23 November 2009

Where is the text, and what do we call it?

Time to start putting down some of my own thoughts on questions of criticism and translation. I fully expect that the points I'm raising here will have been dealt with by someone else already, but at least I'll know what I'm looking for.

I've mentioned earlier Susan Sontag's appeal to common sense: there is such a thing as an "original" text. Appeals to common sense always worry me. You've only got to look at McGann to see that Sontag's view is problematic at a very basic level. With long-lived poets, Wordsworth being the epitome, there may be several author-approved versions of a text - which one do you consider original? And then there is the question of assumed typos. With older poets, should you retain the old spellings and capitalisation? With Blake, don't many of the original texts lose something when the illlustrations are taken away? What about typesetting? Even bloggers agonise over the typeface used (obviously I've not agonised long or to any visible effect).

But, finally, after these arguments have been resolved - which I don't intend to try to do here in a general or specific way - the reader has something in front of them. It may be a short poem, a story, a collection or a novel. I think in each case the selection of form will be relevant to the understanding, and it's ok to defer the question of selection from this discussion. Although the reading will be conditioned by the process of pre-editing. Looking at one of the Cantos in isolation is quite different from seeing it in the physical body of the whole collection. Even if you scrupulously avoid looking at any other Canto, you are aware that they exist.

The other Cantos are functionally similar to many other things you know exist. It's impossible to read anything without a context. That context is inevitably different for different people. The Cantos are an acute example of this. Those who know their Homer will get a different experience from those who don't.

George Steiner proposed an ideal of the reader knowing everything about the meaning and associations of the words in a text. It's similar to the Pierre Menard story. But I can't remember if that proposed preparation for an ideal reading included forgetting everything that happened since the object text was written. The context in which we read Shakespeare now is different from what it was even ten years ago. We can't become a contemporary reader. The context has included later works of literature, of course, but also facts of history and science. To take the most facile example, we surely can't read The Merchant of Venice the same way after the holocaust.

So the reading of an object text will change from person to person and from age to age. I would postulate that the reading, as I'm calling it, creates a new object in the mind of the reader. The task of criticism is to record, explain and transmit that reading, so that reading is a new text, new each time. The task of translation is to translate that new text, or a frozen image of it. I think this is why each age needs new translations of the classics. It means that translation can't in any direct way serve the 'original' text.

So: terminology. I've slipped into using the term 'object text' to denote the arrangement of words on paper (or on screen, or on a recording - but let's keep it simple) that is presented to the reader. It's not perfect, but I'll stick with it for now. I should also note that the process of establishing the object text is part of the context. I could go into the extent of context further, but I think I've got enough for now. Then, by applying the context to the object text, the reader obtains what I've called a reading, and I really think I need a better term for that. To call it generated text risks confusion, and so do a lot of other words I could borrow from everyday language. Let's call it the intext then, to recognise the inwardness of it, and to happily accept the associations with intense and somewhat less happily intent. (This is all provisional anyway.)

This is all provisional and I can't believe these considerations haven't been run through the mill already. It stil leaves much of the ground to cover. How would I apply this terminology to questions of lisble v scriptible? I seem to be saying every thing is scriptible, requires the active input of the reader. Is that true? And what I've said seems to make more sense of Zukofsky's Catullus; a modern translation has to acknowledge all the later influences on the translator's reading: the intext includes traces of Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Blyton, though the object text naturally doesn't. Is that right? To be continued.

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