Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel

Bridging the Babel of Textual Criticism

Post by Wout Dillen, guest author for FonteGaia. Wout Dillen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Borås, Sweden, where his work is part of the DiXiT Marie Curie Initial Training Network. He developed the Lexicon of Scholarly Editing as an appendix to his Ph.D. dissertation, which was part of the ERC project CUTS (Creative Undoing and Textual Scholarship) at the University of Antwerp.

Lexicographical Approaches to Encompassing a Multilingual Research Field.

Although Textual Criticism is an international discipline concerned with the curation, analysis, and edition of historical documents written in any language, the field has primarily given rise to a number of distinct culture-dependent editorial traditions of textual scholarship. German Editionswissenschaft, Anglo-American Scholarly Editing, French critique génétique, and Italian Filologia d’autore are but a few examples.

But in the last decades the field has witnessed a rapprochement of different editorial theories and practices, transforming this series of individual, monolingual discussions into a larger, multilingual one. The result of this rapprochement is that rather than focussing on the differences between their respective traditions, it is now generally accepted that they each provide a different, but equally valuable perspective on how the texts of literary works could be edited, based on the historical evidence of textual transmission.

A good example of the increasing importance of this awareness of the diversity of traditions in the field can be found in the rise of a number of lexicographical projects that were devised to deal with this issue. In this blog post, I would like to take a closer look at four recent digital lexica in the field, that each try to overcome these language barriers in their own way: the English ‘Parvum Lexicon Stemmatologicum’, the Finnish ‘Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto’ (now also part of the ‘Bank of Finnish Terminology’), the French/Arabic ‘Glossaires Codicologiques’, and the multilingual ‘Lexicon of Scholarly Editing’. For each of these projects I’ll provide a little background, and discuss the way in which they try to facilitate a more diverse discussion of Textual Criticism.

The Parvum Lexicon Stemmatologicum's definition of 'document'.
The Parvum Lexicon Stemmatologicum’s definition of ‘document’.

The Parvum Lexicon Stemmatologicum (PLS) is an English language lexicon that focusses on a specific subdiscipline in Textual Scholarship: stemmatology. It was initiated by Odd Einar Haugen as a project of the Studia Stemmatologica network. He was the project’s editor in chief until May 2015, when he passed the title on to Caroline Macé and Philipp Roelli. It is a wiki based website with a controlled set of contributors who work together to write definitions of the most important concepts in the field. The lexicon uses English as a lingua franca, but offers translations of the terms (not of the definitions) in French, German, Italian, and sometimes Latin. This way, if someone who isn’t a native speaker wants to find out what a specific term is called in English, she can query the equivalent in any of these languages, and still get the desired results.

In addition, the PLS tries to reflect the multicultural and multidisciplinary dimensions through the constitution of this team of contributors. Its set of 19 contributors originates from a total of 10 different countries, and incorporates a wide range of (European) languages, cultures and research interests. This offers the reader an interesting set of definitions that mix a range of different perspectives, and that uses source materials that were originally written in many different languages. It turns the PLS into an excellent lexicon that is well worth a visit if you are fluent in English and interested in stemmatology.  

This use of English as a lingua franca is the traditional approach to the problem that is also reflected in the tendency of Textual Critics in the late 1990s and early 2000s to translate some of the most influential academic papers from non-English traditions into English (e.g. Contemporary German Editorial Theory, 1995; and Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Textes, 2004). It is probably no coincidence that the turn of the century is also the time that the European Society for Textual Scholarship (ESTS) was founded: a society founded with the explicit aim to provide an international and interdisciplinary forum for the exchange of ideas in the field, and one that uses English as a lingua franca as well.

While this is a useful approach that works because English is the de facto lingua franca of the internet, and of Western Society in general, it brings its own set of problems to the table as texts (or entire traditions) that are not translated into English face the danger of being ignored in the larger, multicultural discussion of Textual Criticism. We can see this happening in Textual Criticism when we notice that while today there is a much better mutual understanding between textual scholars who belong to the English, French, and German tradition, the rapport between these traditions on the one hand and the Italian tradition on the other, for instance, is still significantly smaller. This may well be related to the fact that attempts to bring Italian philology to a non-Italian audience are much more recent (e.g. Trovato 2014).

 The Tekstuaalieteiden Sanasto's definition of 'document'.
The Tekstuaalieteiden Sanasto’s definition of ‘document’.

The polar opposite of this approach is perhaps the one taken by the Finnish Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto. Instead of bringing Finnish textual scholarship to a non-Finnish audience, this lexicon attempts to bring the diversity of traditions in Textual Criticism to a primarily Finnish speaking audience. This way, the lexicon tries to address the needs of a specific culture that was hitherto underrepresented in the field, by establishing a Finnish terminology for textual scholarship and clearly defining its terms and concepts in Finnish.

The lexicon’s attempt to cater to a new generation of Finnish textual scholars is also represented in the fact that the Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto approaches the terminological question from an interdisciplinary point of view, explicitly looking for links with adjacent research fields, such as Literary Criticism, Linguistics, and Folklore Studies. Like for the PLS, this approach is reflected in its list of contributors, which consisted of six scholars across disciplines since the start of the project in 2008. When the project was finished in 2010, the lexicon counted a total of 500 different terms and their definitions, and included 800 equivalents of these terms in other languages (in this case: Swedish, English, French, and German).

The Bank of Finnish Terminology.
The Bank of Finnish Terminology.

The fact that the Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto is an interdisciplinary lexicon becomes even more apparent when we see that the lexicon’s data has recently been migrated to be included in the much larger and inherently multidisciplinary lexicon called the Bank of Finnish Terminology in Arts and Sciences (BFT). At the moment this project has 35 subject fields and a database that contains almost 40.000 concept pages. In this wiki-based environment, the lexicon is now able to accommodate a much larger set of volunteer contributors, who can update the database more easily and regularly. As a result, the BFT’s subdiscipline of textual scholarship now comprises over 600 different pages. As part of a much larger community, the lexicon reaches a wider range of interested scholars, who — through the lexicon’s definitions — have the chance to learn more not only about Finnish textual scholarship, but about different traditions in textual scholarship as well.

 French definitions in the Glossaires Codicologiques.

French definitions in the Glossaires Codicologiques.

While it is undeniable that both the PLS and the TS make a valuable effort to further the communication between different traditions in textual scholarship, these single language lexica also reinforce the language barriers between those traditions to a certain extent. For those who don’t speak the language that the respective lexicon is written in, it becomes very difficult to use that lexicon for anything other than a translation dictionary that allows you to look up equivalent terms in other languages, leaving the more nuanced definitions of those terms outside of the user’s reach. (Except by using tools like Google Translate, of course — but since there still is no such thing as a perfect translation algorithm, many of the nuances are bound to get lost in translation there as well.) Through their inherently multi- (or at least bi-)lingual approach, the following two examples of lexica provide a counterweight to this tendency by building bridges across languages barriers.

Glossaires Codicologiques is a bilingual French-Arabic lexicon that, like the PLS, focusses on a specific subdiscipline of Textual Criticism — in this case codicology. Unlike the previous two lexica, the editors of the Glossaires do not write their own definitions for relevant concepts in this field. Instead, they have brought together a selection of earlier lexicographical sources that had already composed such definitions before them. The French part of the Glossaires combines Denise Muserelle’s Vocabulaire codicologique (established in 1985, first digitized in 2002-2003); with Phillipe Bobichon’s Le lexicon (2008); the Arabic part is an online publication of the Glossaire codicologique arabe by Anne-Marie Eddé, Marc Geoffroy, Marie-Geneviève Guesdon and Youssef Baratli, which was also largely inspired by (and includes translations from) Muserelle’s Vocabulaire.

Equivalent Arabic definitions in the Glossaires Codicologiques.
Equivalent Arabic definitions in the Glossaires Codicologiques.

The result is a lexicon that offers each of its definitions in two languages (and scripts, and reading directions), as well as a series of equivalent terms in Italian, Spanish, and English. Although I cannot comment on the quality of the translations themselves (as I sadly don’t read Arabic), this approach of translating an entire corpus of definitions into another language can definitely be applauded. It may cost a lot of time and energy, but when it’s done right it opens up the nuances of the lexicon’s definitions to a whole new group of people — and the combined communities of people who speak either French or Arabic is quite a large one indeed. The question remains of course: which languages do we choose, and where do we stop? But those are issues of aims, scope, and funds that any project needs to deal with at some point. 

The Lexicon of Scholarly Editing's definition(s) of 'document´.
The Lexicon of Scholarly Editing’s definition(s) of ‘document´.

With the translation of entire definitions rather than of entries alone, the Glossaires has built a first bridge across a language barrier. By building more, we can transform our resource into a digital arena for a truly multilingual debate. As a multilingual lexicon, the Lexicon of Scholarly Editing (LexiconSE) aims to be such an arena, offering definitions for contested concepts in the field of scholarly editing in (at the moment) six different languages.

Like the Glossaires, the LexiconSE doesn’t offer new definitions of these concepts, but collects and quotes existing definitions from academic sources. Unlike the Glossaires, the reference list that these citations are taken from is not predefined by the editors, but potentially encompasses the entire academic tradition in the field. As such, the resources don’t even have to be lexica or glossaries: they can be academic journals, monographs and the like. The reasoning behind this is that so much is already written about these concepts that redefining them is both unnecessary and restricting: it is precisely in this abundance of perspectives that the richness of the tradition lies. By quoting all the definitions its contributors can find, and ordering them chronologically in their original language, the LexiconSE aims to display these definitions as if in a multilingual discussion with one another — which, in some cases, they quite literally are.

Initiated by Dirk Van Hulle, my Ph.D. supervisor at the time, I developed the LexiconSE as part of the work towards my dissertation that was part of the ERC project ‘Creative Undoing and Textual Scholarship‘ (CUTS). It is hosted by the Centre for Manuscript Genetics (CMG) at the University of Antwerp, and affiliated to the ESTS. Live since late 2013, the LexiconSE currently counts 850 definitions taken from 114 individual sources written in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Latin.

Unlike in the Glossaires, these definitions aren’t translated, but instead only rendered in their original language. In a way, this is a limitation, because it means that the usefulness of the LexiconSE will to a certain extent be restricted to the selection of languages the user commands. On the other hand, freeing the LexiconSE from this need of translating every single term in all of its different languages permits it to grow organically, collecting not only more and more definitions, but also more and more languages in its corpus. And that brings us to what I think is the LexiconSE’s greatest strength: its contributors.

Basically, anyone who finds a definition for a relevant concept in the field in an academic resource can contribute. There are two ways of contributing: (1) you can contribute individual definitions by simply emailing them to us, e.g. by means of our contact form; or (2) if you want to get more involved you can add the definitions to the LexiconSE yourself by registering and becoming an official contributor. At the moment, the LexiconSE counts 10 contributors from all over Europe, with a wide range of research interests and linguistic backgrounds. Both the diversity of this configuration and the fact that it can be expanded at will allows us to bring many perspectives on scholarly editing together under one roof. That is why I am so happy with our recent alliance with FonteGaia, whose contributors (together with LexiconSE contributor Elisa Nury) were able to increase the LexiconSE’s share of Italian definitions considerably. By diversifying the LexiconSE’s contents as much as possible, we hope to encourage the user to discover what certain concepts are called in different languages, to give her a list of suggested reading materials, to develop a broader understanding of those concepts in the field, and to help her develop more nuanced arguments in her own writing.

Further Links

This blog post’s four examples are of course not the only lexica that have arisen in the field. Below you will find a list of links to other lexica, glossaries, etc. you can find online (a list that is also posted on the LexiconSE’s Affiliations & Links page). Suggestions for updating this list (or any other suggestions or criticisms) are of course welcome in the comments!

Notes of Thanks

My work on the LexiconSE that was to be the topic of this blog post was made possible by Dirk Van Hulle, who initiated the project, and whose ERC project allowed me to develop the LexiconSE as an appendix to my Ph.D. dissertation. The parts about the Parvum Lexicon Stemmatologicum and the Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto fall back on two talks I co-presented at the 2015 ESTS conference in Leicester, for which I am much indebted to my co-authors. At the conference, the presentation about the relation between the PLS and the LexiconSE was titled ‘Towards a Common Vocabulary of Textual Scholarship: Two Lexica and a New Project’, and was co-authored with Caroline Macé, Philipp Roelli, and Dirk Van Hulle; and the presentation about the relation between the Tekstuaalitieteiden Sanasto and the LexiconSE was titled ‘Towards a Multilingual Discussion of Textual Scholarship’, and co-authored with Sakari Katajamäki. Finally, I wish to thank Francisco Alvarez-Carbajal for introducing me to the blog’s final example: the Glossaires Codicologiques. This blog post was made possible by Elena Spadini, whose suggestions, comments and conversation were a vital source of inspiration.


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