Collating manuscripts

As part of my current project, I am collating some South Indian manuscripts. So far, I have been collating a recent Telegu transcript on paper and a Grantha one on palm leaf.

1. At the end of the training phase, I was able to collate one folio per day of the former (written in a modern notebook with 38 lines per page). This means that I will be able to collate it in full in 66 days, almost three working months. Supposing that I just register variants in a file which has already the text I am editing, I will probably save one third of the time, so let me settle for two months but the last pages of the manuscript contain an unpublished text, so that these needed to be collated anyway.

2. I just measured the time I need for the Grantha palm leaf manuscript after the training phase: 90 minutes for each side of a folio. Since the manuscript has 58 folios, this means I will need 174 hours to collate it, which means 43,5 working days (I can only collate for about 4–5 hours a day, since I cannot focus for longer than one hour on collating and I need to do something else in between), which means little more than two months. If I forget about a separate collation and just insert variants, I will probably need less, perhaps one month and ten days.

3. Next I will collate a damaged palm-leaf manuscript in Grantha containing 35 folios, which will take me little more than one month or two and a half weeks.

4. Then, a further palm-leaf manuscript in Grantha counting 153 folios, which amounts to little less than six months or four months.

5. Then, a last palm-leaf manuscript in Grantha counting 22 folios, which amounts to less than one month or two weeks.

6.–7. Last, I have a two transcripts on paper, written in Grantha in a modern notebooks, summing up to 638 pages. This risks to mean that I will have to invest 4 years on them (!). They contain an unpublished text and the collation cannot be avoided in their case.

This being said, collating in full is better than registering variants (since the latter process inclines one to read what one has in the model instead of reading the manuscript afresh) and preparing critical editions is better than accepting published texts uncritically. Still, it is extremely time-demanding (unless one enjoys collating and does it as her hobby). How important must be the text in order for a scholar to engage in a critical edition? How flawed the edition, in case of published texts? How important must be the text in order to engage in the collation of several manuscripts of an unpublished work?

Part of the problem lies also in the fact that some answers are only found while working on the manuscript(s) and the edition(s), so that an a priori answer is impossible. Thus, I test each manuscript by:

  1. collating some folios at the beginning, middle and end
  2. collating in any case the maṅgala and the colophon(s)
  3. preparing a (keyword) description of the manuscript
  4. comparing it with further manuscripts in order to detect possible transcripts, which can then be left out
  5. comparing it with the extant editions in order to check whether they have already been used (which makes the possiblity of adding something significant through their collation dependent on the quality of the edition)

What are your strategies? When do you decide that collating is worthwile?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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7 thoughts on “Collating manuscripts

  1. Dear Elisa,
    you forgot to mention the time for proof reading your collation, which requires in my experience ca. 50% of the original time. Proof reading is, unforunately, essential.

    • Thanks, Philipp, very good point. And thanks for the time estimate (I would have thought I needed less than that, but this is probably delusional).

  2. Hallo Elisa,

    I generally scan the manuscripts in order to be able to enlarge them, and have them on the screen. I then split the screen, one part for the manuscript, one part for the word processing programme, and transliterate the text by directly typing it into the computer. Thus I save the time I formerly needed when I wrote my transliteration by hand and typed it only later into the computer. For further mss. of the same text I only notice the variants with references to foll. and lines. A first proofreading I also make on the screen. Thereafter I print out everything, and start working on the text.


  3. To add to what Petra said, if first manuscript is good enough, I try to get the meaning of each sentence and its relation to previous and next ones. I also note footnote which help me understand the text.
    If I come to recognize any specific pattern of writing, I snip that portion and paste in the Word Processor and write it’s equivalent in it’s front. It helps me when I open the manuscript after a considerably long time.(To mention I’m working on 4 works at a time, so I do the work in cycles.)
    I daily take note of my progress and procrastination.
    If there is no one to help, then I record my voice while I read the manuscript or when I proofread. Actually, I like this way because it eliminates need of other person.
    Even if two transcripts appear similar, I go through each page. Probably because one of them has some corrections made by some scholar.

    • Many thanks, Petra and Lalitālālitaḥ. It is interesting and inspiring to read about other methods. I had not thought about reading the transcript —why do you think it helps more than exactly transcribing the text?

      As for apographs and the like: Everything adds something. Nonetheless, ars longa, vita brevis and I still think that we need to select what is worth our efforts. In other words: I would only transcribe manuscripts of little value if they contained an important and previously unedited text, or if they could throw light on something important (e.g., the style of a given scriptorium). What is your standard?

      • I think it is the question what you want from a manuscript. Even if a manuscript is of little value for the text constitution because it adds nothing of value regarding variants, it may be interesting regarding the relation of various manuscripts to each other, and thus of the history of the transmission of a text. Thus I compare each ms. with the first one transliterated by me, and note all variants, all deletions and additions (regularly all mss. are read by one or several persons and thus contain a number of corrections) in a separate file in order to trace the relation between the mss. When all mss. have been checked and all variants are there I go to work on the text constitution.

        In order to save time and in case a transliteration of a text is available already (some unedited texts are available as text files on the internet) then I take this transliterations as a starting point, and simply note the deviations in my mss.