Transcription Errors from the Akkadians to Now.

Ben Brumfield writes at From the Page about a problem dear to this editor’s heart:

When we transcribe handwritten text, we make mistakes. We misread words with difficult letters; we accidentally modernize a word with archaic spelling; we skip a line. Everyone does it, and even though we humans don’t make as many mistakes as computers do reading handwriting, that might be small comfort for people who are trying to do their best at a difficult task. Is it possible to classify the kinds of mistakes we make when we transcribe?

[…] 21st century crowdsourcing volunteers are not the first people to copy text from a handwritten exemplar to a new medium; typists, printers, clerks, and scribes have been doing nearly the same thing for thousands of years. Editors and other textual scholars in classics, biblical studies, and medieval studies have had to work with differences between copies of the same text, determining which variant might be an error and which might be original (or conjecturing an original if both variants look wrong). Over centuries, they’ve created an extensive literature analyzing scribal errors, classifying them and identifying probable causes. Could we learn from them?

Martin Worthington is an Assyriologist who has asked the same question. In Principles of Akkadian Textual Criticism, he introduces the conclusions of textual scholars from other disciplines to his own field, describing each type of scribal error and looking for examples from Mesopotamian documents. For the most part, he finds that the classifications apply accurately, even though scribes wrote clay tablets instead of parchment or paper. Scribes were most likely to make these errors when working with unfamiliar kinds of texts or when they were sleepy, but errors also occurred when the original was damaged or the style of handwriting was unfamiliar.

Computers are not cuneiform, but I think that we all might be subject to the same kinds of forces, so let’s dive into Worthington’s framework.

Worthington’s classification includes Errors of letter similarity (subdivided into Mis-readings and True typos), Errors of word interpretation, Interference by internal narration (“When we read someone else’s writing, we carry their words in our head on the way to the keyboard. It’s easy for our internal narration of the text to change it to the wording, spelling, or punctuation we’d use instead of that used in the original”), Eye-skip (saut du même au même), Word-skipping (lipography), Haplography (when something is doubled in the original, but we only transcribe it once), Dittography (when we repeat a word or phrase that only occurs a single time in the original), Polar errors (when the original says “hot”, but a copyist writes “cold”, or replaces “big” with “small”), Errors of attraction, Synonym Substitution, Dialect Normalization, Cut-and-Paste Errors (when a transcriber saves effort by copying repeated text that actually varies in tense or spelling), and Hypercorrection (when our transcriptions “correct” errors we perceive in the original which were not actually errors). Ben says “My own experience as a transcriber convinces me that Worthington’s classification scheme is applicable to modern users of web-based transcription software as much as to Mesopotamian scribes working with clay tablets,” and I’d have to agree. Thanks, Leslie!

Also, RusTRANS is “actively seeking essays for a new, Open Access volume which is aimed at stimulating and consolidating scholarship about the global imprint of Russian literature in translation”:

Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context (2023) is intended to constitute the first geographically coherent, culturally inclusive, and theoretically consistent model of the distribution and influence of translated Russian literature on global cultures from 1900 to the present day. Given that many leading studies in this field have privileged Russian cultural transmission in Britain and/or Russian influence on British writers[…], the editors particularly invite new scholarship on the transmission of Russian culture and on intertextualities between specific Russian writers and non-Anglophone literatures.

I found out via Muireann Maguire’s FaceBook post; see here for more details. If you know someone who might be interested, pass it on; that’s definitely a book I’d like to read.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    We should be starting the story of transcription errors quite a bit earlier.

  2. “Dammit, how many times have I told you slackers to watch out for Upf2 deletion? Next time this happens, you’re all fired!”

  3. Punchline for another transcription error joke:

    “The word is CELEBRATE, not CELIBATE!”

  4. John Emerson says

    One line of the Daodejing exists in 28 different versions. Fun! And with the Daodejing there is no urtext — the 4 ancient versions recently discovered differ substantially from one another and from all later texts.

    Many of the differences are probably mistakes of the kinds discussed here, but many seem to have.been deliberate revisions. Daoist transcribers didn’t seem to have the textual reverence Confucian transcribers did (possibly because they favored the oral version). Many of these revisions are trivial and amount to smoothing of style, etc., but in some cases variants point to a distinctly different meaning, which is not seen in the standard editions.

    A special fillip: Chinese tradition required the avoidance of the names of recently deceased emperors, which in some cases were common words like full “ying”, which in most familiar editions has been replaced by full “man”. There are an uncertain number of such substitutions in the various known texts, but certainly at least six.

  5. John Emerson says

    At least the clay tablets didn’t have autofill.

  6. January First-of-May says

    At least the clay tablets didn’t have autofill.

    Nor did they have spellcheck/autocorrupt, though an autocorrupt-like effect could have occurred if copyist 1 made a mistake and then copyist 2 tried to figure out what was going on.
    And of course there’s always the mental/muscle-memory autofill where the fingers write a similar common word instead of the intended one (the usual English example is the confusion between “than” and “that”).

    (The attested Akkadian texts of the scribal-exercise variety probably went through a lot of copies; in some cases development had been tracked over nearly three millenia. I wonder how old of a text did a typical copyist have to deal with – I vaguely recall an estimate of “probably about two centuries”, but it might have been in a different context.
    For that matter, I highly suspect that some of the more literary texts were also transmitted orally at some stages, which in a writing system as nonphonetic as the Akkadian one would muddle things further.)

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