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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

An exercise in conjectural emendation

I'm going to see how many days in a row I can post, since I have a lot on my mind lately. We'll start with a short exercise in conjectural emendation.

Conjectural emendation is the process whereby a textual critic restores an allegedly corrupted text to its original form--one not known to have been transmitted to any extant copy. I say 'allegedly' because it is common for textual critics to disagree on whether a text is even corrupted or not to begin with. I'm of the school that looks for the following before conjecturing an emendation:

1. There's something grammatically wrong with the way the text now reads, or, if the text is technically grammatical, something still appears to be missing that is essential to the flow of thought.

2. Some mechanism exists which could likely account for the text being corrupt.

In both of these, necessary clues can usually be gleaned from an examination of the near context.

As an example, I've lifted a phrase out of an email which I received today from my financial adviser:

Whether you’re in the ‘"ore optimistic" or the "less optimistic" camp

First of all, 'ore optimistic' may possibly refer to gold speculation--especially if used as a play on words--but that's clearly not in the broader context here (I can say that, because I have the entire letter before me). Unfortunately for those who rely on Spell Check to do their proofreading, 'ore' is in fact a word, so it would at best have been flagged by Grammar Check.

What is in the immediate context is 'less optimistic,' which is in parallel to 'more optimistic.'  That is in fact what I would conjecture was the original reading.

Now, we can easily see how the corruption may have arisen, by a scribe correcting the original in five discrete stages.

STAGE 1 (autograph).
Whether you’re in the ‘more optimistic’ or the ‘less optimistic’ camp

STAGE 2 (begin the correction).
Whether you’re in the ‘more optimistic’ or the ‘less optimistic" camp

STAGE 3 (continue the correction).
Whether you’re in the ‘more optimistic’ or the "less optimistic" camp

STAGE 4 (last correct stage in the correction).
Whether you’re in the ‘more optimistic" or the "less optimistic" camp

STAGE 5 (begin the faulty correction).
Whether you’re in the ‘ore optimistic" or the "less optimistic" camp

STAGE 6 (conclude the faulty correction).
Whether you’re in the ‘"ore optimistic" or the "less optimistic" camp

As you can see, in the process of highlighting the [‘] and replacing it with ["], the scribe highlighted the adjacent character instead. Or, more likely, he hit the 'delete' key when his cursor was to the right of the ['] instead of to the left of it. Or hit the 'delete' key, intending to hit 'backspace' instead. In any case, he ended up replacing the [m] instead of the [‘].

Now, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, many corruptions can be brought to light by variants in the versions--but this is not always necessary. Sometimes translators did not emend the text when they translated it, so it's clear that they had the same allegedly corrupt text before them as we have now. But in the case where a version reads like an emendation, it may indicate an uncorrupted text, or it may not. For all we know, the original translator may have conjectured an emendation just as we did here, and just as any competent translator would in translating this phrase into Japanese.

It's not necessary to have versional evidence to conjecture an emendation, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Versional evidence is a strong indication that the text as we now have it was at one point corrupted, as well as evidence for the direction in which emendation should occur.

By the way, a bit of electrocodicology* here:  I had to play around with the font several times to accurately reproduce what happened. When I cut-and-pasted the phrase, I ended up with directional quotation marks in my copy. But after setting up the stages of correction, I realised that the exemplar must have contained only vertical quotation marks. Sure enough, when I blew up the screen enough, it did. So I had to go back and re-construct my reconstruction--a couple of times, until I was sure I got it right.

*electrocodicology (a word I just coined)
The study of electronic texts as visible objects, it encompasses a study of the electronic codes used to produce a visible image of the text; their origin, especially chronological; the various editions through which they may have passed; and the specific hardware upon which they could have existed at the time of the text's creation.

By a close examination of the codicological attributes of an electronic text, or even a physical printout thereof, it is sometimes possible to establish the history and provenance of a text, especially in proving that an alleged archived document is a recent forgery (see: Dan Rather, reasons for retirement of).


  1. At this rate, the question may not be for how long you can blog, but how long your readers will follow!

  2. You're still here, and I have continued to pick up about one new follower a year.


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