Filtering Texts and Making Editorial Decisions

Have you ever thought to question why teachers ask students to get that exact version of a book for a class? I never did in high school or even during my undergraduate college experience. I would roll my eyes and think “What does it matter? Aren’t they all the same?” I was, of course, very mistaken. Every edition of a text has something different going on and often we discount the editorial decisions made because we don’t even think about them.

Now that I have encoded a portion of the text of a 13th century manuscript for the Archive of Early Middle English, I understand more and more how editors have to make qualitative decisions when preparing their editions. In my encoding project, I physically wrote the TEI/XML code that will ultimately showcase two different outputs. I am, in many ways, filtering the content of the original manuscript into something readable that does not require palaeographic knowledge.

In the original manuscript, there are realities of the time that no longer apply to modern English. For example, the letter thorn, þ, which generally is read as the “th” sound. Scribes also use abbreviations materials like combining tildes over a certain letter to denote more letters that can be inferred but do not exist in the original text. And I am responsible for marking those in a choice tag: a “diplomatic” view that preserves the original letters, abbreviations, marks, and more, and a “critical” view that adapts (or corrects) those linguistic eccentricities that no longer exist in modern English.

Why does it matter that editors filter the texts for the reader? Someone has to make decisions in the editing process in order to make texts more palatable for the common reader. Whether it’s the person transcribing the hand written fair copy for printing or someone condensing a long story into a more succinct version (I’m thinking now of the 200-page Les Miserables that I read in high school), there are editorial decisions being made. Because I was encoding the process from manuscript to text, I had to make some of those larger decisions. What if that word doesn’t make sense? Do I fix it? How about when the letters don’t work together? Do I change them? No matter what editing decision I made, I tried to always put the text first. This was not my story to tell, but it was perhaps my opportunity to help the modern reader understand this story as told in this particular manuscript.

So how can we be more judicious about the texts we choose to read? As I learned in my seminar for research methods, it is a mythical quest to hope for one definitive edition because there are always editing choices made. The best thing we can do is to be aware of what those decision are. Does this edition preserve the original lettering or, as in my critical view, update things that will not make sense to the common reader? Does this edition preserve the original spacing? What manuscript, fair copy, or other edition was used in preparing this edition? What extra-textual material is included and how does that shape the reception of this edition (e.g. introduction, footnotes, etc.)? These are all good questions to ask and, after spending considerable time working on an edition of Laud Misc 108, I’m capable of answering some of these questions myself.

This post was originally written as a summative piece in December 2015 after taking a course in Digital Humanities during my graduate program and posted as a discussion piece on the course blog. It’s a reflection on approximately two months of encoding the King Horn section of the Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 108.

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