Amanuensis and community

by Maria L. Evans

“There were times when I was amazed by my own boldness in expressing my views about the novel, and still more amazed by the indulgence with which a brilliant writer used to listen to these almost childish remarks and opinions.”

–Anna Grigorievna, transcriptionist for Dostoevsky’s book The Gambler, from her Reminiscences

Not long ago, I began to realize in a new way that “Dictation and transcription” is fast becoming a lost art.

I’m pretty spoiled in my little office. I have a transcriptionist who has been translating spoken ruminations from behind microscopes into surgical pathology reports for over 40 years. Really, she knows what I say, and how I say it on the most common types of specimens, that on occasion she will stick her head in my office and go, “You said such-and-such on that skin lesion you dictated but when I heard the description, didn’t you mean this-and-that?” and most often she is right. She and I also both have the skill of starting to read through an old report and, before we get to the signature line, know which pathologist signed out the case–even when it’s an old case done by my former associates. We have both worked so long paying attention to what folks say and how they say it, we know things between the lines. I can go back through one of my present associate’s reports and tell if she is feeling hesitant or edgy about a diagnosis. She can tell the same with me. There’s an odd little intimacy in how we speak words for the world that betray bits and pieces of ourselves.

Modern voice recognition software, and transcriptionist work outsourced to transcription pools in India, is changing this into a less intimate production in some ways. Yet I can see a trend moving back to a few old things in communications in general–the business of speaking our words rather than keying or writing them.

Many of the memoirs penned until the invention of the typewriter were not penned at all–they were spoken to scribes. I even discovered a great term from antiquity for this function–amanuensis–from the Latin servus a manu, literally, “Slave at hand.” The slave was literally supposed to write exactly what was said. I suppose, ideally, the slave was supposed to do this with no input, but my guess is it was more what Grigorievna described–or what my own transcriptionist does–stop and go, “Say WHAT?” I am sure a good amanuensis created a layer of community and accountability to the speaker. It might also surprise us that many cultures at the time of the Bible used female slaves as scribes. We tend to think of women of that time as largely unable to read and write, but for slave women, this was a pretty good job, I imagine, and it brings an interesting possibility to light–that some slave women became more educated via osmosis of their job description than the more privileged or “free” ones. The relationship they had with the person doing the dictating would possibly have been a position of influence.

Now, our modern permutation of this, via things like Dragon Dictation for the iPhone, doesn’t do this (well, it does excise the curse words…) but it does bring back an old, almost lost distinction in communication–the notion that what communication that springs from our mouths is different than what comes from our hands.

What the modern permutation lacks, however, is what I’m going to call “the amanuensic process.” Things like Dragon Dictation only have a twice-removed human layer in which the programmer worked on certain assumptions that may not be true in an individual case.

It dawned on me that when we read or study the Bible, we don’t really consider the amanuensic process of how it came to be, very much. We also tend to forget that these stories were told to each other multiple times before anyone bothered to write them down. I think many of us have this notion that these words shot out of God’s mouth into the author’s ears and they were transcribed verbatim (in King James English, of course.) Even if we don’t really believe that, it’s a pervasive mindset that these were a series of solitary inspirations.

Thinking about the amanuensic process of how the Bible came to be, really opens up an interesting door in how we understand it. It means that from its very beginnings, this set of books that we come to regard as the heart, soul, and backbone of our faith, were forged in relationship with each other, even if these relationships carried a power differential. It also raises the reality that these relationships weren’t perfect–I am almost certain there are probably spots in the Bible that are the equivalent of Celie spitting in Old Mister’s lemonade from The Color Purple. But I’m just as certain that there are places where the “good scribe” looked up and said, “Are you SURE you want to say it like THAT?” and a discussion ensued, that made those words more understandable.

Could it be that, as we begin to return to the idea of speaking our words to the electronic scribes in our smartphones, that we are going to become more attuned to the relationships that created the words of the Bible? Could it be that this notion was the part of the Bible we were supposed to understand more fully rather than quibble about the words themselves? It’s an interesting proposition, isn’t it?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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