Rare materials cataloguers in Anglo-American libraries often work with a variety of European languages, and are reasonably comfortable cataloguing books in the Germanic and Romance languages, with occasional forays into Scandinavian and Slavic languages as needed. Some may even catalogue materials in non-Roman scripts like Cyrillic and Greek, but unfortunately, relatively few rare materials cataloguers have training in non-European languages. Consequently, when a collection contains materials in Asian languages, those books tend to get sent to the back of the queue in the hopes that one day someone with the necessary language expertise will come along.
With that in mind, you can imagine the rare books team’s delight earlier this year when we learned that Hrileena Ghosh, one of our cataloguers on the “Lighting the Past” project, informed us that she could read both Hindi and Bengali. Excited by the possibility of tackling this small but long-neglected portion of our backlog, we conducted a survey of the collections and identified about two dozen volumes in Bengali and Hindi. Hrileena then collaborated with our rare books cataloguer to create detailed descriptions of these books which have been on our shelves, uncatalogued or only minimally catalogued, for nearly 200 years.
In addition to the usual subject and author headings, binding descriptions, and copy-specific notes, these catalogue records now include a direct transcription of the title, author, and publication information in Bengali or Devanagari script as well as a transliteration into Roman characters, and standardised forms of titles to facilitate searching. Hrileena’s language expertise even uncovered some errors that had gone unnoticed for centuries, like the fact that our copy of the Mahābhārata (Serampore, 1802) was bound with the wrong English-language title page–our “volume 1” is in reality a second copy of volume 2.
Here is Hrileena’s take on the project:
I stumbled across these books by accident. I work on ‘Lighting the Past’, the Special Collections project which aims to provide a basic bibliographic description of the collection in the online catalogue SAULCAT, so that the holdings are visible and searchable. In one shift, I came across a New Testament, in Hindi. This sparked the idea of a short term project in which I would help Christine with those books in the collection which were written either in languages, or at least in scripts, that I could read.
I was surprised to learn that Special Collections apparently had quite a few books in Indian languages, but I had not realised then that I would be encountering volumes of seminal works in the history of publishing, in both Indian vernacular and in the geographical area of Bengal. My first inkling that the collection may be unexpectedly exciting to work with was when, as the books were being pulled off the stacks, I came across a copy of Nathaniel Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hugli, 1778). This is a book still famous in Bengal as the first printed work to feature vernacular type. The type face for it was devised and cut by an Englishman, Charles Wilkins, who taught the art to an Indian apprentice, Pancānan Karmakār. In Bengal, Karmakār is a household name, and is synonymous with the work of the Baptist Mission Press at Serampore, West Bengal.
Having learnt printing from Wilkins, Karmakār became the leading typographer for William Carey’s Baptist Mission Press, and had a hand in designing the many vernacular fonts they used in their publications. The Serampore Mission was founded on 10 January 1800. In August that year, they published Carey’s Bengali translation of St Matthew’s Gospel, followed by the complete New Testament in 1801. This edition of 2000 copies was the first New Testament to be printed in a language of northern India. In its ten years, the type foundry at the Serampore Mission Press produced type in at least thirteen languages. Between 1800 and 1834, the Serampore Press printed bibles in almost 50 languages, 38 of which were translated at Serampore by Carey and his associates.
The Mission Press at Serampore was one I had more than a passing acquaintance with: the Carey Archives are still located at the Serampore College in Srirampur, a sleepy town on the banks of the Ganges about an hour’s drive from my home town of Kolkata. When I came to actually look through the books and to offer transcriptions, transliterations and the occasional translation, I was amazed at the number of books from the Baptist Mission Press in the collection. I knew St Andrews was a copyright deposit library at the time, but I had not expected so many works to have made the long journey to this Scottish university perched on the edge of the North Sea. As it turned out, it was just as well that the volumes as we uncovered them proved so exciting – for there were other frustrations.
Despite significant improvement in the last decade or so, non-Roman fonts are still difficult to work with on computers. Though Unicode now offers stable fonts for both the scripts I was working with – Bengali and Devanagari – the implementation is left to individual software packages, and many of these do not like working with non-Latin fonts. Devanagari was by far easier: I had to type via the character map, which made for slow progress, but otherwise it was smooth sailing. Bengali, however, was another matter. The font would not display in the cataloguing software, so I had to resort to typing individual characters by referring to their position on the Unicode character matrix. Since conjuncts and diacritical marks in Bengali must be dynamically shaped, and since Unicode automates such shaping, it meant that I was not only typing blind, I was also doing it with a great deal more trepidation than had I been doing the same in English. Correcting a single mistake implied not only the removal or replacement of one character, but the adjustment of several characters – and I would still unable to see what I was typing, even as I attempting to correct errors. Moreover, the final shaping of conjuncts on the catalogue continues, I’m afraid, to look a little wonky to your average Bengali user like me. Still, we managed, and I’m very happy to see the books show up on the online catalogue, complete with transcriptions and transliterations!
Highlights from the collection include:
The first printed book in the Bengali language and script: Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language. (Hugli, 1778)
The first printing of the New Testament in Bengali: Dharmma pūstaka (Serampore, 1801), translated by William Carey.
The first Sanskrit book printed in Devnagari type: Hitopadeśa (Serampore, 1804), edited William Carey and with an introduction by Henry Thomas Colebrook.
Bengali translations of the Mahābhārata (Serampore, 1802) and Rāmāyaṇa (Serampore, 1803). These were published during 1802–3, and marked the first appearance of the epics in printed form, in any language.
-Christine Megowan and Hrileena Ghosh
Rare Books Team