The Lost Art of Dictation

Before voice recognition software, there were women


| July-August 2011


More and more writers are using voice recognition software, which is constantly improving and even has an app for the iPhone. The novelist Richard Powers has explained his process of dictating novels to his PC tablet as a return to “writing by voice” as authors through history have done.

But earlier writers—Milton, Dostoevsky, Henry James—used the first form of voice recognition software: women.

Before stenography and then typing provided an entry into the workplace for many women, handwritten transcription was an intimate exchange and was often unpaid work done by an author’s female family members.

Although the question of who really transcribed for Milton continues to be debated, the image of blind Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters captured the public imagination and was the subject of paintings by Delacroix, Mihaly Munkacsy, George Romney, and other artists.

Milton himself claimed that he was taking direct dictation from God, but it must have been tiring for anyone to transcribe a work that, as Samuel Johnson noted, “none ever wished . . . longer than it is.”

Dostoevsky called his transcriptionist, Anna Grigorievna, his “collaborator.” He hired her in order to finish The Gambler because of a desperate contract he had made with his publisher.

Scott
10/11/2013 11:42:19 AM

Before there were computers, there were women, as well. I work for a 110-year-old obervatory. When you look at antique photographs of the staff, there are lots of women in the scene. They did a lot of the transcribing and data reduction for the astronomers. 100 years ago the women were called "computers."


Brandonkenn
7/23/2011 6:48:27 AM

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