Academic journal article Arthuriana

Translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure into a Digital Medium: The Influence of Physical Context on Editorial Theory

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure into a Digital Medium: The Influence of Physical Context on Editorial Theory

Article excerpt

This article examines the impact of a modern digital edition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure on editorial rationale, arguing that a change in physical context entails a deep change in the analytical context within which the poem is perceived. More precisely, I will illustrate the 'dynamic' potential of a digital edition, which allows an editor or reader to accommodate multiple reading texts reflecting different degrees of editorial certainty, and thus constitutes a significant advance compared to more traditional methods of presentation. Ultimately the possibility of contemplating such plural, open-ended and provisional possibilities within the context of a digital edition of the Morte Arthure widens the range of editorial and interpretive interaction with the text itself. (JIC)

Editing a literary work like the Morte Arthure is always a twofold act of translation, involving changes to its physical and analytical contexts. The physical movement from original documentary source to modern publication medium involves changes that should be obvious upon reflection, while analytical change results from applying editorial methods to a text. Editions of medieval poems, in other words, adjust the manuscript format to print conventions and introduce critical interventions ranging from simple notes to complex emendations. Both procedures mediate between reader and textual object, profoundly shaping an audience's experience, but modern editorial criticism has all but ignored the implications of the more obvious physical translation.1 Assuming the primacy of the codex for presenting textual scholarship, scholars have concerned themselves instead with determining what interventions make sense in a print environment.2 Following the advent of a viable digital alternative for publishing critical editions, however, the need to reevaluate judgments based on that assumption has become clear.

Unfortunately, despite newly invigorated interest in questions about physical context, superficial or derisive responses to technological advances have often impeded study of how digitization can alter editorial practice. In the earliest days of 'hypertext' research, for example, critics who took note of digital initiatives were apt to advocate extreme but simplistic positions. Apologists presented the electronic text as a panacea for all the perceived ills of traditional editing; skeptics questioned whether this 'fad' would contribute anything substantive to scholarship.3 Eventually, researchers like G. Thomas Tanselle and Jerome McGann moved beyond such partisan judgments and endorsed a moderate view situating digital editions within a broader scholarly tradition.4 Some disagreements persist, though, especially in regard to whether changes in publication medium and the process of physical translation can have concomitant effects on those analytical questions that previously dominated critical discussions of editorial theory.

The inability to resolve how much format shapes theory partly stems from a lack of evidence, especially case studies of how digitization influences the editing of works previously tackled in printed codices. While large archival projects have proven popular in digital editing, these collections are of limited use in isolating the impact of medium on theory given their lack of precedent and focus on the new format's more practical benefits.5 Lower publication costs and a capacity for massive facsimiles are certainly benefits of electronic presentation, but issues of economy and scale have only an indirect relationship to theory. The need for better case studies was therefore one of my inspirations when beginning work on an electronic edition of the Morte Arthure (hereafter, the DMA for 'digital Morte Arthure').6 Lacking the complex manuscript history of works commonly chosen for archival treatment but still posing interesting textual challenges, this poem seemed ideal for editorial experimentation. These experiments have confirmed that physical and analytical contexts are interdependent and that digital editions do encourage departures from print-bound editorial tendencies. …

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