What might have been: Edwin Drood, Bruckner’s Ninth, Nabokov’s Laura, Wallace’s Pale King” Ellison’s Three Days, and the “uncensored” Julian of Norwich
My co-blogger J. K. Gayle and I have been having a back and forth exchange about editing – particularly with respect to Julian of Norwich’s Showings. If you want to follow the dialogue in order, here are the previous posts:
Now, I want to especially commend Kurk’s posts to you in this dialogue – Kurk has many important things to say, and he says them well – making excellent points. I agree with many of his points, but there is one point that I disagree on, and I wish to elaborate on it here.
We’ve been talking about a book that I’ve only seen excerpts of (this discussion has taken place over a long holiday weekend in the US – no ready access to libraries!): Julia Holloway’s Showing of Love. Holloway presents a conflated version drawn from various manuscripts of two quite different texts: a Short Text (conventionally dated to shortly after 1373) and a Long Text (conventionally dated to 1393). (For more information on these dates, see the introduction by A. C. Spearing in the Penguin edition.) Kurk suggests that such a conflation allows us to see Julian in a new way, because in her Short Text, Holloway was able to include some translations from the Bible, while in the Long Text, Holloway had to censor her translations from her writing lest she be considered a Lollard and possibly face strict penalties.
I have to admit that such a conflation is an intriguing idea! At the same time it is necessarily speculative and plays a “what if” game – a game of alternate history. (Alternate history can at times be fascinating art [consider Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle] or be hilarious [as in this skit].)
Such an approach views both the “Short Text” and “Long Text” as partial versions of a hypothetical super-text and tries to recreate that super-text. In this way, it can be compared to efforts to complete works left incomplete by an author or composer’s death – so the various surviving manuscripts can be considered as partial notes on this hypothetical super-text. We can compare this with some notable other examples:
- Anton Bruckner died before he could finish the fourth movement of Symphony No. 9 – and numerous composers have since tried to finish it based on Bruckner’s surviving material and notes.
- Charles Dickens died in the midst of writing his serial Mystery of Edwin Drood, and quite a few attempts have been made to complete it (at least one of which claimed to have been “ghost written” under the control of Dickens’s spirit.)
- Various authors have died with notes for an unfinished novel, including Ralph Ellison (Three Days Before the Shooting …), Vladimir Nabokov (The Original of Laura), and David Foster Wallace (The Pale King). These works edited from incomplete authorial notes have met with both positive and negative reviews (although in most cases, they are considered inferior to the author’s completed works).
Nonetheless, it is certainly valid to ask how much of these completed works (or of Holloway’s edition) is really the work of the original author and how much of it is the work of the later editor. In the case of Julian, we have original texts, and they can speak for themselves.
Let me mention an analogy here. There are various “chronological Bibles” on the market, that attempt to re-order Biblical verses according to some hypothetical chronology. These versions do great violence to the Bible, because different books in the Bible are written in starkly different voices. An attempt, for example, to create a single narrative from the Synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel blurs the highly distinct voices – the book known as the “Gospel of Mark” is written in a distinctive style from the book known as the “Gospel of John.”
In a previous post, I praised translations or editions that carefully separate different versions of texts – for example, the NETS translation. Now many people (including myself, sometime) quote the title of NETS as:
New English Translation of the Septuagint
but that is not accurate. In fact, the editors of NETS were much more careful in formulating the title, which actually is given as:
A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title
The problem is that there is not one Septuagint, but many. Thus, even in antiquity, Origen’s Hexapla included as part of its Greek translations:
Aquila of Sinope
Symachus the Ebionite
A recension of the “Old Greek”
In the introduction to the NETS translation, Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright are careful to say:
[…] as modern scholarship has increasingly shown, there is wide-ranging diversity and heterogeneity with the collection – to the point that some scholars now question the continued use of the term “Septuagint,” which to the unwary reader might suggest a greater degree of uniformity than can be demonstrated.
As part of being true that tradition, various translators for NETS books have translated different versions of text. Thus, for example, Karen Jobes translates both the “Old Greek” version of Greek Esther and the “Alpha” version of Greek Esther, presenting both in parallel format. This reminds me also of the NRSV translator’s practice of translating both Hebrew Esther and (Old) Greek Esther, and presenting both. Even though Greek Esther is obviously derived from Hebrew Esther, they read quite differently (for example, Adele Berlin argues that Hebrew Esther emphasizes the comedy of the story while Greek Esther is a much more pious take.)
I must say, that one of the great joys of blogging with J. K . Gayle has been learning from him that the Greek Septuagints have their own unique and highly praiseworthy literary styles – and thus deserve to be considered as literature on their own merits, separate from the Hebrew Bible. (In the same way, I can point to the widely held view that the King James Bible is a masterpiece of English literature – in addition to being an influential translation of ancient texts.)
Kurk also mentions that there are three different versions of Martin L. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I am not aware of the textual and revision history of this text, but I am supposing that King personally edited each of those major versions, and that anthologies of his writings use one of those versions in total, rather than attempting to make a hybrid from all three different versions, edited at different times.
This leads me to my disagreement with Kurk. Kurk points to various modern translations of the Hebrew Bible which include verses “corrected” by the Septuagint. This is not really best described as conflation but as textual criticism. The problem is that in many places the Hebrew Bible is difficult to understand, either because it seems to have been corrupted or because we simply lack understanding of ancient Hebrew to interpret a passage. An example of the former is 1 Samuel 13:1, which in Masoretic Hebrew appears says that Saul was one year old when he became king, and he reigned for (only) two years (unfortunately, in the case of 1 Samuel 13:1, we cannot use the Septuagints to “correct” the Hebrew because the verse is missing altogether in the Greek). In such cases, it seems entirely appropriate to refer to ancient texts to correct particular verses. But such textual criticism seems entirely different than Holloway’s attempt to construct a super-text – Holloway seems interested in combining different versions of Julian’s text rather than correcting isolated scribal error.
(I am particularly puzzled by Kurk’s citing to the ESV as an example of a text that uses Septuagints to correct the Masoretic Hebrew. Although the ESV is a revision of the RSV, the ESV somewhat haphazardly often regress back to a KJV rendition of a verse to avoid reference to the Septuagint. The main exception to this rule is when the Hebrew verse differs from a Greek quotation given in the New Testament; here, the ESV editors are quick to use the New Testament version – thus creating an impression of an artificially concordant translation. This shows the very real danger that editing can be partisanship – in the ESV, there is no issue with Isaiah 7:14 because the editors have swept it under the rug.)
To my mind, there is something very different done by translators of the Hebrew Bible who consult ancient Greek translations; and what Holloway has done:
In the case of the Hebrew Bible, the translators are making an effort to get as close as possible to an eclectic reconstruction of the original text, given what they perceive as imperfect modern copies. (Even the Masoretic annotations include variant readings; and Barry Levy has documented a tradition of correcting Biblical texts throughout the medieval period).
In the case of Holloway, she is making an effort to construct a text that never actually existed, but that (if I understand Kurk’s argument correctly) might have existed had the anti-Lollard measures not been in effect.
Again, it seems to me that what Holloway is attempting is interesting and worthwhile, but one should take care in attributing the text to Julian – particularly since Holloway is interspersing texts that appear to have been written as much as two decades apart from each other.