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Where Old, Unreadable Documents Go to Be Understood (atlasobscura.com) 44

From a report: On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They're close to impossible to read. Watson's company, Transcription Services, has a rare specialty -- transcribing historical documents that stump average readers. Once, while talking to a client, she found the perfect way to sum up her skills.

[...] Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn't find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat. In the business of reading old documents, Watson has few competitors. There is one transcription company on the other side of the world, in Australia, that offers a similar service. Libraries and archives, when they have a giant batch of handwritten documents to deal with, might recruit volunteers.

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Where Old, Unreadable Documents Go to Be Understood

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  • by KiloByte ( 825081 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @05:02PM (#56105193)

    I'd want to see this lady decipher the scribbling of a doctor I visited with foot pain recently. There's the Voynich Manuscript, then there's this.

    • Hey, I've got some stuff on 8" floppies that'd give her a run for her money.
  • by Khopesh ( 112447 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @05:03PM (#56105197) Homepage Journal

    The reCAPTCHA [wikipedia.org] service does two things. Verifying a user is a human by offering something that's really hard to automate is the one everybody knows about. The other is an effort to crowdsource understanding of images. This started with decoding the words in scanned books that OCR [wikipedia.org] was having difficulty with.

    There's your competition (though it's admittedly restricted to modern texts, so historical context and historical characters are beyond its scope ... and reCAPTCHA has recently moved on to other forms of image recognition.)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Try reading some "intellectual property" in the future!
    Hidden away in some corporate basement. Encrypted, with the key servers shut down long ago...
    Researchers complain that we already have the second dark ages[1], starting with the invention of "copyright"[2].

    THIS is unreadable. [pinimg.com]

    There was a time, where Germany started to be called "the land of poets and thinkers". It was the time when Germany didn't have such laws but the UK already had. Art thrived and flourished in Germany, and starved in the UK.[3]


  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @05:14PM (#56105245)
    to be devoured by some ancient evil or long dead civilization.
    • "Nearly there, it appears to be a prayer, no, more like a summoning. Just can't recognize this group of syllables which appears all over the manuscript. Ah, now I see! It's a name, Cthulhu, mighty Cthulhu."

      All done. Now, what does it sound like?
      ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn ...".

  • Where Old, Unreadable Documents Go to Be Understood

    ... Congress, for Bring Your Birth Certificate to Work Day ?

  • For MS Works files, just use Libre Office. Heaven knows Microsoft Office is too incompetently made to handle them.

  • The US tax code documents would seriously challenge Ms. Linda Watson.
    Not because you cannot read the actual words, more because you cannot understand their meaning.
    Same with most government documents from just about any government.
  • by nerdonamotorcycle ( 710980 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @07:12PM (#56105623)
    There are two handwriting styles in German that are pretty much illegible to modern readers. Sütterlin was taught in the '30s and '40s to people who are alive today, but in 20 years, very few people will be able to read it. I can kinda-sorta read it because my grandmother (b. 1898) wrote letters in it, and my father's (b. 1930) handwriting was this weird combination of Sütterlin and American-style Palmer. Kurrent is even older and was taught to German school children up through the early 20th century. Kurrent's letter forms are however closer to Roman-style alphabet than Sütterlin.
  • Now all we need is someone to decipher Word documents we wrote 2 weeks ago but no longer render properly.

  • (This was back in the 1970s and 1980s, when schoolkids were still being taught cursive.) After considerable thought, I concluded that written text was a WORM operation (write-once read-many).

    Cursive saved time at the write stage (easier to write), at the cost of additional time at the read stage (harder to read). Since the write operation happened only once while the read operation could happen multiple times, I decided saving time at the write stage was not usually not worth it - the cumulative extra
    • by Zappy ( 7013 )

      As a kid I never got the hang of it, writing cursive. I found it much easier, and thus faster, to write 'print' letters.

      Reading cursive, even when neatly written take great effort, sloppy written cursive could as well be Elvish and is completely unreadable.

      Some notes of letters I get I can't even recognise enough of it as letters or words to even understand what the subject is and then my wife pick's up, and she starts to make fun of me and starts reading it without effort.

"If it's not loud, it doesn't work!" -- Blank Reg, from "Max Headroom"