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[Sic] transit…

14 April 2014

Even great pianists occasionally hit a wrong note, and normally it doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of live performance. But when the number of errors exceeds a certain threshold, I cease to be able to listen to the music and become focused instead on when the next mistake will occur – and on how long it is until the next interval. There are very few Cortots who can overcome that break in concentration.

Much the same effect can occur in books. That is why publishers used to employ sub-editors and proofreaders. Authors, unlike performing artists, may have the time to check their own work, but as any editor knows, it is impossible to proofread your own article accurately. Unfortunately the economics of publishing make it very difficult to justify this expense on short-run scholarly work: people with the right skills and knowledge to do the job effectively are rare, and have never been properly valued. Since generally speaking reviewers don’t raise the point, a collective blind eye is being turned to the increasing illiteracy of much published material.

Recently however I have had to read a number of books which have had a very large circulation, and which would have been improved immeasurably by the small investment their publishers refused to make. One, in French, had all the drearily predictable difficulties the French have in coping with foreign names – so that Sir William Hamilton appeared variously as lord William Hamilton, Sir Hamilton etc. This doesn’t surprise me: there are more French citations of my Dictionnary of pastellists than with the correct spelling. By the way, I am omitting “[sic]” from the illustrations in this post: any other errors are attributable to author-blindness – apart from those which arise from my own “ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

But the most shocking example I have come across recently is the much-lauded Revolutionary Ideas by Jonathan Israel, a distinguished historian who specialises in extremely long books produced perhaps a little more rapidly than is advisable. They raise tricky questions as to what you would do with his manuscripts if you were asked to sub-edit them.

The author has a peculiar attachment to sentences which consist in a very long list of names, towards the end of which he adds colour by singling out one (not necessarily the last) for an additional, unnecessary biographical observation. It might work once, but after a 100 pages it sounds like the out-of-tune middle C you hope he won’t strike again. Oddly, in these lists, there is evidence of rigorous sub-editing: the optional penultimate comma in A, B, and C (or rather A, B, C,…,Y, and Z) is always there – unless the list is a direct quote. Perfectly correct: except that the direct quotes are translations, so that the publisher’s style should have been followed.

Most of you will correctly regard such an issue as utterly trivial. I cite it only because it is evidence that a sub-editor has been at work: but a sub-editor who was evidently too frightened to wield the blue pencil on sentences such as this, sadly all-too-typical example:

Worsted by Britain in the Americas, Asia, and Africa , since 1750, the French Crown had also been humiliated in European great power rivalry, most recently in the Dutch political crisis of 1787 when, “by virtue of the right of brigands,” as the Milanese radical philosophe, Giuseppe Gorani (1740–1819), expressed it, Prussia’s new king, spurred by the British prime minister Pitt, invaded the United Provinces.

I have nothing against long, complicated sentences: in the hands of a Proust or a Saint-Simon they can be both beautiful and uniquely expressive; but here we have complexity because the author has not taken the trouble to order his thoughts more simply. You might be forgiven for failing to recognise much the same passage on p. 763 of the author’s Democratic Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2011), edited somewhat more elegantly (the addition of Gorani’s dates is presumably the Princeton sub-editor’s contribution) – but still hardly a model of prose style. I found it purely by chance, being too lazy to retype the passage I cite above: but it left me wondering how many of the index cards in Professor Israel’s boxes had been reused – safe in the knowledge that few reviewers will have retained a perfect memory of his previous contributions to scholarship. Borrowing your own work may not be plagiarism, but over-long books do not need such additions.

Rather more worrying, because you don’t need to have a computer to be troubled by them from the start, are the constant problems of language and culture. This is not just a matter of inconsistent handling of names, titles, hyphenation and capitalisation. We may not be in Lewis the Great territory, but no one refers to the king’s aunts as Marie-Adelaide and Victoire-Louise: perhaps the sub-editor was perplexed by their official titles, Madame Adélaïde and Madame Victoire (this after all is a sub-editor who believes that the contraction Mme takes a full point), but on 18 February 1791 they were not “respectively, fifty-eight and fifty-nine”. Madame Victoire, the younger sister, was 57. (I didn’t know their birth dates without checking, but I did know their precedence.)

A detail of course. And while one can blame the Princeton staff for admitting this caption to one of the illustrations:

J. A. Houdon (1741–1828), marble bust portrait of Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau. Preserved in the Museum of the Castles of Versailles and Trianon. Versaille. 1908 © Alinari Archives/The Image Works

the repeated assault of inconsistencies in proper names continues throughout the author’s text.

But at the heart of my criticism are the displays of ignorance of the simplest points of foreign grammar and orthography which run throughout the book. Here is only a random handful of these howlers:

Mademoiselles; annoblis; Luxembourgois; Carme Déchaussés; departement; Liègeois; fedérés; Strasburgische

And “armé d’une plume de fer” does not mean “armed with a fiery pen”. The humble steel pen is mighty enough without gratuitous pyrotechnics. The question these errors raise is just how familiar the author is with the French (or German) language: how close is he to the nuances of the original texts? Professor Israel’s ideas may have the importance of an Alfred Cortot interpretation, but he lost my attention far too early on for me to appreciate them.

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