Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Improving the Proofing

I see that this is the 399th in a series of weekly blog essays that began on June 13, 2009.  Time sure flies when you’re having fun.  Only rarely do I look back at this now sizable archive, and then mainly to fix in my mind the approximate date of this or that event or experience of the past eight years.  That is the motive that led me to review the title of my very first blog post: “Of Columns, Communists, and Camões”.  The “columns” part of this catchy title was pretty obvious, since my claim about the blog was that it would be the continuation of an earlier newspaper column.  As for the Communists, I was just then publishing a book entitled The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  Finally—and this is the punch-line of this shaggy-dog paragraph—I was seriously projecting a book devoted to the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões.

            I do not know how fine my mill wheels grind, but I can certainly boast that they grind exceeding slowly.  This past week has been spent with the proof sheets of Luís de Camões: The Poet As Scriptural Exegete.  I would appear to have prosecuted this project at a rate of about a word an hour for the last eight years.  If the center holds and the creeks don’t rise, an eager world can expect this important contribution to Camonian Studies in June or July, just in time to take to the beach.  I have not done any proofreading in rather a long time.  Readers of the blog will already sense that I am not particularly good at it.  Only the fact that Joan has given the once-over to most of the essays keeps the mechanical quality at any acceptable level.  Readers not infrequently draw my attention to more or less egregious flaws found on unjoaned pages.  The kinder ones do it through my private email address.

            As a matter of fact—and this is not special pleading—it is much easier to proofread something written by somebody else than something of one’s own.  We tend to see not what is actually on the proof sheet but what we want to see there or what we think we remember writing.  Although the early printers boasted that their new technology allowed authorial correction in proof, in actual fact their professional proofreaders were usually underemployed arts graduates who failed to get tenure in a reputable academic institution.  They were called “correctors to the press,” and they were generally erudite Latinists with a tolerance for execrable handwriting rather than “independent scholars.”

            The learned body of correctors to the press had their own informal guild, and they worked zealously if not always successfully to keep howlers out of publications destined for the erudite.  Some developed theories of proofreading.  The earliest handbook known to me on this subject (Leipzig: apud Michaelem Lanzenbergum, 1608), the work of a corrector named Jerome Hornschuch, is entitled, in Greek,  Orthotypographias.  If you know what an orthodontist or an orthopedist does, figuring out what an orthotypographer does is a piece of cake; and, fortunately, once you get beyond the title the rest of the book is in Latin.

“The proofreader [writes Hornschuch] should scrupulously avoid giving himself over to choler, to love, to sadness, or indeed yielding to any of the lively emotions….Especially should he shun drunkenness, for is there an individual with vision more deranged, or of greater degree of stupidity, than the idiotic corrector who transforms Ranam into Dianam and Dianam into Ranam?”*  (A rana is a frog, whereas Diana is the goddess of the hunt, so that such a metamorphosis would be out of bounds even for Ovid.)  I pretty much meet the standard.  The lively emotions exist for me largely in memory, and I coddle my liver.  But I still cannot proofread my way out of a wet paper bag.

I take comfort from the fact that some of the world’s greatest scholars have been notorious for their orthotypographical ineptitude.  My own great master D. W. Robertson, Jr., in his engaging little book on Medieval London, mentions a certain church where the devout John of Gaunt sometimes went to play.  That is, however, child’s pray compared with the howler from which a keen-eyed referee of my current manuscript rescued me.  In a passage in which I was attempting to praise the late Vasco Graça Moura, a versatile Portuguese man of letters and traditionalist defender of the peninsular Lusitanian tongue, I wrote that he “was himself very much a Renaissance man: lawyer, politician, poet, pubic intellectual…”

Oh, well.  I once read a book about the literary scene in Edwardian London.  One of the most prominent English men of letters of that period was Edmund Gosse, perhaps best known today for his remarkable autobiography Father and Son.  This author featured prominently in the book to which I refer, which was something of a festival of typographical errors.  The library copy I read had pasted into it a list of “Corrigenda”—that is, “things to be corrected,” errors caught only after the book was printed.  It began with the most poignant corrigendum I am ever likely to read: “For Goose, read Gosse throughout.”

*translation from the delightful pamphlet The Corrector of the Press in the Early Days of Printing (1922), by the great American bibliographer Douglas McMurtrie.

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