For the USS Constitution Museum project, I transcribed all the surviving logs from that ship for the War of 1812 period (1812-1815). Ships' logs were functional documents in which officers tracked weather, movement, supplies, and events. The data they contain is very valuable from a historical standpoint, telling us much about how ships functioned. Ships' logs betray little emotion and less of the personal side of life at sea than other sources. But among the courses and currents and wind directions and latitude and longitudes and barrels of pork and boxes of cheese in the Constitution's logs are occasional, remarkable narrative passages. There are hints of personalities, notes about both dedicated and reluctant sailors, records of long days and nights far from land, and traces of lives and deaths that played out at sea and in port.
Sometimes I laughed out loud when reading the logs. On August 18, 1812, the Constitution sighted a sail and made chase. The vessel she pursued, presumably thinking the Constitution was a British ship, attempted to escape. When she caught up, the Constitution "found her to be the Private Brig of War Decatur of Salem, Captain Nichols of 100 Men, and 14 Guns 12 of which she threw overboard during the chace." The poor brig Decatur was so anxious to escape from what she thought was a powerful British ship that her crew frantically pitched their heavy cannons over the side to lighten their load.
Years later, on February 25, 1815, the Constitution was hosting captured officers from HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The prisoners from these ships were well-behaved, the log-keeper wrote, "except some of the British officers of whom this ship’s ward room officers complained, that they did not conduct themselves below, like gentlemen, being in their language indecent, vulgar, and abusive to each other." So much for polite decorum.
The Constitution, Cyane, and Levant, from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
The Constitution's log-keepers were not writing in type, as I am now. They wrote by hand, in ink, and although they mostly wrote in crisp, legible script, converting their writing into type is, at base, an act of translation. Like all translation, it is full of interpretive decisions. Is that mark a comma or a period? Did they even make that distinction when they wrote it, or was it just a dash of the pen that signified a sentence break? Is that letter capitalized or not? Is that number an 8 or a 9?
These might seem like obsessive, antiquarian questions, but they are not. Periods and commas change sentence meanings (as in the famous elementary school lesson of "Let's eat, grandma" versus "Let's eat grandma"). Whether letters are capitalized or not impacts how we read (and how people in 1812 read) their importance, RIGHT? And the difference between 800 gallons of water and 900 gallons of water could mean life or death on a ship at sea, and its record can impact how we understand the choices the Constitution's officers made about how long they could stay at sea.
Translators make choices. And so, knowing full well the weighty consequences, I sometimes had to make my best guess regarding both the action of the writer (whether a particular mark he made was long enough to be considered a comma) and his intention (whether he intended that comma to end a sentence or separate a clause).
When it comes to oral histories like those I've been conducting, transcription is no easier. People don't speak many of the parts of speech we include in writing. There are rules about how to use commas, dashes, and slashes when we use the language we call writing. But as for the language we call speaking, things get trickier. Was that a comma I just heard in your sentence, or a period? Or rather, was that a comma I just heard in your sentence? Or a question mark? When you transcribe what someone says, you introduce new parts and new meanings.
Just like I had to make decisions about the Constitution's logs, I had to make decisions about what people had said to me. The difference between a spoken "because" and a shortened, spoken "'cause" is infuriatingly miniscule. When I'm converting speech into writing, how much emphasis did someone have to place on a word for it to qualify for italicization? How do you even write out the noises people make when they crunch filler words like "you know" into something that we hear and understand just fine but that realistically sounds something like "unuh"? As a transcriber, you have to make decisions that may have bigger implications than you might think. Century-old transcriptions that attempted to mimic the dialects, for example, of African Americas, seem to us today both mildly racist and infantilizing. How I transcribed the words of my speakers determines whether readers might view them as polished and precise or sloppy and casual.
As a historian, I work with words a lot. Normally, I'd tell you I only speak and read one: English. But when you think about it, that's far too simple. I can never hear the spoken voices of the Constitution's officers in 1812. I read their words in a written language. And when I listen to a recording, I hear and assert all sorts of meanings that might never appear had the speaker written those same words. As a transcriber, I translate these languages, and no translation is perfect. As a historian, I take these languages and interpret them again, into new stories. And what a challenge that turns out to be.