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Should editors conflate: case studies with Julian of Norwich and William Langland

February 17, 2013

My co-blogger J. K. Gayle and I have been having a discussion about the best way to present Julian of Norwich’s Showings;  you can read the first three installments here:

J. K. Gayle:  translating Julian of Norwich

Theophrastus:  NOT translating Julian of Norwich

J. K. Gayle:  “translating” Julian of Norwich: her various “original” mss

J. K.’s posts have been well-done and touch on some fascinating points that I will not address here:  how Julian may have dealt with scriptural material in the face of changing rules on translating Scripture into English in face of the Church’s response to the English proto-Reformation “Lollardy” movement.  I highly commend his posts to you.

But here, I want to address another point – what degree of respect an editor owes to respect an author’s choices in creating her manuscript.  This is a problem faced by editors in many circumstances (here are a few prominent examples):

  • The Septuagints:  (many different versions with radically different presentation).
  • William Langland’s Piers Plowman:  ca. 1367-70 A Text, ca. 1377-79 B Text, and ca. 1380s C Text.
  • Julian of Norwich’s Showings: (early) Short Text and (late) Long Text.
  • William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: 1603 (“Bad”) First Quarto, 1604 Second Quarto, and 1623 First Folio.
  • Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus:  1604 Quarto (A) and 1616 Quarto (B).
  • William Shakespeare’s King Lear:  1608 First Quarto and 1623 First Folio.
  • Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species:  1859 1st edition, 1860 2nd edition, 1861 3rd edition, 1866 4th edition, 1869 5th edition, and 1872 6th edition.

Turning now to Julian of Norwich, let’s consider the two texts:  the earlier Short Text (ST) and later Long Text (LT).  Here is what A. C. Spearing says in the introduction to the Penguin edition:

ST and LT form two distinct versions of Julian’s work.  ST consists mainly of an account of the 1373 showings and Julian’s initial interpretation of their meaning, but it omits the parable of the lord and the servant recounted in chapter 51 of LT.  Though this was part of the 1373 experience, Julian initially found it too baffling to set down alongside the other showings, “for a full understanding of the marvelous parable was not given to me at that time” (chapter 51).  As mentioned above, ST also omits the further experience of about 1388 recounted in LT chapter 86.  All scholars agree that ST was composed earlier than LT, which incorporates most of ST;s material but was more about some of the showings and far fuller interpretation of what Julian originally saw (especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth showings):  she “reads” her memories of these showings over and over again, as if they formed treasured book.[…] Like her contemporary William Langland, author of at least three successive versions of his great religious poem Piers Plowman, Julian seems to have devoted her life to thinking and rethinking the meaning of her visionary insights.  She was never satisfied that she had plumbed their depths, for the final chapter of LT opens, “This book was begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it seems to me that it is not yet completed.”  Like Piers Plowman, Julian’s work owes much of its difficult status to its status as a text of repeated new beginnings, lacking the final conclusions that for both writers would be possible only only at the end of the world.

For the reasons stated, the Penguin edition presents the ST and LT separately, as does the Paulist Press “Classics of Western Spirituality” edition.  The Norton Critical Edition presents the LT, with an appendix containing excerpts from the ST.  Arguably an even better solution is the University of Pennsylvania edition, which has both the ST and LT in Middle English (with extensive notes)

(In his second post, J. K. quoted a claim from Alexandra Barratt that “although this is part of the Norton Critical Edition series, textual scholars would probably regard it closer to a ‘variorum’ than a ‘critical’ edition.”  I don’t have the book in which Barratt’s quote appeared in my personal library; my university library is presently closed; and I cannot seem to find that quote using Google Books or Amazon “look inside.” I cannot determine the context of that quote, but I am not sure why Barratt would regard it as a variorum edition; rather it is taken directly from the Paris Manuscript[UPDATE:  I have found the Barratt paper, and it is interesting, but I still do not know why she considers the Norton as a variorum edition rather than being taken directly from the Paris Manuscript]  )

We can see similar decisions made with Piers Plowman:  the Norton Critical Edition presents the B Text in a diglot of Middle English and Modern English; the Oxford World’s Classics edition and the Penguin edition both translate the B Text; the Exeter edition presents the Middle English of the C Text and the University of Pennsylvania edition translates the C Text; the John Hopkins edition presents the Middle English of the A Text.

An alternative philosophy is not to respect the author’s various editions, but rather to prepare a conflated text that combines material from various distinct editions.  This has happened many times; Alexander Pope was famous for trying to “improve” Shakespeare – thus, for example, Terry A. Gray reports:

Pope regarded Shakespeare’s text as being corrupt, rife with "Additions, Expunctions, Transpositions of scenes and lines, confusion of Characters and Persons, wrong application of Speeches, corruptions of innumerable Passages by the agnorance, and wrong Correction of ’em again by the Impertinence, of his first Editors" (Pope’s Preface, section 33).  Those first editors (Heminge and Condell), and their playhouse colleagues, are much to blame, according to Pope, for their "…many blunders and illiteracies…their ignorance shines almost in every page…" (Preface, section 18).  If the text were so corrupt, and all old texts equally prone to corruption, Pope consequently thought he had license "…unsystematically to pick and choose among variant texts as some particular reading appealed to him more than others" (Murphy, p. 65).  Pope, consequently cut, "over the entire edition," 1,560 lines.  He retained Rowe’s dramatis personae, but added even more scene divisions "following the Italian and French practice of ‘marking a new scene whenever a character of importance enters or leaves the stage’" (Murphy, p. 66).  He also smoothed what he took to be irregular versification, adding and deleting words as need to produce eighteenth century-style verse.  Apparently a great many such changes were made.

Even in relatively recent works, we still sometimes seem the same sort of irresistible urge to improve the original source material.  Thus, in his course on Dante in English, Giuseppe Mazzotta says of the Mandelbaum translation of the Divine Comedy

Mandelbaum’s translation is a very good translation. I don’t use it for one simple reason[…]. Poets have a weakness. When they translate they do it out of great love for the texts. Deep down this idea, look at it, I can do one better than even Dante and he lapses into that and I have told him more than once.

But versions that conflate text or “improve” text create versions of text that authors never actually penned.  Thus, modern academic trend, though, is to respect unique versions by an author, rather than having separate versions.   Thus the Oxford and Norton editions of Shakespeare present separate versions of King Lear; the Arden Shakespeare series publishes two different versions King Lear and three different versions of Hamlet;   the New English Translation of the Septuagint presents separate translations of major versions of various biblical books; the Harvard annotated Origin of the Species is based on the first edition; and Doctor Faustus is almost always presented in either the A or B texts (or both) – almost never in conflated form. 

We can even see this tendency in Bible translations of the Apocrypha:  the NRSV, for example, presents separate translations of Greek Esther and Hebrew Esther, rather than trying to combine the two versions into a single work (or to just translated the Greek “additions to Esther”).

As I mentioned above, most modern editions of Piers Plowman work with either the A, B, or C texts; and many versions of Julian of Norwich either present the Long Text exclusively or both the Long Text and Short Text separately.

Because this is the contemporary trend, because it allows us to see how the author evolved in his or her thought, and because presenting these versions corresponds to the texts we actually have, I am always surprised when a scholar tends to go back to the older model of Pope and instead attempts to present a conflated text. 


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