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Advice to Potential Editors of Neo-Latin Texts

D. F. S.


 

 

The University of Birmingham grants permission for the browsing of material it has published on its Web Site pages. It also grants permission for the downloading and printing of one copy only of any page of this material for personal reference only. Copyright in all material on this Web Site (unless otherwise indicated) is held by the University of Birmingham. The express permission of the Copyright holder must be obtained for any use of this material other than for the purposes permitted by laws.

Advice to Potential Editors of Neo-Latin Texts

D. F. S.

     First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that “edit” is a transitive verb indicating that an editor must actually do something. It is merely fraudulent to identify   a text which mechanically reproduces its original, even including its typographical features, as an edition rather than a diplomatic transcription. And doing this like retaining loue for love certainly plays havoc with searching an electronic edition, or in a print edition that someday might be transformed into an electronic one Such transcriptions have their own value, as long as they are clearly identified as such. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) nobody without an extremely good command of the Latin language should do this kind of work. Editing a Latin text is (to use Lyndon Johnson’s unlovely phrase) the time one really puts one’s meat on the table.
       What are an editors’ duties? The prime ones has been spelled out in exquisite detail in handbooks written by such authorities as Paul Maas and Martin L. West. It is to produce as clean and error-free text as possible, ideally restoring it to the condition in which it was when it left its author’s desk.
       This includes the technology developed by Classical philologists for handling texts preserved by multiple manuscripts (which inevitably fail to agree with each other in all their details), although I could name at least one Neo-Latin editor foolish enough to undertake this daunting task without the faintest idea how to go about the job, with predictable results. Nobody should attempt it without having carefully read the abovementioned manuals or having taken the right courses in graduate school. In dealing with manuscripts, of course, familiarity with contemporary handwritings and standard abbreviations (inherited by printers from space-saving manuscript conventions) is naturally prerequisite. But, especially when dealing with manuscripts, it is necessary to realize that not everybody strictly adhered to these conventions: for example, a p with a barred tail was supposed to mean per but one sometimes encounters it indiscriminately used also for pro and even prae instead of the special ones supposed to be used for the two latter.
      With the exception of holograph manuscripts created by authors, (and I have seen one or two holographs which are not free of them, such being the frailty of human nature) one must assume that any manuscript will contain copying errors. These fall into two categories, a.) simple mistakes and b.) ones that result from misinterpretation of the exemplar. For example, a copyist may mistake a long s for an f, or wrongly unpack an abbreviation. Nor are printed texts ever fehlerfrei: it is a rare experience to find a Renaissance book outfitted with an errata page which records more than perhaps half of the errors it actually contains. Again, some such are simply examples of typesetting bungling (inverted type and the like), but one must bear in mind that when an author handed in his manuscript to a printshop, this placed the printer in precisely the same position as a Medieval scribe copying an earlier manuscript. He was obliged to make sense of that exemplar, and was liable to make the same kinds of interpretational mistakes as did that scribe. In result, every text, be it preserved in manuscript or print, must be approached with suspicion. Editorial intervention is always required to one degree or another. This dictum cannot be stressed strongly enough.
     So-called presentation manuscripts present a special case: handsome ones prepared to be given to an honored recipient. These are often hand-prepared with especial care, and frequently can be identified by the presence of ruled margins and lavish bindings. These were often prepared by professional scriveners who had little or no knowledge of Latin, since the object was to offer the gift of a beautiful physical object, but  not necessarily something meant to be read. An editor must not be fooled by their handsome appearance into assuming they are especially reliable. The opposite is often true. A memorable case in point: there exists a 1665 letter written by Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College, thanking his teachers. It is often thought to be a forgery because it contains a great deal of bad Latin. But it is a presentation MS. and so this does count against its authenticity, we only need think it is the work of a Latinless scriviner. In fact, a second point in its favor is that it is written in the so-called secretary hand favored in England in the late sixteenth century and almost certainly the one used by Shakespeare. In England this style of writing quickly passed out of fashion and early in the next century was replaced by a more flowing and neater Italianate script. But the secretary hand hung on for many decades in Scotland and British colonies, and it is exceedingly difficult to imagine any forger astute enough to be aware of that fact. So the very features that are alleged to show this document is a forgery actually tell in favor of its authenticity
      In sum, an editor’s chief task is to identify copying or printing mistakes and fix them whenever possible, always maintaining and eventually publishing a record of such corrections. Anyone who is not confident of his or her ability to do this job should not attempt it, the results are guaranteed to be embarrassing.
     Good editorial work also has a historical dimension. It is needful be aware of how the Latin language was understood at the time and place of a document’s writing. For example, the standard Latin textbook used in England in the Tudor and early Stuart periods (the one written by William Lilly) purveyed no information about the distinction between regular and reflexive pronouns, the need to use of subjunctive verbs in indirect questions, and the proper use of subjunctive verbs in subordinate clauses (so-called sequence of tenses), and supplies an item of misinformation about iambic versification. Therefore when one encounters evident violations of these rules no editorial intervention is required and in fact would be anachronistic. (I cite this English example because i\s my area of expertise, but those editing texts written other nations should familiarize themselves with similar textbooks in order to understand how the Latin language was understood at the time and place of writing.)
     I would be so bold as to suggest that an editor has another important duty, normally not mentioned in handbooks. on textual criticism. This is to help the reader by producing a readily comprehensible text, and is best illustrated by poetry. We all learn by our mistakes. One of my more instructive ones is that I once was asked by my colleagues to set the Latin verse portion of a diagnostic test to be administered to our new intake of graduate students. I chose a standard meat-and-potatoes passage from Ovid’s Heroides, took a copy of an edition of an Oxford or Teubner edition, and unthinkingly slammed it onto a Xerox machine. In reading the results, I was stunned to find that none of the examinees was able to handle what I considered to be an easily intelligible line. Were all these new people dolts?  But then I looked more closely and saw that the line in question had one of those commas merely inserted to indicate its caesura in poetry both Latin and English, for in modern editions original Renaissance punctuation is often retained (for reasons which baffle me). In this case, in one line there was a noun on one side of such a comma and an adjective on the other, which should be construed together. The comma was merely inserted to mark the caesura in the line. As a veteran Latin-reader I was very familiar with this feature and so could easily ignore it. But our examinees had been carefully taught in elementary school that commas should only be used to mark off clauses, and not to indicate pauses. (In the Renaissance no such rule existed: a memorable example of this usage is found in William Gager’s tragedy Meleager, in which a character reads aloud a letter. In the printed text every word in that letter is followed by a comma as the playwright’s way of instructing the actor to read it slowly and with hesitation). But my examinees dutifully understood that comma as an instruction that the noun and adjective should not be construed together, and disaster inevitably resulted.  (Commas were also added as a routine matter of course at the end of a verse line both in Latin and in the vernacular)
       This taught me an unforgettable lesson. Punctuation matters a great deal. Ideally each punctuation mark ought to have a clear and definite value. Think of music. One could drop a North Korean musician into an American orchestra, who would immediately be able to play the part because the values of musical notation are universally accepted. A quarter note means one thing and one thing only.  But the values we moderns place on punctuation marks (which are still less universally observed than those of musical notation – for a dramatic illustration of this, just read a few pages of Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution) can differ significantly from those of the Renaissance, often with unpleasant results. To take a random example from a very admirable edition of a Neo-Latin poem, one line is printed as found in manuscripts, Me deus infirmum recrea, fulcique ruentem.  Here the caesura-marking comma is unnecessary but probably harmless, but the failure to enclose deus in commas to indicate that the word is functioning as a vocative virtually guarantees that the reader will stumble. and it would have done no harm to make the poet’s Christian intention clearer by capitalizing the word as Deus.  Introducing these simple changes could have made the line immediately comprehensible. I could cite similar examples from virtually any page of many a modern edition.  Then too, in part because they looked so alike in many contemporary handwritings, question marks and exclamation points are often confused and an editor needs to sort them out as best as he or she can. The introduction of quotation marks is also useful. Examples of such routine issues could be multiplied ad infinitum. In dealing with Neo-Latin literature an editor constantly encounters such issues and should always be mindful of the question “how can I best help the reader understand my text?” The object should not be to produce a text that resembles its original as much as possible, but rather one that is genuinely useful.
         Prose offers its own opportunities for encouraging reader comprehension. Most notably, it is a good idea to introduce modern-style paragraphing in order to reveal the rhetorical articulation of one’s text. One should not be afraid to introduce paragraph breaks at points where they do not exist in the original.
      Here’s a final bit of advice for aspiring editors, which cannot be identified as a necessary guiding principle, but is at least something worth considering: it would be a good idea produce a text which observes as much as possible the  standard conventions found in editions of Classical Roman authors in such series as the Budé, Oxford and Bibliotheca Teubneriana ones. The reason: we should always be looking forward to the future, and sooner or later it is possible that someone will get the idea of creating a Boolean-searchable data bank of some if not all Neo-Latin literature similar to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae Project for Classical Greek and the Packard Humanities Institute one for Classical Latin. Adhering to the same conventions for Neo-Latin literature would greatly facilitate the creation of such resources. Even such a simple things as retaining  ij for ii, for example, would pose no problem in a printed text, but in one chosen for mechanical searching the result would create a needless difficulty.  Such adherence to the standards used by editors of Classical texts is far more useful than an attempt to reproduce the look of an original printed text or manuscript, which often (or more likely always) amounts to providing the reader with needless information   while withholding much that is very necessary.