what books should do 03.19.2005, 9:15 PM
posted by dan visel
earlymoderntexts.com is a project of a retired college professor that aims to present works of early modern thinkers (Descartes, Kant, Hume, etc) in language that can be understood by students. Jonathan Bennett, the creator of the site, recognized that the students he was teaching couldn't read texts already in English, so he set to simplifying them, editing them himself. Bennett substituted simple words for ones more complicated, elaborated particularly complicated points, and moved important points into bulleted lists, so they could be easily grasped. He's put his edited versions of the texts online, so the general public can read them.
This is an interesting use of public-domain texts and a good demonstration of what can be done when information is free of copyright. (Some of the texts, it should be noted, aren't public domain: John Cottingham's translation of Descartes's Meditation on First Philosophy is almost certainly subject to copyright even if Descartes isn't). Clearly a lot of thought has gone into it: Bennett provides a nice explication of his editing conventions. He uses punctuation to show where in the text he's made changes, starting from the usual brackets and ellipses.
What I found myself wanting when I made my way through his versions, however, was the original, to compare. Tradurre è tradire say the Italians: to translate is to betray, and I always find myself curious as to exactly how the translators are betraying the original. A facing page translation is useful in poetry: you can look at the original and sound out the original line (if you can pronounce the language) to see how the translated line compares. Certainly I could do roughly the same thing here: open up a browser window to a Gutenberg text of the original while I looked at the PDFs that Bennett provides.
But why should we have to do this? Shouldn't electronic texts keep copies of their original versions internally? What I want in reading software is a tool that lets me instantly compare versions: if the translator has changed a word, I'd like to be able to press a button and see what the original was. You can kind of do something like this with Microsoft Word's "track changes" feature. But Word's a deplorable program for reading, and I don't want to have to make my way through a forest of red and blue underlined and struck-through text. What I want would be a program that opens a copy of Bennett's version of Decartes, which is able to flip back to Cottingham's original translation, and then even further to Descartes' original French. Why don't we have programs that make it easy to do this? It shouldn't be hard to do.
Posted by dan visel on March 19, 2005 9:15 PM
ben vershbow on March 21, 2005 12:03 PM:
Perhaps versions could be arranged in tabs along the document edge. This would allow you to flip quickly between layers, and could also serve as a handy "version history." Of course, if the anxiety of influence gets too distracting, you could opt to hide the tabs.
Crowding all the information on a single page, as with Word's "track changes," is only useful if you are actively part of an editing process, or if you are interested in the more surgical aspects of a writing history. It should be one of the options, not the only option.
filologanoga on March 22, 2005 11:04 AM:
The Versioning Machine (http://mith2.umd.edu/products/ver-mach/) doesn't seem too hard to master, once you know something about XML, and its TEI subset... I mean, if one can explain Descartes, one can surely master this thing... and it's ready for internet presentation!