Transmission and translation

As I write these words, I can see on my shelves an attractively bound set of sixteen volumes, each bearing on its spine the words “J. Duns Scotus Opera Omnia.” One would be tempted to assume that these are The Complete Works of John Duns Scotus. Unfortunately, in medieval philosophy things are rarely so simple. Some of the works included in this set are not by Scotus at all, but were once attributed to him. Some of Scotus’s genuine works, including his early Lectura on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, are not included. And what this set presents as Book 1 of Scotus’s late (and very important) Reportatio is actually not the Reportatio at all, but another work whose authenticity and authority are vigorously disputed. And there are further problems. The attractive modern binding belies the age of the edition itself. Open up any of the books, and what you will see is a photographic reprint of an edition first published in 1639. That edition (known as the Wadding edition, after its editor) is not a critical edition, made by weighing all the manuscript evidence according to established principles of textual scholarship in order to determine, with as much precision and certainty as possible, exactly what Scotus said or wrote. In many cases the editor simply looked at the one or two manuscripts he had handy and transcribed what he found there, sometimes without much attention to whether the resulting text even made good sense. Sadly, for much of Scotus’s work this faulty edition is the best one we have. So one has to use it: but one has to use it with great care. The pitfalls of the Wadding edition illustrate a general feature of the study of medieval philosophy: the gap that separates the authentic words of the medieval thinker one wishes to study from the Latin words one sees on the pages of a printed edition — and further still from the English words one sees in a translation. The aim of this essay is to make clear both the nature and the size of that gap, not in order to dismay prospective students of medieval philosophy, but in order to explain the hazards in such a way that students can equip themselves properly to meet them. I will begin by discussing in a general way the channels of 1 transmission by which medieval philosophy has made its way down to us. I then turn to three specific cases by which I illustrate some of those general points as they apply to texts of different sorts and from different periods. Along the way I draw attention to the kinds of errors that are liable to be introduced at the various stages of transmission between a medieval lecturer’s spoken words and the text of a modern critical edition, and I outline the tools and techniques that the careful historian of medieval philosophy will use in order to minimize such errors, especially where no critical edition is available. In the second half of the essay I turn to problems of translation. I provide an example that shows how a reader can sometimes detect errors in a translation even without checking the Latin text, and another to illustrate how translations sometimes reflect controversial views about how a text is to be interpreted. I then conclude with a look at the translation of particular terms, discussing a number of standard translations that are apt to be misleading, and giving some idea of the range of translation of certain key terms..
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