Guidelines for normalisation in the transcriptions of Edvard Munch’s French texts

Henninge M. Solberg

Edvard Munch’s French is characterised by many mistakes and inconsistencies. In addition his handwriting is often extremely difficult to discern. In developing the transcription guidelines, one of the aims has been to find principles that render the texts intelligible while simultaneously preserving their unique character.

Underlying the general guidelines for the transcription of Munch’s texts is the principle of a diplomatic transcription to the extent that it is possible, and exercising a sympathetic reading in cases where it is difficult to discern the script. This is a reasonable choice for the French texts as well. However, it is difficult to define what a sympathetic reading of these texts implies. To make sense of a poorly legible word and spell it the way Munch customarily spelled it is not possible in these texts, in the sense that he often spelled the same word in different ways. To give an example, he seems to write both “jeui”, “jeus” and “cieux” for “œil” or “yeux” (eye, eyes) in the letter draft MM N 3408, bl. 1r:

example 1

ma seule bonne ye ‹jeui› (my only healthy eye)

example 2

ma autre ‹jeus› (my other eye)

example 3

maladi de cieux (eye disease)

The context of these sentences makes it reasonable for us to assume that what he meant here was “yeux”, although it is quite obvious that that is not what he wrote. To spell out these poorly discernable words in compliance with proper French would imply a transcription that is far from diplomatic, and would eradicate Munch’s idiosyncratic French. In cases like these, one is thus forced to rely on one’s own discretion and experience gleaned from other texts in the transcription work. But there are fortunately a number of mistakes and linguistic features that appear repeatedly in Munch’s French texts, and it has thus been possible to evolve more precise guidelines for these. It is this type of characteristic traits that are treated in the points listed below:


Diacritical marks

  • Accents
    • Missing accent marks: Since they rarely create problems for comprehending a text, missing accent marks are not added in the transcriptions. For example “e”, “a” and “u”, which should have been “è”, “à” or “ù”, are transcribed as “e”, “a” and “u”.
    • Misplaced accent marks: When it is difficult to interpret a mark as anything other than an accent, the accent is transcribed even though the result is a misspelled word. Munch makes use of superfluous accent marks relatively frequently without their creating problems for comprehension. e.g.: MM N 3400, folio 1r, line 8: “complét” and MM N 3406, folio 2r, line 5: “Lés”.
    • If there is doubt about the direction of the accent, or whether it is meant to be an accent at all, it is transcribed based on a sympathetic reading. In other words, the accent is transcribed correctly if an accent is required in the word; an accent is not transcribed in cases where it is not required. e.g.: MM N 2352, folio 1r, line 4: “sincère” – the little stroke is interpreted sympathetically as grave.
  • Additional diacritical marks
    • A missing cedilla: it is not added for the same reason as with missing accent marks.
    • Tilde: There is only one instance so far of a word with a tilde, more specifically in MM N 2352, folio 1r, line 8: “nervöse”. The tilde is retained.


  • Missing apostrophes: Missing apostrophes are not added, as this seldom causes problems for comprehension. A space is inserted in between words that should have had an apostrophe between them, this in order to improve readability. E.g.: MM N 3401, folio 1, line 4: “m envoyer” is transcribed with a space.
  • Misplaced apostrophes are treated like misplaced accent marks. In cases where it is difficult to interpret a mark other than as an apostrophe, the apostrophe is transcribed even though the result is a misspelled word. A space is inserted after a misplaced apostrophe in order to improve readability. E.g.: MM N 2181, folio 1r, line 12: “les’”; MM N 3400, folio 1r. line 9:, “il y’ avait”; and the many instances of “vous’ aves”.
  • When there is doubt about whether Munch has written an apostrophe, it is transcribed based on a sympathetic reading, i.e. an apostrophe is transcribed in cases where an apostrophe is required in a word; if not, no apostrophe is transcribed. E.g.:
    • MM N 3406, folio 1r, line 13: There is a faint stroke following “pas”, but there are so many corrections and the line is so splotched that we interpret it sympathetically and refrain from transcribing an apostrophe.
    • MM N 3408, folio 1r, line 15: It is unclear whether the stroke over/following “j” is a diacritical mark or an apostrophe. An apostrophe gives the most correct reading, so the stroke is interpreted sympathetically as an apostrophe.
    • MM N 3412, folio 2r, line 10: The supposed apostrophe in “J’espere” is placed very low on the line. We are sympathetic and interpret it as an apostrophe.

“er” or “es” at the end of a word?

It is often difficult to determine whether there is an “r” or an “s” at the end of a word that culminates with either “-es” or “-er”. If one of the forms is correct, it is transcribed. However, there are many cases where neither “-es” nor “-er” is correct (e.g. in cases where there should have been “-ez” or “-é”. In these cases, the principle of sympathetic reading is difficult to follow.

  • The use of discretion: If for one reason or another – e.g. when looking at the surrounding letters – one is most inclined to choose one letter over another, that letter is transcribed. Munch makes use of “-es” relatively often in verbs that are conjugated in the second person plural (mistaken for “-ez”). In such cases the unclear letter is interpreted as “s”.
  • In cases where it appears impossible to determine which letter is in question, and both spellings are incorrect, the principle of correct pronunciation is followed: “-es” is not pronounced at the end of French words, while “-er” is pronounced approximately as the Norwegian “e”. In such cases the letter that gives the most correct pronunciation is transcribed. This follows a form of Munch logic, as his words are often pronounced correctly when one reads them, even though the spelling is incorrect (see also the related article [ref.]) E.g.: MM N 3402, folio 1r, line 10: “pries” and MM N 3406, folio 1r, line 12: “laisser”.

si/se, qui/que, se/ce

Munch often writes the wrong word when it comes to these word pairs. When there is doubt about which word is written, it is transcribed sympathetically.

e at the end of a word – or not?

The word is transcribed sympathetically unless the letter is very clearly missing. See also the general guidelines.

German and English words

So far, only one instance of a German word and one instance of an English word have been found in Munch’s French texts, more specifically in the French text related to Scream: “hauch” (German for “breath/puff/waft”) and “sun” (Norwegian: “sol”). These words are transcribed as they are written and are commented on (see the next entry as well).


The following words and expressions in the texts are commented on:

  • Words that are misspelled to such a degree that they create difficulties in comprehension. E.g.: MM N 3408, folio 1r: “jeui”, “jeus” and “cieux” for “œil” or “yeux” (eye, eyes).
  • Words that are only slightly misspelled, or that are pronounced like the word that is intended, but that can create problems for comprehension because they mean something else in the form that is written. E.g.: MM N 2181, folio 1r, line 12: “conte” (narrative) for “compte” (bill/invoice) and MM N 3412, folio 1v, line 11: “arme” (weapons) for “armée” (the army).
  • Words in other languages than French.

Incidences of French in Norwegian texts

  • French vocabulary and French names in Norwegian language texts are treated as Norwegian when it comes to normalising the text. See the guidelines for Norwegian texts.
  • French quotations in letters written in Norwegian are treated as French and follow the guidelines discussed in the present document.