Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pin the tail on the cognate

Do enough image restoration and eventually it means dealing with text, sometimes in languages one doesn't understand. If the title above looks a little bit like "Manhattan", that's exactly what it means. The source is a 1639 map from the era when New York was New Amsterdam. Restoration of foreign text poses special challenges.

An early and important part of restoration is dirt removal, but with foreign language texts one often runs into the question "Is that a punctuation mark or an accent mark, perhaps?" The first rule, when in doubt, is do no harm.

Modern dictionaries aren't always trustworthy for this challenge because centuries old texts may be written in dialect or use obsolete spellings. Consultation with native speakers helps, yet it's equally important that the native speaker comprehends the goal. During one restoration last year on an Arabic script document a scholar from Morocco assisted with review; it was a surprise to discover she did not just order marks removed but also wanted new ones added: she had corrected the accents according to modern usage, not realizing that what was really needed was fidelity to a text over two centuries old.

Fortunately, for this old Dutch map it will be possible to tap Gerard Meijssen and the WMF Netherlands. Gerard occasionally sends along copies of his correspondence with Dutch museums, which I've nicknamed as games of "Pin The Tail on the Cognate". Between English and German I can sometimes catch the gist, but darned if it's feasible to remember Dutch spelling.
It's fascinating how much easier it is to recognize the letters of an old text after basic cleanup. Here's hoping this partial restoration doesn't take away too much. At this point it probably still has an unnecessary mark or two; better to err on the side of caution.

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