Sunday, September 12, 2010

Being Politically Correct: What should we do as historians?

Ol' Myrt here has always been taught to transcribe a document word-for-word, so as not to interject one's own translations or interpretation of the text. There is always the danger of removing the text from historical context.

Now I'm working on a project to transcribe the letters, photo labels and other memorabilia collected by my friend Elsie concerning her WWII Red Cross service and civilian employee of the Army during the Korean Conflict. The point of the Elsie Says... blog, is to transcribe her numerous letters and post accompanying photos in preparation of an upcoming book, thereby preserving her eye-witness reports of life during that time period. 

But a problem has come up.

I received a Facebook e-mail from Hazel who writes "I was reading the section concerning the day she saw Tojo. In the spot she talks of a Warrant Officer who was a Jap prisoner. A few years ago, and probably a lot of years ago, it was generally agreed that the word "Jap" would not be used, rather "Japanese" would be used. Doesn't really bother me, but I thought some may take offense. You may have already even mentioned something about staying true to her notes and I missed it. Just a thought. My husband's uncle was on Baatan, so I know about the cruelty. Great thing you are doing with Elsie. I have been a fan for years."

Now in the several days since I received this email, I've been debating this back and forth in my own mind. (Yes, I had considered it before I posted Elsie Says... I remember seeing Tojo.)

Should I in fact edit every one of Elsie's comments for political correctness?

I know my friend Elsie -- she isn't a bigot. She is kind, and considerate, and loving. Whenever Elsie and I spoke in the past of her experiences, she clearly made distinctions between people who undertook inappropriate military activities and the individual citizens of the countries she visited. Remember, Elsie lived in the US, England, France (where she had German prisoners of war working in her office under her direction), Japan and Korea. Indeed Elsie enjoyed the cultural differences, and indeed even applauded these differences. But she didn't show hatred or blind prejudice.

It would be easy enough to type Japanese instead of "Jap", but wouldn't that also overly stress the use of now politically incorrect word?

Mr. Myrt suggests Jap[anese]  or J**

Am I less sensitive to prejudicial remarks against Japanese than I am to other ethnic groups? I certainly hope not!

I am perplexed, and ask my DearREADERS what you think. Be sure to post your comments following the web version of this blog entry.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. I believe that you must stick to transcribing verbatim. Your transcription loses value if you start changing anything. Mr. Myrt has a good suggesion. Mine would be to make an editor's note at the beginning of the transcription (or project) followed by Ed. in brackets i.e., [---, Ed.]explaining what you have done and why. This would be a simple way and save you time.

  2. As a Japanese-American, I believe I have an insight on this that your other white readers do not have. During the WWII era and on, the word Jap HAS indeed been used as a racial slur and is no different than somebody using the words nigger, spic, or kike. I believe the best way to write it out would be Jap[anese] like you mentioned in your post. The only reason it doesn't bother many people is because it is not used to describe them.

    Thank you,

  3. Carry on transcribing word for word - that's what a transcription is, and no one expects the PC-ness to apply retrospectively to the 1770's or the 1870's, or whenever, as it would today. We don't want a modern interpretation, we want to know what the document said at the time, warts and all, don't we? A little bit of social anthropology knowledge relating to the time in question should surely help us over the current PC barrier differences? There are many old Scottish Kirk Session records investigating the parental responsibility of (alleged) fathers of illegitimate children, which now would be considered non-PC, however these records are sometimes the only paperwork connection we have to establish paternal connections, which is a genealogist's concern

  4. Dear sweet Myrtle,

    I just wrote a response and then it got lost & my computer had a giggle fit, so if you got my previous email, I didn't finish my thoughts. It is very sweet of you to be sensitive to what Else and potential readers my think. However, I also feel strongly that when transcribing material it is important it is transcribed as written. Material was written during a time that is different than now. The reader understands this, or they should. Of course some will be offended. Did the bible translators change what was written so they would'nt be politically incorrect? If we, as transcribers, change a word, where would it stop? I personally transcribe everything just as it reads. This includes; abbreviations, capitalization, paragraph indention, punctuation, and I don't try to interpret what the writer was saying. This would be an injustice to the validity of the document. I make my comments/thoughts on a separate document, if I find it necessary. Well this is my 2 cents.

    Linda Dean

  5. This is a really interesting dilema you have brought up. I am also of the opinion (because of what I have been taught) that a document should be transcribed word for word exactly as originally written.

    Since Elsie wrote "Jap", that is what should go into the transcription with the rest of the word in [ ] as Mr. Myrt suggests.

    We should not be rewriting history. Just my opinion.

  6. While many of the racially insensitive slurs may offend many of us, I think that changing anything to be politically correct is not being true to history and the original documents. I'd leave the transcriptions as written and perhaps use a disclaimer elsewhere in the body of work.

    I know that I reacted earlier this year when I saw people referring to the NIGR (The National Institute on Genealogical Research) on Facebook. That didn't seem like a very politically correct choice for the acronym of an organization. So where does it stop?

    I also struggle with whether or not to correct someone's spelling, grammar and punctuation. Any thoughts on that?

  7. I wouldn't edit a term from a historical document for the sake of political correctness. If a particular term troubled me, or was likely to trouble readers, I would add a footnote to explain that I was being true to the original, and an explanation of how usage has changed.

    To be honest, this seemed to me at first reading to be a case of extreme oversensitivity. To my Australian ears, the term "Jap" isn't particulary offensive. In case I was being horribly naive I pulled out "The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary" and looked it up. Indeed, "Jap" is described only as a colloquial abbreviation, there's no indication that the term is considered offensive in Australia.

    If Wikipedia is to be believed, it's considered much more offensive in the USA and Canada.

    Taking that into account, I replaced "Jap" in my mind with something I find more offensive. Even in that case I think I would leave the text as is but add an explanatory footnote.

  8. I believe that being historically correct is more important than being politically correct. People have differing views on what is 'politically correct', and what is politically correct today may not be politically correct tomorrow. As an example, 'colored' at one time was the politically correct appellation for a black man, but not so today.
    There will be someone who is offended no matter what terminology you use, so you might as well be historically correct - at least that is more likely to remain the same!

  9. I vote for verbatim transcription. We cannot place our values onto the words or actions of those in the past. Those who attempt to do so distort history. Who knows what phrases we use today that may be considered 'offensive' to someone 100 years from now. Words have meaning only within context, and editing them using today's standards would be a disservice.

  10. I think the transcription would be true if transcribed word by word as spoken. About the spelling, grammar or punctuation correction is concerned, I guess it would be ok as long as it will not distort or alter any of the intended thought of the one who spoken it.


  11. When I'm reading something like this it is very "jarring" for me. It really takes away from the document when reading the "slang" in my opinion. I would put a disclaimer somewhere and maybe put the shortened word once or twice and than use the accepted term for the rest of the document.

  12. In my opinion it is quite wrong to apply today's standards to those of the past. I consider this to be a perversion of history, if there was prejudice then, and there was, then it is reflected in the writings and thinking of those times. This should be respected and understood even in today's PC environment.

  13. I found the word 'Jap' jarring but i think you should transcribe what she said or wrote as she did it. I am black and i would find the word 'nigger' jarring but i would also want it transcribed in the original. It helps us to remember how publicly racial slurs were used in the recent past by people who would not have been described as racist by family and friends. I also like the idea of putting the explanation at the beginning about staying true to her words etc etc.

  14. A transcription should be exactly what was written - grammar, punctuation and spelling errors and even racial slurs included. If not, then it's a translation of what was originally written.

    Regardless of how offensive certain words are to us, we can't re-write history. I think an upfront explanation is a good option.

    I have some 1900 court records from Mississippi and at least parts of them will someday be included in a book. Many of the witnesses were African-American but that obviously wasn't the word used so we will also have to address this issue at some point. While the word used over and over in this testimony and even as the official description of witnesses is offensive to me, it would be a disservice to those people if we try to pretend that they did not suffer those injustices.

  15. I too like Mr Myrt's suggestion of including the rest of the word in square 'editorial' brackets (in italics?). I wouldn't correct spelling or grammar either. These, after all, as we know, used to be more variable, and it is the author's voice we are preserving, hard as it is sometimes to hear or see it. (I have a piece my mother wrote as a girl. It's a joke involving a railway porter. I should write about this soon - I don't know that my kids would quite get the 'joke'. That's another issue.)

  16. I am in the process of transcribing hundreds of family letters found in the Hawaii State archives. The central figure in my focus is my 4x great aunt who lived there 1838 - 1889, but she was originally from Boston. In the letters, from people in Boston and other parts of America, and to her son, Governor John O. Dominis, lots of words are used that are not used today to describe the people of a very racially mixed island. I always transcribe exactly. I do not fix spelling, grammar, capitalization or change the racial slurs (and you cannot believe how many slurs are used to describe native Hawaiians, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, etc.). I'm sure some of this comes from his controversial mixed race marriage in 1862. I prefer to add notes before or after the transcription. I never translate the words either, I leave them in the original Hawaiian. Family information, translations, historical background information can all be added to the notes.

  17. I am in the camp that you are transcribing something and it needs to be word for word exact. So your blog title is somewhat incorrect. If you were a historian, it would be how would write about Elsie's letters. That would be a different question.

    I published an article this year about a joint French and Native American raid on Durham, N.H. which in previous history books was called the Oyster River Massacre by Indians. I felt I needed to find more appropriate language to describe that event, but the truth of the event still remains. The French and the Abenaki killed over 100 settlers (including several of my ancestors).

  18. I too believe that a transcription is just that, a transcription--spelling errors, punctuation, racial slurs, and all. Unfortunately, history isn't politically correct. People, and the documents people leave behind, are a product of their time. Does it disturb me to read what I consider objectionable stuff. You bet, and that's a good thing. We should be disturbed. Our emotions help us to connect to the past and learn from it. What's the old saying, those who don't know history are destined to repeat it. It's important to be reminded of how far we've come. On the other hand, it's also important to be reminded of how far we still have to go.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  19. I believe you should transcribe Elsie's letter to the "T" realizing that if you change wording it changes the meaning and the historical context.

  20. I would either write a comment before the transcription, explaining that it is transcribed verbatum, including words that would be considered unacceptable today, or I would put a notation (superscript number) after the first occurrence of the objectionable word, with the explanation following that number at the bottom of the page.

  21. I think Shelley and many other have this correct. Transcribe as written and always keep as written even when it is in a published work. As historians we are supposed to be presenting the past in the context of the past not the context of the present. The quotation marks around the quote should be clue enough that this is what this person felt and how they spoke in that era - and we can not and must not change that social or cultural context. In the introduction or prologue of the work it can be explained to the reader what you are doing and that the words used in the book may be offensive in modern times, however they were used in the context of this work. Footnotes or endnotes can also be used to do the same thing. We are not writing history to change it, we are writing it to explain, interpret, and understand it.


  22. Excellent debate. Most understand substitutions for profanity, so preserving the offensive in any form is unnecessary. I'm in favor of Mr. Myrt's editorial brackets. If readers find that insufficient, then welcome them to read the original document.

    1. Absolutely do not make any changes. Transcribe them exactly as they are and do not capitulate to the racists who seek to advance their racist cause by asking you to change original language. Disgusting that people would even suggest such a thing. Karl Marx would be proud if you did transcribe them differently from their original version.

  23. Use the brackets, but then include an explanation of WHY they were used. Future generations might have no idea about the common use of the slur. It was a different age and time, a different idea of how things ought to be.