Sunday, 21 February 2010

Academic and/or Scholarly? Or just serious?

As you’d expect of someone involved in postgraduate study, I read a lot of academic books. I can’t stand academic books that are only written for other academics. I’ve always enjoyed finding serious scholarship in the humanities and social sciences that is also readable and accessible.
Many works of folklore scholarship, particularly, make important theoretical points, but they do so in a comprehensible and engaging way. I’m not suggesting that folklore is immune to academic jargon and the publication of self-indulgently baffling pieces for their own sake – career-minded folklorists are under just as much pressure to publish too much and be pleased with their own cleverness as graduates of other disciplines – but that, at its best, folklore never loses sight of its engagement with real people. This also means making folkloric research available to readers outside the academy.
I’ve been thinking again about readerships and scholarship this week, having just read an overdue English translation of Claude Lecouteux’s Fantômes et revenants au moyen âge (‘Phantoms and Ghosts in the Middle Ages’). Lecouteux is one of the outstanding scholars of mediaeval afterlife and supernatural beliefs; this book was a major contribution to our understanding of the interaction between Latin ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages and Germanic traditions, and I’m pleased to see it being made available to an audience that cannot read the French original. Other important French works in the field, like Jean-Claude Schmitt’s Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in the Middle Ages (1), have already appeared in translation, and this work belongs alongside them.The translation, however, may not. It is not that it is particularly bad. For the most part it reads well enough. It seems, rather, that the translator and his publisher have a slightly different aim to the author. Lecouteux’s book was certainly about the influence of Germanic pagan traditions on Latin Christian material, but the English subtitle (in particular) is rather overstated: from the neutral description of the French title the translator (Jon E. Graham) has entitled the English book The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind (2). There is little justification for this in the French. (By way of comparison, Jean-Claude Schmitt’s book was originally called Les revenants: les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale – ‘Ghosts: The Living and the Dead in Mediaeval Society’).
Of course, the publisher specialises in esoteric literature, and so wants to make the work appeal to their readership. They go about this the wrong way, by confining it to that readership. They let down the author, and in doing so they patronise their own intended readership.
They fail the author not in the text, but in the scholarly apparatus. The footnotes, frankly, are a mess. Graham and his editor appear to be unfamiliar with most of Lecouteux’s source material, and not to care very much about it. One need not read mediaeval Latin, for example, to recognise the name of M. R. James, who edited some twelfth and thirteenth centuries English ghost stories. He turns up in the footnotes here as M. R. Graves.
Latin authors’ names and works have standard English renderings, which are different from their French equivalents: what we get here is an unhappy mixture of the two, with some novel mistakes thrown in to confuse things further. We find the standard English Cicero, Ovid, and Pliny, sure enough, but sitting alongside ‘Petronious’ [Petronius], Virgil’s ‘bucolica triennio’ [Eclogues], and the really odd ‘Titus-Livy’ [Livy]. This is clearly taken from the standard French form ‘Tite-Live’, but it is further compounded by a typo in the relevant footnote, making it ‘Titus-Levy’. As it happens, most of these mistakes are then not included in the index, making the book even harder to use.
I read no Danish, but it took me around 30 seconds online to correct the spelling mistake in the title of Svend Grundtvig’s collection of folksongs. Why didn’t an editor do the same? There is a cavalier attitude to translated quotations: some are given in standard English translations, others are translated from French translations, some old French passages aren’t translated at all. There is no acknowledgement that some works of French scholarship have already been translated: was it really not possible to find an English translation of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, for example?
If you read French, this translation in no way replaces the original text. If you don’t read French, the translation is useful, but you will still need some other help with the references.
So why is all this a problem?
It’s offensive towards the publisher’s target audience, as it assumes that none of this matters that much to them. This becomes a self-fulfilling argument: if the footnotes don’t enable you to find source material, you tend to stop looking for it. Yet here is a readable and serious work of history: if any work were capable of obtaining a wider readership it’s this one.
Whatever use one makes of such a book, it will depend for its effectiveness on its accuracy in these areas. I’m not here talking about academia, but about scholarly standards, which can be upheld by anybody. It’s about taking a subject, and an audience, seriously.

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1: Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
2: Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009)