Four Aspects of Philology: Editing of Text

Every text we read has its own history. How do we get the texts we read? How do we know that the words we read are the words the author wanted us to read? These questions became particularly pressing in the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, when scholars began to recover a large number of ancient manuscripts, but they remain relevant even for modern works of literature. The modern printed version of an ancient text—Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Republic, Vergil’s Aeneid—is based on one or more manuscripts which were produced by copyists, often hundreds of years after they were originally written; sometimes we can assume that what we have is the copy of a copy of a copy, and so on back to the original manuscript, which is now lost. Every time a manuscript is recopied, mistakes creep in, so different copies of a text will differ from each other. The editor has to compare the manuscripts of a text and decide which version to accept and print. Classical scholars have to be aware of the history of the texts they study, but the texts of modern literature can also present editorial problems. Henry James, for example, revised his early novels when they were republished late in his life, and an editor today has to decide which version to print. Before a modern novel is published, the publisher may ask the author to make changes. If the original unedited manuscript eventually comes to light, should that be considered the authoritative version rather than the printed text?

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