Digitising Cassirer
in a year of COVID

Dr Hine reflects on the journey that led to the Digital Cassirer Collection:

At the start of 2020, I had four trips scheduled, calculated to fit within the research budget for the Sheffield Cassirer project. The first of these was a visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where I consulted the archives of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL). The SPSL, in its earliest form as the Academic Assistance Committee, had supported Heinz Cassirer and other academic refugee scholars fleeing Nazi persecution. I documented my thoughts en route to Oxford, and my findings formed the basis of the interactive timeline and a talk delivered as part of the 2020 Migration Matters festival.

Changing plans

The second trip would have been to participate in an international Kant conference in Madrid. This was scheduled to take place in March 2020. I had carefully calibrated my journey to avoid flying, but then hesitated and not booked the trains. The costs escalated, and suddenly I was considering flights. Meanwhile, the impact of COVID-19 spread to Europe, with Madrid as one of its epicentres. Days away from the conference, it was postponed. This rescued me from an unnerving proposition: discussing Cassirer’s Kant in front of experts. In fact, I had determined that my main focus would be situating the Kantian turn in Cassirer’s studies within his life story, and particularly the forces that propelled his migration to the University of Glasgow. Thus the interactive timeline covers some of that material.

The third trip should have been to Wuppertal, for the European Association of Biblical Studies conference. I have not made it to an EABS conference since 2011 (Thessaloniki), where I spoke about my work on early modern bible translation and a nagging detail that later became the final chapter of my PhD thesis. The intention last year was to discuss Cassirer’s New Testament translation, and some of the discussions around its preparation for publication. The editor, Ronald Weitzman, preserved his correspondence with various publishers and advisors. One raised a question whether Cassirer’s text was in fact a translation. The point was to ask: when does translation become paraphrase? What constitutes a New Testament? In fact, my summer’s work looked rather different. That was because of the fourth intended trip.

Not Antwerp but Oedipus

My fourth trip would have been to Antwerp. I had applied to participate in an intensive summer school focused on making a digital edition. My plan was to use Cassirer’s script, Oedipus at Colonus, as my working text. I had some basic familiarity with TEI, partly courtesy of my work on Linguistic DNA. (Our main data source was EEBO-TCP, nearly 60,000 texts encoded in accordance with the TEI guidelines.) However, I knew that it was a multifaceted process and that, as my own chief technician, I would benefit from external steering as I worked my way through the process of digitising Cassirer.

By April, plans were shifting. Among other ideas, I had wanted to engage the cast of a local Oedipus at Colonus production in a reading of Cassirer’s text. This was pencilled in, on my project outline, for Autumn 2020. They had been rehearsing Robert Fagles’ translation through the winter for a Sheffield performance in late April. Seeing that that would be at best postponed, I approached the director to see whether we might use lockdown to test Cassirer’s text. While he chose not to be directly involved, I was put in contact with the cast, most of whom agreed to read and reflect on Cassirer’s version. With support from the University’s Theatre Studies team, actors recorded their lines separately to be knit together and the resulting play was released in September 2020 as part of the Festival of the Mind.

For the actors to record this work, they first needed a script. This need propelled me into the world of TEI editing. Using the drama module, I encoded speakers, line numbers and stage directions, adding extra milestonesa kind of digital bookmarkcorresponding to the Perseus Greek edition, to lay groundwork for future integration. Imagine the pain of my realisation that encoding the text was not enough: I also needed to learn how to transform TEI XML into other formats.

Drawing on a range of online resources, I mastered enough XSLT to render a HTML edition. I struggled in particular to resolve the different milestones (lines and Perseus cards) correctly, and found myself hacking the rules a little to achieve the desired result. Even with the assistance of Oxygen XML Editor (using free trial access), it was not easy work. A final layer of CSS (Cascading Style Script) was necessary to ensure that details such as the line numbering were correctly offset. I recall a sense of achievement as I printed and posted scripts to the cast.

By this time, the Antwerp Summer School had been cancelled. I was going to need to continue my learning independently. I turned to Cassirer’s early Kant commentaries, as relatively simple projects, and reapplied my TEI learning.

It was only after the event, through a post to the TEI public discussion list, that I discovered alternative training had been on offer. The e-Editiones society, founded in May 2020, had provided a three-part course on digital editions using TEI Publisher software. This course ran across three weeks in June 2020, with the COVID-appropriate slogan: “Stay Home, Learn TEI Publisher from Scratch”. Sessions were recorded and made available on YouTube, allowing me to dip in and test a little of the process. Feeling that this offer might plug the gap left by Antwerp, I watched the videos, toyed with the interface, and bookmarked the pages for future reference.

New Testament nuance

As Autumn approached, I was ready to tackle Cassirer’s New Testament. This entailed special challenges: Bibles have become reference items, and users of digital bibles often expect to be able to pull up chapter and verse. This was one challenge, but the bible is a canonical item not only in respect of religious thinking but also TEI. That means there was already a recommended referencing system, provided I could interpret it correctly.

That being said, with Cassirer’s legacy in mind, I also wanted to explore ways of encoding that would allow his text to be incorporated into other digital bible collections. To this end, I reached out to others involved in encoding bibles, and put an enquiry to the United Bible Societies, to find out whether I might get access to their tools and perhaps release Cassirer’s version to their care. The approach to UBS foundered when I was presented with the required formula for participation, “the translation standards set by the Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI)”. Did Cassirer’s text qualify?

As an academic, I boggled at the idea that any bible would qualify: one requirement was that the translation should not be void of ideological distortion. Since I argued in my PhD, and hold as a pretty strong tenet, that ideology and worldview are synonymous, every translation has an ideology just as every translator has a worldview. As such, ideology cannot but shape a translation. Side-stepping that personal stumbling stone, I wrote back:

. . . I believe the text complies. It was produced directly from the Greek, and influenced by two decades’ close study of Paul’s epistles, as well as a particular attention to Old Testament references (both Hebrew and LXX, including deuterocanonical works). The only point on which there is definite deviation is that English was not Cassirer’s mother tongue, though he was highly proficient and had been resident in the UK for almost forty years when he first undertook the translation. I understand the emphasis on mother tongue, but see that it is not an absolute requirement within the standards.

I also advised my contact that the Bible Society had distributed Cassirer’s New Testament when first published, and that Paul Ellingworth, a UBS translation consultant, had advised on the editorial work. I heard nothing back.

Much more recently, I found Ellingworth’s initial report on Cassirer’s New Testament, in which he judged the barriers to the work’s publication by the Bible Society to be “insuperable”. Had Cassirer been alive (and so available for negotiation), the barriers would still have been “almost insuperable”, so little did Cassirer’s text conform to UBS expectations. That the Bible Society did support its UK distribution in 1989 is therefore interesting. (Ellingworth himself was not unfriendly to the publication, assisting with editorial work and providing a dust jacket quotation.)

Cassirer’s New Testament brought with it a particular encoding challenge: his use of emphasis to highlight quotations was precise in its limits. Thus one could not simply encode a textual cross-reference to a verse (as one biblical digitisation expert suggested), without doing damage to the translator’s precision. A TEI solution was not difficult to find: the guidelines are deliberately shaped to be amenable to different use cases. The energy put into that solution was perhaps to the detriment to the search facility, since there has not been chance to implement chapter or verse level searching, though the skeletal code structure is there to be called upon at a later date.

Entering 2021 in company

By December 2020, I was convinced that TEI Publisher was the tool I needed. At the same time, I was also firming up an arrangement with local enterprise Rainbow Web Solutions, that they would provide and maintain the server for the legacy website. After drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding, I arranged purchase of a ten-year license for the cassirer.org domain. Because of a combination of factors, the server was not up and running until March 2021, but it came with an installation of TEI Publisher, ready for me to begin the transformations.

From February 2021, the project had a new asset: Emily Burke, a student on a School of English MA programme, who had asked to complete her 100-hour credited work placement with the project. In a pre-project self-assessment, Emily acknowledged that she was not digital by background, and the thought of coding or working with Oxygen XML Editor was an intimidating one. (I always ask students to reflect honestly on how they feel about the prospect of the work ahead. This allows me to plan tasks that build on their existing strengths and to set a structured challenge.) Of course, one of the first things I arranged was an Oxygen XML Editor license for Emily. Her contributions to the project have included encoding emphasis in the latter half of Cassirer’s Categories (beginning with the voluminous one on Paul’s self-esteem), repaginating the commentary on Kant’s First Critique, and encoding Jude in God's New Covenant. I also asked her to take a first look at the Digital Cassirer Collection's user guide. The work has been completed in company.

It is one thing to have access to a new tool, and another to have the brain space to dedicate to finding your way round. I had watched videos from the TEI Publisher workshops in July, and I re-watched these in April, making copious notes and thinking about how I could re-work the illustrated use-case to apply to Cassirer.

As I moved into practice mode, I hit several roadblocks. Reflecting back, I think some of this was because I’m used to software that will alert me if I’ve done something wrong. The flexibility of TEI Publisher made it rather too easy to break what I’d created. This happened because I didn’t yet have a good understanding of how its tools related to the schema and XSLT tools that I’d worked with a year earlier. Some weeks on, I can see that comprehending that each ODD (the official abbreviation for “One Document Does-it-all”) entailed a named schema (and not simply a named file) might have prevented some glitches. This is something I should have recalled from the earlier phase. Indeed, it is among several points that seem obvious in hindsight. Often in the small hours of the night, my brain would ping with another “Aha!” moment as I realised what else I had been doing wrong. As far as my ODD issues were concerned, I found it easier to download and inspect in Oxygen (the editor I was accustomed to) since in that setting, I could more easily see what was or was not there.

Verdict: It is not really advisable to speed through XSLT and xPath in a hurry one year and come back a year later without some purposeful revision.

Why TEI Publisher?

What TEI Publisher does brilliantly is support the authoring and testing of bespoke XSLT. This transforms XML in different ways to enable output in formats such as HTML and ePub. Because TEI Publisher comes with templates and resources built in anticipation of TEI P5 encoding, it is possible to render a readable edition relatively easily. Digging down, and using the networked editing tools, one can not only encode specific characteristics of the given text (e.g, the varying emphases that make evident where Cassirer saw allusions in his NT text), one can also change the rendering rules, to influence its overall look.

The dcc subdomain of cassirer.org, which now hosts the Digital Cassirer Collection’s editions would have been practically impossible (and at minimum looked much different and been more static in its interactions) without TEI Publisher as its engine.

Ready with thanks

The project’s success also owes considerable thanks to the willingness of Rainbow’s developers to get their heads round some very different systems. At a late stage, we realised that deploying the DCC app to cassirer.org was going to require a chunk of “reverse engineering”. (It is interesting to me to realise how my comfort levels move between technical and not-an-expert in conversation.)

My sanity also owes a lot to sympathetic conversations with an IT colleague in the Library team, and we hope that the Digital Cassirer Collection will eventually be archived there, alongside the physical materials. (This process is not straightforward, because accepting ownership of materials means accepting the costs of preserving them, and that is not a commitment to be entered into lightly.)

As the digitisation of Cassirer’s works draws to a close, a Cassirer legacy advisory committee has been formed, to have an eye on what comes next. Its members have been, in different ways, a quiet kind of support to me throughout the project.

In March 2021, a fan of Cassirer’s New Testament wrote to me. Since Eerdmans relinquished their rights, the Sheffield Cassirer project has become the main point of contact for those interested in his biblical works. Did Ronald Weitzman, he asked, write anything further about Cassirer’s life?

A week or two later, digging through materials I had fetched home but not found time to examine, I found that someone had recommended to Weitzman that he should write such a text. He does not seem to have done so, but in his papers, and in archives around the world, the materials exist to do something of this kind, and to do in it a way that opens up a dialogue between Cassirer, Weitzman, and the publishers and advocates with whom they interacted. I hope I get to do that work. Time will tell. And in the midst of the materials deposited at Sheffield there are plenty of stories yet to be told.