The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Joys of manuscript transcription

with 3 comments

EdRLS aims to transcribe all the principal Stevenson manuscripts relative to each volume with a standard markup system. This work proceeds at the speed of the formation of a coral reef, but for the essays at least we are being helped by a handful of excellent volunteers not to mention the dedicated volume editors.

The meticulous work of transcription and proofing is, however, punctuated by the occasional moment of exhiliration. This happened yesterday as Robert-Louis Abrhamson and myself were proofing my transcription of a manuscript of ‘Lay Morals’ (1879). At one point in Chapter II, Colvin for the Edinburgh Edition had made the following transcription:

…do you by any time-honoured juggle, deceit or ambiguous process, gain more…

Studying the image of the MS, I had provisorially transcribed the inserted phrase, not as “or ambiguous process”,  but as “or bxxxx [or hxxxx] process”

“process” seemed more-or-less OK, but no way did the word before it begin with “a”. Wondering whether “ambiguous” came from another version of the same text with a corresponding related word, I searched for synonyms of “ambiguous” beginnng with “b” or “h”—there are none. The following day, on Skype with RLA reading from the image and myself proofing, we spent some time together worrying over these two words, imagining what kind of words would be found in this position of the sentence, trying to determine which letters we could identify clearly and what peaks in the wavy written line could be other letters…

Then, all at once, miraculously, as when you solve a crossword clue… we realized it was, yes! “hocus pocus“!

… do you by any time-honoured juggle, deceit or hocus pocus, gain more…

Moments of hilarity followed as we realized that we had scored two points and seen form where there had been chaos and dark night. Added to this, we realized that Colvin had read “or” twice: once as “or” and then as “am-“, and then read the indecypherable, ambiguous sequence, appropriately, as “ambiguous”.

Written by rdury

28/10/2011 at 8:57 pm

3 Responses

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  1. No, we did not solve the Euro crisis or cure the common cold, but it was a lovely moment. Perhaps if we didn’t feel that Colvin had been a little too dictatorial in his editing, we wouldn’t have felt such triumph. But we’re still waiting for a study that looks into just how and why Colvin doctored Stevenson’s MSS.

    It would also be helpful to discover whether those pencilled back-slashed deletion marks in the MS were Colvin’s. They seem uncharacteristic of RLS himself.

    R L Abrahamson

    28/10/2011 at 9:34 pm

  2. And it was clever of you, Richard, to include an image of the actual MS. It also shows just how technically sophisticated this EdRLS is. We can do so many cool things on the screen.

    Picture, for instance, Richard in Italy, me in Cambridge, the two of us connected via Skype, both examining pdf images of the MS on our own screens as we work out the knots of the handwriting.

    R L Abrahamson

    28/10/2011 at 9:37 pm

  3. More ‘hocus pocus’ came up in ‘Pilate’s Question’, I recall: ‘We are great lovers of hocus pocus; we like a touch of the incomprehensible; in this as so much else, we are makers and lovers of a lie; the baldness of life disquiets us, we have scarce courage to behold it …’ Wonderful stuff!

    Neil Brown

    09/11/2011 at 8:29 pm

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