>I’ve recently taken on a smallish editing task — that is, editing in the sense of producing an edition of something — involving two short Middle English texts to be included in a future printing of an anthology of English literature. They’re texts I consider myself intimately familiar with, they’re short (just under 700 lines all together), and their introductions won’t require any new research from me. And as a bonus, the accepted scholarly edition, which I’m using as my base text, is available electronically, so I don’t even have to retype those 700 lines (so I do have to clean up formatting). So the task is relatively simple for me to do, plus I have until December to do the first one and until June for the second one. And I’m also getting paid for the job! Cool!
But that’s actually not the best part. Turns out that I’m finding the task much more fascinating that I thought it would be (I thought it would be relatively rote — easy money for a tedious task). The texts I’m editing are each unique — no multiple manuscript versions with conflicting text, so no complicated job of deciding what’s the “most true” reading — and they’ve been edited many times before without controversy, as far as I know. But still, I’m finding some little differences between the scholarly edition and the next-most-scholarly classroom editions. Most of the differences are in the glosses (or glossary), but sometimes the classroom editions silently edit things suggesting that the editor thought the manuscript reading must be a mistake (although often there’s no mention of it, not even in the textual notes in the back). When I find these differences, I could just go with the scholarly edition — that’s my base text, after all, and I’m editing for a student anthology, not a scholarly edition of my own — but I find myself drawn into figuring out the choices the different editors made and their (implied) reasons for doing so. It’s fascinating and sometimes puzzling to see the editing and glossing choices made by serious and impressive scholars and to realize that sometimes I have good reason to think they’re wrong. And it makes me realize how opaque all of this is to our students, how they read one edition of an older text and think of it as “the” text, authoritative and complete. I try in all my classes to give them some idea of how The Riverside Chaucer and other such editions are total fictions, the work of editors trying to determine the Platonic Form of Chaucer’s oeuvre based on many multiple manuscripts, but I may start bringing in more concrete details to show them. (I also may start doing translation assignments like Jeffrey Cohen does, instead of the usual ME reading comprehension quizzes I used to give.) And I’m going to do the same with select texts in the medieval survey class, too. I’m definitely going to bring this up more in my Old and Middle English classes (though I already do some of this).
There are other ways this little project has become fascinating to me. Like I said, I took this on because I’m intimately familiar with these texts. But as I go through them literally word by word, deciding what needs glossing, I come upon details and moments of interest that I’d overlooked before: plays on words, multivalent meanings, regional linguistic variations that give life to the text’s moment in time and place, and so forth. I also realize that to gloss and to edit — including providing punctuation — I have to think about the syntax, grammar, and structure of the language in a microscopic way that I hadn’t done before. And sometimes that’s led me to moments of interpretative richness as well. And so hence this post’s title. It’s kind of a shame that the dissertation that edits and presents a previously unavailable text has gone the way of the dinosaur, because there’s a lot to be learned in a task like that. The intimacy I thought I had with this text was only just familiarity. And I’m thinking that next time I do the graduate research methods class, in addition to having a session and an assignment on determining what the scholarly edition of a given text is, I’ll create some kind of assignment where they have to edit a passage of something, or do a more micro-level comparison of editions.
By far the biggest challenge in all of this is meeting the requirements of the anthology publishers that I modernize and regularize spelling. I’ve looked very closely at the other Middle English texts in the current version, and there’s a variation in how this is done — a very telling one. Chaucer is only lightly regularized — “hym” is changed to “him,” for example, but all word final -e’s seem to remain, even when they’re not needed for the meter. But in anonymous poetic texts, especially ones with a variable meter (and not Chaucer’s careful iambic pentameter), final -e’s are mostly gone. Archaic spelling is preserved in rhymes, however, when modernizing it would disrupt the rhyme. But even that can’t always be helped, since “food” and “good” are often spelled that way in Middle as well as Modern English, but doesn’t tell the uninitiated reader that they rhymed in ME. Anyway, the special consideration that Chaucer gets in these editing techniques — and that the anonymous writers don’t get — just goes to show how much we still fetishize the author on some level, despite Barthes and Foucault and the “intentional fallacy.” (Wikipedia links provided for my non-academic, non-literary readers’ quick reference.)
Word final -e’s are just one challenge I have to face — do I change “muste” to “must” throughout or only when it doesn’t disrupt the meter? Or in this particular piece does that even matter? — but there are others. One of the recurring one is how to “modernize” an archaic word. Often enough these words survived the Middle Ages and have early modern and modern spellings that are pretty regular. House style for the publishers is to use the OED, so if the OED has an entry for the word, I use the spelling of the entry heading, where, again, it doesn’t disrupt anything like rhyme or meter.
But what about a word like “nemely”? I hit it just before beginning this post. It means “quickly” or “nimbly” and in the OED it shows up as a variant spelling for the head word “nimbly.” Changing it to “nimbly” wouldn’t actually disrupt the meter since “nemely” in the original must scan as two syllables, with the second -e- syncopated: nem’ly. And it won’t disrupt the alliteration, either. But I feel like “nimbly” loses some of the flavor of the time and place. This is a Northern English text and “nimbly” sound too fastidiously Southern English to me, too posh and prim. (Those colorings of class and culture between the south and the north are just beginning to develop in the 15th century — if the Towneley Second Shepherd’s Play and the character Mak, who puts on a “southern tooth,” claiming to be a yeoman of a lord, is any witness. And my text is a 15th century text. If it were any earlier, I might be anachronistic in wanting to avoid the hint of the posh privilege of the south. And even as it is, it says more about my own predilections than anything else!) I’ll probably be a rebel and retain “nemely” but gloss it as “quickly, nimbly.” In other cases I’ll submit, changing “werk(e)” to “work,” for example, even though in Middle English that -er- would be a distinct sound from -or-. But some sound needs to be preserved; this is a poetic text after all, and poetry lives in sound.
I need to bring details like this to my students’ attention more often, let them know how much comes between them and the manuscript versions of these texts. I do this kind of thing plenty when we read texts in translation, giving them passages from the original or multiple translations to compare. Although at least once a year there’s a student (sometimes even a graduate student!) who stuns me by demonstrating that they think reading a translation is the same as reading the original, I think I manage to get through to most of them that translation is always interpretation. But so is editing, especially when you’re talking about medieval and early modern texts, and I need to make that clearer to them. I don’t have to focus on it all the time, but I should plan at least one exercise around it in each pertinent class.
I’m so glad I took on this project — even if I weren’t getting paid for it!