ballad’s format is the prose section entitled “The Description of Jane Shore,” which is squeezed between the fourth and fifth columns of the ballad verse. Yet this crammed-in prose column is by no means illegible. As the facsimile transcriber will notice when replicating it, the "Description" was set strategically by the printer in white letter font in order to make it easy for the reader’s eye to isolate that column from its black letter neighbors. When italicizing the “Description” column accordingly, the facsimile transcriber also notices that this column is justified on both its right and left edges, making it appear to separate and hold up the two verse columns that might otherwise engulf it.
The transcriber can see just how deliberately the original printer arranged this right- and left-justification when he replicates the dramatic spacing of the ninth line of the second section of the “Description”: “and smooth.”
Other ballads make more use of negative space, with attractive and intricately shaped stanzas as in “Cupid’s Master-Piece” and “A Compleate Gentle-woman.” To reproduce this kind of format, the facsimile transcriber must attend to the spatial pattern that the printer created, and in the process will recognize the care it would have taken to produce this pattern manually. The process of facsimile transcription allows us to read many broadside ballads as remarkable testaments to print workers’ skill and judiciousness as designers, despite the relative speed with which ballads were probably produced and the ephemeral existences for which many ballads were destined.
At the outset I suggested that the outward orientation of the prefix "trans-" (across, beyond, over) suggests that transcription is a way to keep texts in motion, to keep them from stagnating in the same medium in front of the same audience. And it is worth noting that most early modern printers of broadside ballads were probably transcribing: whether they were working from manuscript, oral dictation (spoken or sung), or from previously printed copies of ballads, they too were engaged in creating newly distributable versions of a work. EBBA’s effort to present broadside ballads as widely-circulating digital documents, then, shares this fundamental feature with the efforts of print workers before them.
As a final thought, we might also ponder the possibility that broadside ballads are particularly transcription-friendly things. In digital terminology, ballads are platform agnostic. Like software programs that are able to run in any operating system, ballads are particularly adaptable to various media forms. For centuries they have been equally functional as manuscript, song, printed text, visual art, and now, as digital objects.