Saturday, April 7, 2012

Research Emergency!

At a cocktail party at the end of last semester, the husband of a colleague was telling me about a new emergency fund that NYU has made available for faculty to dip into for totally unforeseen research expenses. I joked with him for a few minutes about what, exactly, would constitute a "research emergency," since particularly as a medievalist, the concept seems a little foreign to me. As I tell my students when they fall behind and need some reassurance: These guys have been dead for the better part of a millennium, a few more days isn't going to make a difference one way or the other. Of course, research emergencies are things like Egyptian sociologists suddenly needing to go to Tahrir Square, etc. or meteorologists needing proximity to unexpected weather conditions.

But I think I'm now having a genuine medieval research emergency. It hinges on there being a clear difference in the early 20th-century sense of the word "published" and the contemporaneous sense of same. And I think it's worth laying out here:

The book chapter that I'm working on right now explores the relationship between devotional and professional reading in the thought of the head of the translation workshop that is the subject of my book. This is one of the places where I'm needed to beef up what I did as part of my dissertation work, when I thought I'd only write about the son of this particular translator, himself also a translator. Late-ish in the game, I realized that the question that I wanted to answer  with my project required a study of the father as much as of the son. So that's a long way of saying that even though this will be my so-called dissertation book, there's a lot of totally new work going into it.

To write this chapter, I wanted to consult with all of of the prologues that the patertranslator appended to his translations, and thus began pulling every relevant edition that is held in the Bobst collection and requesting the missing ones from inter-library loan, especially if we were missing what is considered to be the authoritative edition of a given text.

One particular text, called The Improvement of Moral Qualities, has proven to be a bit of a rattlesnake. There are historical reasons for this boondoggle. The problem that I'm having is that, as I am coming to realize, most modern editions don't contain the translator's preface; the reason for this is that it is appended to only two of the extant manuscripts and so it was not included in most of the early modern printed editions. The printed Hebrew version  that Bobst owns (Jerusalem, 1966) doesn't contain the translator's letter. The English translation (New York, 1902) does, and contains the following footnote:

"Appended to the manuscripts (Neubauer 1402.2, Michael 401) of the Hebrew translation of the 'Ethics.' Steinschneider published it for the first time (pp. 366, 367 of the 'Katalog der Michael'schen Bibliothek,' Hamburg, 1848); it was reprinted in the Lyck edition, 1859; cf. St. (H.U. p. 381) and H. Gross, Gallia Judaica (Paris, 1897 p. 280)."

Much to my dismay, it turns out that to say in 1902 that something was "published" means that its existence was publicized in in some kind of catalogue.  It does not mean, as I assumed that it did, that the text is transcribed and edited out from one or many manuscripts in such a way that one can study the text. (In other words, it is more likely conform to definition 1 found in the OED rather than the definition 2.) The references mentioned in the Hebraeischen Uebersetzungen and Gallia Judaica are, similarly, references to the existence of the text and not the text itself.

Since Wise distinguished between "reprinting" and "publishing," I'm optimistic that I'll actually be able to read the original text once I get my hands on the 1859 edition. The 1807 edition, as I discovered, much to my dismay, is not just a reprint of the 1859 edition. Yale seems to own a copy of the 1859 edition, and I'm also hopeful that either the Jewish Theological Seminary (shorter train ride) or the Hebrew Union College (no train ride (literally around the corner)) may also have a copy. (Edited a bit later to add: Victory! Both JTSA and NYPL (longish walk, shortish train ride) have the book in their holdings! Now all that remains to be seen is whether the prologue is actually in the book.) I'll also spend some quality time with the Bodleian Library web site to see if the relevant MS in their collection has been or could be digitized (or, I should say, digitised).  (The Michael'schen Bibliotek is a rattlesnake eating another rattlesnake, so for the moment I'm going to focus on the Bodley MS, although of course I'll look at both before doing a proper edition or even publishing the book.)

I'm still a little panicked, though.

This whole research emergency has really driven home the point that a lot of the texts that were edited in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really, really need to be re-edited now, according to modern scientific standards. In a way, it's kind of reassuring that there's still loads of manuscript work to be done even where there are, ostensibly, editions of things. They're not typically very good and they're definitely not easily available. I do love a good puzzle. I'd just rather not have to solve it under a time crunch.

I'll get it eventually. But the truly pressing, emergency part comes from having to present this work in Tel Aviv at the end of May, and having to circulate a written paper a month beforehand. And it was my own naiveté that really provoked the emergency, assuming as I did that "published" meant "published" and not getting started earlier on getting a photograph of the manuscript from the library. So depending on the success of my edition-hunting and whether I can take the time out from working on other aspects of the project to get to the Bodleain before then, not to mention convincing some university committee that this is a Genuine Research Emergency (tm), I may have to circumlocute and leave things a little more speculative than I'd be happy with. Fortunately, it's a workshop, so everyone will know that this is work in progress and not necessarily hugely close to being publishable. But still.

At least the Bodley isn't being looted. Even if I don't get there before the workshop, it's not like I'll never have the chance to see the manuscript. Count me grateful for small favors.

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