This week I began a lengthy editing project, copyediting a critical edition of a medieval Latin text, accompanied by its English translation—a completely satisfying, challenging, and enjoyable job that is reminding me of my previous experience with medieval manuscripts (see my previous blog) and writing my own critical edition. This work makes me ponder, once again, the connections between copyediting and manuscript editing, which consists of transcribing the ancient script; choosing, eliminating, or editing the readings of various manuscript witnesses; and finding the sources on which the text may have drawn, in order to bring the text into readable form for the modern reader. What are some of the skills necessary for editing medieval Latin manuscripts and how have they informed what I do today when copyediting academic materials and bringing these texts into more readable form for my clients?
Palaeography is the study of “old writing” (from Greek palaios “ancient” + graphē “writing”). The scripts in which ancient and medieval manuscripts were written vary from Roman cursive and Caroline minuscule to Gothic textualis and many more, according to when and where the manuscript was written. Since medieval scribes were writing by hand, and materials were expensive, an extensive system of abbreviations developed to save both time and space. As a result, even the most talented linguist may have difficulty interpreting these writings—which may appear as a foreign alphabet—without the proper training. In fact, an entire dictionary, Cappelli’s Lexicon abbreviaturarum, indispensable for a palaeographer, is dedicated to these abbreviations. As the English translation of Cappelli’s introduction says, “Take a foreign language, write it in an unfamiliar script, abbreviating every third word, and you have the compound puzzle that is the medieval Latin manuscript.”
Learning the complex system of symbols that indicate truncation or contraction of words is akin to learning a new language. Intense attention to such details as, for example, whether a horizontal mark is straight or curved like a tilde, or whether a loop appears on the ascender or descender of a letter makes the difference in how a word will be expanded and interpreted. Every little mark and squiggle must be noted as a clue to unravelling the puzzle.
So, if you are accustomed to editing the intricacies of medieval scripts, when copyediting modern texts, subtle changes in formatting, such as in font or line spacing, italicized commas or not, heading levels, and lack of closing quotation marks may jump off the page at you. It means that having to maintain the rule patterns for interpreting a particular manuscript script and its particular abbreviations may help you to maintain a consistent pattern of capitalization and punctuation within a modern text.
Collating Manuscript Readings
Say you have two or three manuscripts containing the same medieval text. Since manuscripts (i.e., “handwritten,” from Latin manus “hand” + scriptum “written”) were copied by individual people, these copies most likely were copied by different scribes. Different scribes had different linguistic and copying talents—some better, some worse. In fact, a scribe whose Latin was not completely up to par may have misinterpreted some of those abbreviations described above and copied in a wrong word. Or after copying thousands of words and growing weary, one of the scribes may have inadvertently skipped over several words or even an entire line; as a result, the text is transmitted without those words that exist in the original copy. These examples of scribal errors lead to different readings, and the job of the editor of medieval manuscripts is to collate the manuscripts in order to get back to the most complete and correct version of the text.
Painstakingly, line by line, word by word, each of these different manuscripts have to be compared in order to assess which manuscript has the best reading and when the editor needs to intervene with an insertion, omission, or edit. Sound familiar? In the same way, the copyeditor’s goal is to present the most correct and clear version of a text. We don’t want to have to intervene except when absolutely necessary—just like the editor of medieval manuscripts—but we do need to correct errors in grammar, syntax, or expression so that our clients’ message may reach their readers in the clearest and most accessible form possible.
The Medieval Detective
Sometimes working with manuscripts resembles detective work. For example, if the editor of a medieval manuscript is able to trace similarities in technique, phrasing, or the exact same passage in an anonymous work to a manuscript with an established author, that is how attributions can be made. Similarly, a good copyeditor may remember that an author is repeating a passage word for word from a previous chapter and suggest some structural editing in order to avoid the redundancy. Or a copyeditor may recognize an uncited passage from another work and recommend that the author provide the reference, thus avoiding embarrassment for the client.
So, for the next few months I happily get to apply my copyediting skills to a Latin/English text, complete with critical apparatus outlining how the various manuscripts differ. This is definitely a specialized niche edit, but that is what I love about my job as a freelance editor: Not only am I constantly learning, when editing subject areas that are new to me—such as the sociology of housing in Nova Scotia or the history of Indian chintz—but frequently my clients also draw on my specialized skills, a happy scenario for both them and me.
If you are an editor, do you have a niche? What are the advantages of offering niche versus general editing? What specialized skills do you have to draw on when editing in your niche for clients?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.