Wednesday, August 02, 2017

ETC Interview with Paolo Trovato: Part 1

It’s a pleasure for me to introduce our next interviewee in our ETC interviews series. Today I am speaking with Paolo Trovato who is a professor at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara in Italy. Prof. Trovato is best known for his work on Italian philology and particularly his work on Dante. He publishes widely on range of topics. I first encountered his work through his wonderful book on Lachmann’s method (reviewed here). That book has just been released in a revised edition and that provided a good opportunity for an interview. Enjoy!

Textual criticism is not typically a popular pursuit in my experience. What led you to it in your own work? How did you come to it?

When I was a university student in the seventies, I wanted to became a literary critic and I thought that textual criticism was quite boring stuff. Aging, I went sick with all the silly hypotheses that we continuously utter and read about texts of the past and I decided that the most useful thing I could do for the sake of my studies was to repair the damages of the textual transmission or at least try to do so.

Your book was intended to introduce English readers to some of the best of Italian philology. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory? What made you want to write for us Anglophones? What did you hope it would accomplish?

The backstory is very simple and what I tell in my book (pp. 16–17) is absolutely true: “In 2006–2007 … I had the privilege of being a visiting professor for a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Of the three courses that I taught, the most selective, reserved for graduate students, was called ‘Textual criticism’… On that occasion, more than in any other course provided in Italy, where students in faculties of letters usually have at least a smattering of knowledge on the subject, I felt these students’ gratitude to me for having given them the keys to a kingdom that had been unknown to them, but whose existence they had suspected or caught glimpses of. As each of the four [students], at different times, felt the need to explain to me: ‘Nobody had ever talked to us about these things’.” Of course, I hoped as well that a critical presentation of the genealogical method, fiercely criticized by Bédier for merely ideological reasons, could help to reduce the distance between the many national “schools” and traditions of 21st century textual criticism. Unfortunately, these schools and traditions, which originated during the last century and were often linked with Bédier’s schism, are hardly able to discuss their procedures together even if they all basically address the same problems.

You write in the new “postface” to the revised edition that you were surprised at the interest in your book from outside the study of Italian philology which is your area of expertise. To what do you attribute this interest?

I simply think that (after a period of enthusiasm for the postmodernist idea of self-made texts) people all over the world still need readable texts, that is, texts which are the outcome of clear hypotheses about the relationships among their extant copies proposed by scholarly editors who are able to detect and eliminate a good number of damages (variant readings, omissions etc.) suffered by some or all the copies.

In your book, you begin by defending a very traditional goal for textual criticism, namely, to reconstruct a text “as close a possible to the lost original” (p. 13). Why are aren’t you persuaded that this editorial goal should be abandoned in light of poststructuralist and postmodernist critiques?

Because, as a rule, you, your colleagues and mentors, me etc. normally write one original. In my opinion, even the present revised edition of my book is not a new authorial version of it. In this, it is different from the many Atala of Chateaubriand or the many Leaves of Grass of Whitman. With the help of some friends I merely corrected some italicisms in my book which did not mirror the author’s intention. That is, my desire is to be understood abroad. I also repaired the omission of some lines in a quotation, I proposed slightly different technical terms in a couple of passages, etc., but without really modifying the structure and the content of the book. Recently, a well-known historian of the Crusades asked me to rewrite, in English, the most significant and new parts of an essay I wrote about the Latin Crusade text of Fretellus. This is to my memory the only case (out of more than hundred books, papers etc. I have written) in which I will produce a second authorial version of a text.

To fully explain the entropy which is normal in the written transmission of ancient texts we don’t need to hypothesize the death or the absence of the original or the existence of more originals. The best medicine against these hypotheses is the following, which provides also a rudimentary but realistic model of textual transmission: 1. Distributing Xerox copies of the same two pages of any text to a class of students, 2. kindly asking them to copy it quickly by reading and reproducing by heart passages of at least two or three lines (that is, working like good scribes), without checking many times the original word by word and letter by letter (that is, working like slow textual scholars); 3. giving these copies to be copied again, with the same rules, to students of another class or to different students of the same class. 4. reading these second rank copies and confronting them with the original.

(No need to say that the reconstructed texts of our critical editions do not always succeed in being close to the lost original, but this is another problem, another history, which I try to address in the book).

There is an interesting difference of opinion on the value of Lachmann’s method in Germany, Italy, and especially France. I am thinking of Bédier in France and Pasquali in Italy in particular, but others since then as well. Is this mere geographical coincidence or is there something deeper about the scholarship in these countries that has led to the different reactions to Lachmann’s method?

Karl Lachmann (source)
The development of Bédier’s “theory” is a long and complicated history, that now looks enough clarified (especially thanks to A. Corbellari and M.R. Warren). At the beginning of last century Bédier and many others thought that the genealogical method was a German device and Germans were the winners of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871. Having grown up in the French colony of Réunion Island, Bédier developed strong nationalist, and especially anti-German, sentiments, which are evocatively reconstructed by M.R. Warren in Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier’s Middle Ages (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011). We must read his rejection of Lachmann’s method in this context. In 19th century Italy and until the end of first world war the problem was simply to learn from more “civilized” nations how to take care of the classic and medieval literary tradition. Both Pasquali and Contini spent long periods of their education abroad.

Part 2 is here. For past interviews, see here.


  1. PT: "As a rule, you, your colleagues and mentors, me etc. normally write one original"

    Do we? This gets me thinking: when I prepare an article, it first appears from my computer in an initial draft printout, and then might go through three or more red-ink revisions and printouts before being sent to the publisher, and even then publisher recommendations or typesetting issues might cause even more red-ink changes before actual publication.

    Which of these productions then represents either "authorial intent", the "original", or even the "Ausgangstext"? Only the published form, or one, more, or all of those intermediate stages?

    Obviously, inherent among these considerations are implications regarding the preparation and development of the text of the NT books, but perhaps that is another matter.

    1. Hence the appeal to the final intention of the author among text-critics like Tanselle.

    2. Peter Gurry,
      Timothy Mitchell tackles the question Dr. R, raised in his JETS 59/2 article 'What are the New Testament Autographs...'. I believe his arguments are persuasive.


  2. Paolo Trovato8/03/2017 9:49 am

    Dear Maurice (if I may)
    I also rewrite privately some times my first draft, but I doubt that you and the friends you ask to read your various drafts for advice work very heavily on the transmission of the drafts. As a rule, the real transmission begins when the author says “It’s ok”.

  3. Paulo: "the real transmission begins when the author says “It’s ok”.

    Ah, I agree...but...if I say "It's ok" but the publisher demands a 25% cut of material, and then after revision demands a further 50% cut of material (something that really did occur in regard to one of my articles) -- is it still "ok" in the same sense? I would suggest not.

  4. Paolo Trovato8/03/2017 10:19 pm

    I don't want to expand too much my presence here and I apologize both for this reply and for my poor English. In my opinion, it is always possible to imagine one, two or more very clever exceptions to the "rules" which we suggest to the readers for the sake of clarity. But the fact that 2 or 3 out of 1000 cases don't follow the normal conditions isn't enough to cancell what I would call a normal situation of textual transmission in the period before Gutenberg's invention. I think that in this very long period, in which we jump from OT and Latin and Greek Classics to Early Modern authors, analogies in textual transmission are often more relevant and striking than differences . (Furthermore, if your case of a 50% cut of materials means that also in 3rd century CE there were editors who could interfere with the author's intention, I fully agree. But I think that only a thorough collation and classification of common errors can allow us to identify these colleagues of the past and their way of treating the text.)

  5. I agree with all of the above. However, let me note what might be considered an early but not isolated parallel: the shorter and longer recensions of the Protevangelium Iacobi as possibly interfering with (or expanding upon?) the author's intention.

    Perhaps an exception, yes; but still a matter that modern editors have to conaider.