Issues in the creation and dissemination of Sanskrit e-texts
ucgadkw at ucl.ac.uk
ucgadkw at ucl.ac.uk
Mon May 31 11:25:09 UTC 1993
I should like to initiate a discussion in this forum concerning the
level of perfection that we can expect in electronic versions of
Sanskrit texts typed by individual scholars.
It is an increasingly common occurrence for me to meet colleagues who
have very substantial amounts of Sanskrit text typed into their
computers, and who are in principle willing to share their work except
that they consider it as yet too imperfect to be made public.
This is a completely understandable situation. We are in a profession
where scholarly reputations are hard-won and easily lost. The fear is
that if we make our e-texts public, and they are found to have many
typing errors in them, we will be blamed, or criticised, for this
The result is that the amount of Sanskrit e-texts available publicly is
just a tiny proportion of what has actually been done. More
distressingly, work is being needlessly duplicated. Did you know, for
example, that the Ramayana has been typed twice? Or that the
Mahabharata has been typed about one and a half times?
I should like to argue that making an e-text public is not the same as
publishing in a book or journal. The creation of e-texts is inevitably
going to involve certain error rates, and rather than trying
Quixotically to escape from these errors, we should look them in the
eye, understand them, and deal with them. If this were the public
perception of the situation, we could all begin a much wider process of
sharing Sanskrit e-texts.
My own belief is that everyone *fully* appreciates how difficult it is
to type a Sanskrit text, and that when a text is made available it is
met with whole-hearted gratitude, and a full appreciation of the labour
involved. Also everyone appreciates that such a work will never be
perfect. If you consider that a page of text contains (rough figures)
thirty or forty lines of sixty characters each: i.e. approximately 2k
bytes of data, then a text of 100 pages contains 200k bytes. If this
is typed with 99.9% accuracy -- which is *very* good indeed -- then one
would still expect to find about 205 errors, i.e., two per page! This
means that even with an almost superhuman degree of accuracy -- 99.9%
-- a scholar is likely to be unhappy with the results if he judges by
normal publishing standards.
Calculations of this type point out two things:
1/ Different standards are applicable to the creation of e-texts by
individuals, than are applicable to traditional publishing. 2/
Different *methods* must be applied to correction and checking.
Many of these issues have long ago been worked out in the context of
the creation of the Thesaurus Linguae Grecae. In that context, a great
deal of money was made available by the Packard foundation and other
sponsors, and each Greek text was typed twice by professional input
typists. The two copies were then compared with eachother by computer,
to give a first elimination of non-duplicate input errors. Then teams
of proof-readers worked through the texts, checking and correcting.
The resulting text was then added to the TLG CD Rom for distribution.
Clearly this is a big, expensive, team effort.
In the Sanskrit field, we don't have such central funding and the
possibilities that go with it. The efforts to create e-texts are all
scattered and individual. But the amounts of text now being
transferred into digital form are nevertheless very substantial.
Therefore, I stongly believe that we should all share what we have, in
spite of the fact that we have reservations about accuracy. It is
important that an e-text should include an audit-trail, and this will
record the state of the text, the history of its creation, and the
level of accuracy that can be expected. The Text Encoding Guidlines
(from the TEI) explicitly legislate for this.
If I have typed into my computer a hundred pages of some text, then let
me select some chunk from the middle, say two pages worth (say 4k
bytes). Then I should check this *carefully* against the input-text.
If I find eight errors, then let me say at the beginning of the file
that the text has an average error rate of 0.2%. (Or more positively,
the text is 99.8% correct.) This sthalii-pulaaka method should satisfy
everyone with regard to what they can expect, and the degree of
approximation they should build in to the statistics they derive from
their further use of the text.
Moreover, I think there are interesting methodological lessons to be
learned *from the mistakes*! Consider the article by Don Knuth, "The
Errors of TeX" (published in the journal Software: Practice and
Experience about five years ago). Knuth here analyses the categories
of errors that have been discovered in the program he made public in
1982, togther with information on frequency, seriousness, and so
forth. This is *very* important information for understanding what one
may expect from medium-sized software projects.
Similarly, we today need to have some quantitative studies on the
pathology of every-day text creation. Given that it is absurd to
expect perfection, we should know what types of errors are common, how
often they might occur, and so forth. (As we do with scribal errors in
manuscript studies.) This will help to guide us in creating programs
that can check a text automatically for the most commonly found
errors. It would also be very useful to have some comparative studies
of input coding and its relevance to errors. For example, is there a
difference in the error-rate of texts typed with the Nakatani or the
Velthuis keying systems?
These are all interesting academic questions. I hope that I have
convinced you that the quality of e-texts should not be seen purely as
a matter of pride and reputation on the part of the creator, but as
part of a larger issue of data integrity, in which perfection is
completely impossible, and a quantitative understanding of error is the
If these points can be accepted, I would hope that more texts might be
forthcoming, and that we can all share in the task of correcting and
improving the particular texts we work on.
I also see this work as methodologically cumulative. For example,
Prof. Schreiner told me yesterday that he has a list of 10,000
lemmatized Sanskrit words. This list and other like it could be used
for many purposes including data-integrity checking of other texts.
If one large text has been input, and we lemmatize it, those results
can be used to check the next text input, and so forth. In time, it
should become a simple matter to run a newly-input text through a
Sanskrit spelling checker or similar program, and get an immediate list
of trouble spots. The corrected text could then contribute again to
the spelling checker.
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