Training a multilingual model in Transkribus: Jeff Rusten

The majority of Transkribus models are also trained to read just one language — after all, most historical documents are written in one language. But what if your document contains three (or even more) languages? Can you train a model to read all three at the same time?

The answer is yes, as Jeff Rusten and his team at Cornell University recently proved. Rusten’s research group have been working on a dictionary of all the words used by the ancient Greek comedic playwright, Aristophanes. The unpublished lexicon was put together in 1910 by Ernst Wüst, a German classicist, and is entirely in his handwriting. It is written in three different languages: ancient Greek, Latin, and Wüst’s native German. 

As no public model currently exists for this language combination, Rusten’s team had to train their own multilingual model from scratch. We spoke to Rusten and his colleague, Ethan Della Rocca, about how they trained their multilingual model and used it to transcribe Wüst’s lexicon.

Wüst’s entire lexicon was written by hand. © K G Saur Verlag

Wüst’s lexicon to Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ comedies from the fifth century BC became famous not just for their satirical perspective on life in ancient Athens, but also for their unusual linguistic style. “Aristophanes’ language is unique in classical Greek, combining high poetry and intellectual terminology with colloquialisms, terms from daily life, and even obscenities,” Rusten explained. “His lexical corpus was prized and studied already in antiquity.”

However, studying Aristophanes’ language in full requires having access to a comprehensive lexicon, detailing meanings, semantic relationships, and usage with key examples. “It was thought there was no adequate lexicon but in Cornell’s library we found a collection from 1984 of microfiche images of Ernst Wüst’s unpublished manuscript.” For the uninitiated, a microfiche is a small piece of photographic film containing images of pages of written material. Before digitisation, they were used to store materials, such as newspapers, without taking up too much physical space in an archive. In the 1980s, there was a push to use microfiches to ensure that manuscripts on decaying paper would be preserved forever. 

One of those manuscripts was Wüst’s lexicon to Aristophanes from ca. 1910. “The publisher K G Saur decided to preserve the lexicon, without which it might have been lost forever, as the original manuscript has not been located to date. The publication had never been reviewed or even mentioned by any subsequent scholar, probably because accessing it was too daunting in the 1980s, not to mention reading it.” 

Wüst’s lexicon had been stored as microfiches since the 1980s. © K G Saur Verlag

Creating a digital lexicon

Of course, the best way to truly preserve Wüst’s lexicon is to create a digital version of it, to allow scholars to quickly search through the manuscript’s 1500 pages and also provide additional information about the individual entries. “A digital version can link each word with its basic meaning, word family, semantics and distribution in the author’s works, as well as a complete list of all occurrences, sorted by work and hyperlinked to the passage that is their context.” 

Rusten’s team had already created an online platform,, making it possible to publish digital versions of lexicons in this way. “We have already done this for Thucydides and Plato, and now Aristophanes. Adding Wüst’s digitized lexicon will greatly improve the platform.”

The platform shows both definitions and occurrences for words used by Aristophanes. ©

Choosing a transcription platform

This wasn’t the first time the team had used technology to try and speed up the transcription process. “We had already tried a modern Greek OCR package but ancient Greek has many more accents and other diacritics, which are difficult for OCR platforms to distinguish. We had also used Tesseract to transcribe Ast’s Plato lexicon (which is also in ancient Greek, Latin, and German) but we only had limited success.”

With Wüst’s lexicon, the team came across Transkribus quite by chance. “We discovered the platform while searching for information about the German “Kurrent” script. Then we attended a five-hour training workshop held at Yale by Sara Mansutti, which showed that Transkribus had many clear advantages over other methods.”

“Firstly, it deals with handwritten scripts as well as print. It also provides a computing platform for training transcription models for specific scripts and hands, based on neural networks. We liked that the methods are clearly explained and accessible to non-specialists, with videos of past workshops and instructional web pages. Finally, it makes past users’ models available for use in transcriptions and re-training by new users. This saves a lot of time when creating models.”

The team used Transkribus to create automatic transcriptions for the majority of the pages. © K G Saur Verlag

Preparing the lexicon for transcription

Once they had decided to use Transkribus, the next challenge for the team was to create digital scans of the 1500 microfiches of Wüst’s lexicon. “Today there are high-quality microfiche digital scanning readers available. With the help of Cornell Library equipment and staff, and after much trial and error, we were able to produce acceptable jpeg images (detailed enough to zoom in on, but still under Transkribus’ 10MB limit) of all 1500 pages in just over four weeks.”

Armed with their digital scans, the team then selected 50 of the pages to transcribe manually as Ground Truth. Della Rocca explained their strategy. “We aimed to include pages with different structures, including both short entries with much space between each entry and extended entries with little space between the lines. One of the main considerations was getting good coverage of the different letters when placed in the starting position of the line, as it makes identifying each article and its respective lemma much easier.”

“We also selected pages representative of the varying degrees of marginalia present in the text, although we excluded marginalia too faint to discern—maybe someday we will locate the original manuscript!”

A wide variety of pages were chosen as training data. © K G Saur Verlag

Training a multilingual model

The manual transcription of the 50 selected pages was carried out partly by student workers at the university, who had skills in ancient Greek and Latin but not always in German. Rusten recalled: “The initial problem for us as Americans was the unfamiliarity with the German Kurrent script. We used the German Handwriting M1 model to produce an initial transcription of the pages we were working on. It did a good job with the German, but misrecognized the Latin and Greek as German also.” 

“This meant we had to manually transcribe the parts that had been misrecognized. Using the images we loaded in Transkribus’ collaborative online workspace, our student workers had to locate and transcribe the script or language they knew best for each page, starting with Greek from scratch, then Latin also from scratch, and finally correcting the automatically transcribed German. Once a student had transcribed everything they could, they turned the page over to the next transcriber.” 

“Because we had different people focus on different scripts, rather than force everyone to try to do every script, the transcription took five of us just six weeks of full-time work.”

Della Rocca supervised the final stage. “After several tries at optimizing the model, our lowest character error rate (CER) is 7.21%. This is approximately a 36% reduction from our initial model’s CER of 11.20%, and we are trying to improve it further by running more training and experimenting with different configurations. This has greatly reduced our post-transcription correction time per page.”

Jeff Rusten (second from right), Ethan Della Rocca (left) and the rest of the team. © Jeff Rusten

Publishing the lexicon online

At the moment, the team is preparing the lexicon for publication on “The transcription still needs to be tagged in XML format for correction and analysis and linked to our XML text of Aristophanes. Then we can upload it to the platform. So the work is only just now becoming known but the support from granting agencies has been gratifying, and we look forward to publicizing it among scholars as soon as it is corrected and documented.”

The team are very happy with the way the project has turned out. “We only wish we had found Transkribus earlier! Henceforth we will use it for all of our OCR work, including print. We are currently re-transcribing a text which we had previously processed, to use the Transkribus model’s much more accurate Greek to correct our existing version.”

Della Rocca has some advice for other research groups wanting to train a multilingual model. “Stay calm if the initial training attempt fails — simply try other configurations. When first training your model, experiment with using different base models, as you’ll find that some may be more helpful than others. Then, once you have a working model, keep refining it with more transcribed and corrected pages to make it as accurate as possible.” We couldn’t agree more!

Thank you to Jeff and Ethan for talking to us about the project, and we wish you all the best with

For more about the project, check out Jeff Rusten’s talk about how they digitised Wüst’s lexicon:

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