The ‘Multilemma’ of a Multilingual Lexicon of SE

Yesterday I added a series of new definitions from Jean Bellemin-Noël‘s 1972 monograph titled: Le texte et l’avant-texte: les brouillons d’un poème de Milosz. An important text for the Lexicon, not only because Bellemin-Noël starts his monograph off by suggesting a series of definitions of relevant concepts, but also because it is generally regarded as the text where he coins the term avant-texte – a central concept in the field of Genetic Criticism.

Because Bellemin-Noël’s book is written in French, I was again confronted with the problems that building a multilingual lexicon brings along with it. As is explained on our Homepage and Contribution page, because the lingua franca of this lexicon is English (as is the lingua franca of the ESTS), all of the definitions in the lexicon (in any language) are grouped together under the name of their English equivalent. In most cases, this does not  pose a real problem. A definition of the term ‘manuscript’ is filed under, manuscript, Grésillion‘s 1994 definition of ‘collationner’ is filed under collation, ‘variante’ under variant, etc. Methodologically, I think this is the best approach to building a multilingual lexicon of scholarly editing, because the discussion of complex terms in the lexicon is a multilingual discussion where near-equivalency and quasi-equivalency often lies at the root of the semantic problem. This way, when a researcher types in a French term like ‘texte’, he or she will find it filed under text, and is able to follow the development of this concept across three different languages (for now), as it is used by researchers who have different orientations to text. As an added bonus, the link’s @title attribute will translate non-english terms for the user when hovering over the link.

However, as I already hinted at in a previous post, in some cases the process of finding the right English equivalent for a French or German term is a little more difficult. Some terms have been coined in one language, and taken over in English as a loanword, like the French avant-texte for example. In English, the term is sometimes translated as ‘foretext’ (Bowman 1990, 628), sometimes as ‘pre-text’ (Van Hulle 2004, 4), but today the word avant-texte is frequently used in English discussions of textual criticism as well. In such cases, a non-English term will be used as an entry name in the lexicon.

This problem becomes more difficult, however, when there is an English equivalent to a non-English coinage that is less frequently used — such as the English translation rewriting for the French concept ‘réécriture’ for example. The term ‘réécriture’ emerged in the French discussion of textual criticism as an answer to the English use of the word variant, which presupposes that there is a single ‘invariant’ from which it varies. The study of the genesis of literary texts, however, has shown that this does not always hold true. In such cases, the term réécriture can be used as an overarching term, that includes revisions, substitutions, eliminations, overwritings, open variants, instant rewritings, independent variants, etc. Still, in English this nuance is often overlooked, leading the textual critic to use ‘variant’ as the overarching term. Because this is such a sensitive issue, it was impossible to file ‘réécriture’ under ‘variant’, even if the two are sometimes used synonymously. As this Twitter conversation from last month’s ESTS conference shows, however, there is still no real consensus on how to translate this term into English, making it difficult to choose the best English equivalent. Although it is not yet regarded as an established term, we decided to file ‘réécriture’ under ‘rewriting’ because that is how most textual critics (who are aware of the problem) will translate the word.

Another problem arises when a non-English language distinguishes between different concepts that can all be translated as the same word in English. Point in case: the French words ‘scription’, ‘écrit’, and ‘écriture’, which can all be translated into English as ‘writing’ (let’s not complicate things further and forget for a second that ‘writing’ is also the present participle of the verb ‘to write’, and can as such also be translated into French as ‘écrire’). Of these three, écriture poses the least difficulties, because it is almost exclusively used to refer to the writing process, which makes it easier to file it away. Écrit, then, is mainly used to denote the product of that process (Scheibe 1995b, 220), and ‘scription’ could perhaps best be translated as the act of writing (especially if we consider that Almuth Grésillon starts her definition of ‘scription’ with the words ‘acte par lequel’ – Grésillon 1994, 245). Following the new entry format that was announced in the previous post, this would allow us to put ‘écriture’ under writing (process), ‘écrit’ under writing (product), and ‘scription’ under writing (act). That way, the three concepts can be filed away under multiple lemmas, which is probably the best solution to the problem.

But sometimes things get even more complicated. For example, when French textual critics make the distinction between a work‘s ‘auteur’ (he or she who creates the work) and its ‘scripteur’ (he or she who actually writes it down); a distinction that is not as often made in English. In The Fluid Text, Bryant does makes a similar distinction by separating the work’s author from its writer (11). But the problem remains that in English, the word ‘writer’ is often used to mean ‘author’ (in Bryant’s definition). Therefore, whenever we encounter the word ‘writer’ in a definition, we will have to decide whether to provide a link to the ‘writer’ or the ‘author’ entry in the lexicon. When ‘writer is used to mean ‘author’, both approaches have their own advantages and disadvantages. From a lexical point of view, the most straightforward choice would be ‘writer': there is a ‘writer’ entry, so why choose an other one? But from a semantic point of view, ‘author’ might be more useful because it is more likely the concept that the author was aiming at, and probably also the concept the user is more interested in. In both cases the user will be confronted by the difference between ‘author’ and ‘writer’ when he or she clicks on the link: either because the link does not meet the user’s expectations, or because its entry’s name is different from the word that was linked. And in both cases, the ‘related terms’ feature at the bottom of the entry will allow the user to find the other entry’s definitions as well.

At the moment, I’ve opted to always link the word ‘writer’ to the entry ‘writer’, because it requires less interpretation on my part, and can therefore be regarded as a little more ‘objective’ (although the editor’s objectivity and interpretation are of course highly contested terms in scholarly editing as well). Sometimes, linking ‘writer’ to ‘writer’ when the definition’s author clearly meant ‘author’ feels a little awkward, but this is still a Lexicon, and so the lexical argument just makes more sense.

The problem becomes even more complicated, however, whenever I come across the word ‘écrivain’ in a French definition (as has been the case in some of Bellemin-Noël’s definitions). Etymologically, the equivalent of écrivain would be ‘writer’ (écrire means ‘to write’, so écrivain means ‘writer’). But in French, the word écrivain is almost exclusively used to refer to an author. If the English word ‘writer’ is a homonym that can both mean ‘he who writes’ and ‘author’, ‘écrivain’ would only be used for the latter.

So, in effect, the French word écrivain is the equivalent of those cases in English when the word ‘writer’ means ‘author’. In English, I’d link the word to the entry named ‘writer’. But in French, I find myself linking it to the word ‘author’ instead. Because of the difference in language, there is no real lexical equivalence, and so I have to fall back on the only equivalence that remains: the semantic one. Although this may feel like a double standard, I think it’s the only logical solution.

Linking this back to the ‘écrit’, ‘scription’, ‘écriture’ multilemma, this would imply that whenever the word ‘writing’ is used in a definition, I would have to decide whether the author means writing (act), -(process), or -(product). And to complicate things further, the word is probably mostly used as a present participle, meaning that it would have to be translated as ‘écrire’, rather than as ‘écrit’, ‘scription’ or ‘écriture’. At this time, I do not yet have a solution for this problem. I’m leaning towards linking ‘writing’ (in those present participle cases) to ‘writing (process)’, because I think the procedural quality that it emphasizes comes closest to the meaning of the verb. Also: for Genetic Criticism ‘writing (process)’ is probably the most important and therefore relevant concept of the three. But I am aware that this solution isn’t perfect, so I’m always open for other suggestions. If you have any, please leave them in the comments!

Kind regards, and happy holidays in the next couple of weeks!

Wout

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