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Milton claimed he was taking direct dictation from God. Pity his daughters who took dictation from Milton.

Dictating a Masterpiece
The end of literary transcription.
By Amy Rowland

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 done by authors through history.

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

Before stenography and then typing provided an entry into the workplace for thousands of 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 several paintings, by Delacroix, Mihaly Munkacsy, George Romney and others.

Milton himself claimed 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 it longer than it is.”

Though dictation itself is not new, dictating to a human is not the same as dictating to a machine. For one thing, a human transcriptionist responds, even if the response is pre-reflective—laughing, crying, flinching—the transcriptionist is a substitute for the author’s body and that body reacts.

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, in part to help pay off his dead brother’s debts.

In her “Reminiscences,” Anna Grigorievna described working for Dostoevsky:

“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.”

Although there is no way to measure her contribution, it is clear that she was aware that she was offering more than efficiency of production.

With her help, Dostoevsky finished “The Gambler” on deadline. Then he married her and their collaboration continued. She later recalled his praise:

“When, in the space of a few days, you and I had established our pattern of working, I began to have a glimmer of hope—I, who was on the brink of despair—and I began to think, maybe if I can continue to work this way from this point on, then…perhaps…I’ll finish the work in time!”

Dostoevsky understood, even emphasized, that theirs was a collaborative effort. And though history may have forgotten these invisible handmaidens, in the moment of artistic production, authors like Dostoevsky responded to their presence. No one would call voice recognition software a collaborator. Nor would anyone say that a computer “wrote with one hand and wiped tears with the other” as Anna Grigorievna did when Dostoevsky dictated a scene in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

She said that after finishing his dictation he always asked, “Well, what do you say, Anechka?” And she would respond, “It’s fine.” She added, “But my ‘fine’ meant to Fyodor Mikhailovich that perhaps the just-dictated scene, though successful from his point of view, had not produced any particular effect on me. And my husband placed great importance on my spontaneous reactions.”

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