Digital Editions: Variant Readings and Interpretations

Dino Buzzetti
Dipartimento di Filosofia, via Zamboni 38, I-40126 Bologna, Italy

KEYWORDS: text representation, variants, text interpretation

AFFILIATION: Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna

E-MAIL:       g2tbov11@vm.cineca.it
FAX NUMBER:   +39 - 51 - 258355
PHONE NUMBER: +39 - 51 - 258357

Textual mobility and fluidity is almost a norm in various genres of medieval literary production. Alternative readings in different manuscripts do not usually confine themselves to mere accidents of textual reproduction. Sources of this kind suggest on reflection that the traditional goal of assessing the text in the most reliable way, that is through a critical edition following the classical rules of philology, could be neither feasible nor desirable. The very idea of making clear-cut choices based upon collation seems to be neither applicable, nor altogether sound. On the contrary, an appropriate editorial policy requires that also the so-called alternatives should be edited as text. A database representation of the entire textual tradition provides an obvious solution to this problem and in notable cases a database comprising the encoded diplomatic transcriptions of all the extant manuscripts has been actually constructed. A database representation keeps closer to the varied and diversified nature of medieval textuality and contributes to its critical analysis in a way that overcomes the insurmountable limitations of the printed form of textual representation. Many medieval texts are fluid and dynamic, but as reproduced in a printed book they become fixed and immutable: the form of representation is forced upon the form of what is to be represented. A database representation offers a viable alternative in cases where the printed model, the classical model of textual representation is not altogether appropriate.

The new form of textual representation provided by a database of transcriptions can be further improved by means of digitized images integrated into it. A digital image is logical data and is not to be thought of as a mere physical reproduction of a manuscript document. A digital image can be processed; it can be linked with transcriptions; it provides elements for interpretation and analysis. Therefore, a digital image is to be conceived as a direct representation of textual content and not as a substitute for an absent document. In this respect, it is on a par with a digital transcription, which needs not replicate a physical document, another form of textual representation, but can be taken in itself as a direct form of representation of textual information. But a digital transcription is a form of representation of a new kind, and a digital image just as well. Digitized images and transcriptions are to be thought of as processable data. And a processable representation of a text is a form of textual representation very different from a non-processable one. What makes two different forms of representation a representation of the same text is their invariance with respect to their information content. What makes two representations of the same text two different forms of representation is their difference with respect to processing and analysis.

The fundamental feature of a textual representation in digital form - what makes it essentially different from any other one - is therefore its liability to processing. And there seems to be more point in this observation than just stating a platitude. For, in this respect, the very problem of textual representation in a digital form becomes the following one: how can a digital representation of textual information be effectively structured and processed in view of a specified analytical purpose? Now, one of the basic purposes of textual criticism is the analysis of variant readings, an analysis of the different forms of representation of the same text. Are they to be conceived as spurious corruptions, or are they to be conceived as genuine texts? The problem of analysing textual content cannot be separated from the problem of analysing its several representations. But they are different ones, and how are they to be connected? Is textual content by itself stable and immutable, so as not to admit a mobile form of representation, or is it on the contrary the steady and immodifiable form of a given form of textual representation, that forces textual content to be fixed once and for all? Medieval forms of textuality are often fluid and dynamic; in this case, the printed form of representation freezes textual mobility, and the form of representation should not be mistaken for the form of what is to be represented. On the other hand, and for the same reason, the dynamic form of a database representation - a form of representation that affords a more faithful reproduction of the varied and diversified expressions of textual fluidity - should not be mistaken for the accomplished form of its edition. A database in itself is by no means an edition, and there is a point indeed in rejecting the idea of an "archive edition", a sort of all comprising inventory of any available piece of textual evidence. A database cannot be conceived as an edition as long as it is thought of as a sheer duplicate of its source material.

A database had better be thought of as a structured logical representation of textual sources, and here can be found an answer to our problem. A database is a form of representation, and a representation of whichever sort neither is, nor can be, just a replicate of its original. The problem is indeed to put its logical features to a good use. But how, exactly, can that be done for the sake of producing an edition? The most plausible answer appears to be to organize a database as an apparatus. For that seems to be precisely what makes an edition -- not just an archive -- out of anything. As it has been said, representing in database form, with commentary, a textual tradition is already translating encoded textual features into structures. And that could possibly be done just for the sake of documenting one or another reconstruction of the text, which is precisely the purpose an apparatus is created for.

We can then describe the computational problem we have to face in the following way: (1) what data structures can we obtain out of digital representations, either in encoded character form or in bitmapped form, of textual materials; and (2) what kind of processing procedures do these data structures afford us? Moreover, (3) do these data structures and these processing proceedures meet our needs, as far as representation and analysis of textual material is concerned? Finally, it should be firmly kept in mind that it is from this last requirement that we have to start, for it is from our research goals, and not vice versa, that we have to proceed. And it is precisely in this respect that the computational model now newly implemented into "kleio" seems to provide an answer.

The treatment of variant readings is a typical problem of overlapping hierarchies. And this problem is radically tackled within "kleio" at the basic level of system design. The computational model, data structures and processing functions, is then able to conform to the conceptual procedures imposed by the needs of text critical research. The several layers or witnesses of a text can be easily mapped into distinct sequential representations, severally implying different and mutually overlapping hierarchical representations. But we need to use a data type "extended string" in order to make all different sequential realizations of textual representation jointly compatible in a unique and consistent nonlinear representation in database form. A database representation can thus act as a consistent and unifying model of all different sequential representations of a text, a congruent structure onto which they can all be mapped simultaneously and consistently, and from which they can all be separately derived and individually displayed. By means of the "extended string" data type it is possible to reduce to a consistent unity a multiplicity of different and possibly overlapping hierarchical representations, thus meeting the needs of the editor of a text handed down by a variety of different sequential representations; or it is possible, vice versa, to derive from a single sequential representation a multiplicity of different structural representations, thus serving the purposes of a scholar approaching the text from more than a single analytical perspective.

Both the editorial and the interpretative practices seem to need a computational model of the same kind, allowing the reduction to unity, or conversely the derivation from unity, of a multiplicity of structurally different representations. But in the one case, the case of an edition, we have to start from a multiplicity of representations of the sequential structure of a particular document witnessing the text and reduce them to a unique structural representation of a non-sequential kind; whereas in the other case, the case of textual analysis and interpretation, we have to derive from a single sequential representation of textual content, a multiplicity of structural representations of a non-sequential kind. The editor has to care about structural representations, both sequential and non-sequential, of the documents representing the text; the interpreter has to care about structural representations, both sequential and non-sequential, of the textual content represented by a document. It is structure that enables a document to represent a text, and it is structure that enables a text to be represented by a document. It is therefore the structural properties of the digital form of representation that we have to rely upon in order to apply appropriate conceptual procedures both to documents and to texts.

In this respect, the advantages of a digital form of representation over a printed one are absolutely clear. A digital representation can easily be structured both in a linear and in a non-linear form and can more aptly be employed for research purposes in text representation and analysis. A digital representation, either a transcription or an image, can improve research considerably if it is used as a structural form of representation. The reproduction of a document in all its physical properties can immediately be turned into a structural representation, because it is logical data by itself. The crucial problem is to organize digital data into data structures suitable to textual representation and in implementing processing functions suitable to textual analysis, a problem that can be solved only at the level of system design. The application of the "extended string" data type newly implemented into "kleio" to text critical problems has proved to be a substantial step towards reaching satisfactory solutions. And its application to problems of analysis and interpretation looks just as promising on the same grounds.