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The Worsening Problem of Formal Errata

They’re inevitable, I was told long ago by an experienced professor towards the end of his career, with an enormous record of published works. No matter how diligent you are, no matter how meticulously you go through the proofs, there are going to be formal errata or corrigenda in the published text. He wasn’t talking about short articles, of course. In their cases, they’re avoidable. But in longer essays and in books, there simply will be errata, he said.

This corresponds to my own experience. It’s strange. Sometimes simply inexplicable. There are minor misprints or typos, and two or three misspelt words and names in some of my early, longer published texts (I haven’t published many, so I’m not boasting of how few errors I make) which I cannot account for, whose presence I find to be a mystery. Words which elsewhere I have always spelt correctly, before and after the respective errata appeared. These are cases where I have no original manuscript, no copy of what I submitted to the publisher, so that I can’t see if it really was my fault, if it really was I who had been so negligent and inattentive as to make the errors myself. There are, for example, at two such cases in the introduction to my Swedish translation of Eric Voegelin’s Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis (and one strangely rendered English word in the translation).

But in other cases, I know I’m not to blame. That doesn’t make things very much better. The most extreme case was one involving a respected American philosophical journal, published by a big, established university press. It was worse than other, similar experiences with publishers of this kind, and what it revealed about the qualifications of the staff today available in the world of academic, traditional print publishing made me think deeply about the state of the humanities. It seems to me the frequency of incidents of this kind, even less serious ones, warrants commenting on it.

The editor was himself very upset. To some extent, it could perhaps be argued that it was my own fault. Instead of writing per definition, I had unnecessarily added the Latin accusative ending to definition, so that, in my manuscript, it read per definitionem – in two different places. It’s incomprehensible why I used the original Latin form of this expression; there was no stylistic need whatsoever in this particular article of mine not to use by definition, or per definition, which also seems acceptable in English, as in Swedish (in German, however, per Definition is considered incorrect, and per definitionem is insisted on. Had I suddenly forgotten those forms, which I must have used very many times in both languages? I haven’t the faintest idea why in this case I didn’t keep to one of them.

Since I happened to use the Latin form, however, that Latin form of course had to be correct. The editors had approved my manuscript. Everything was going well. and after having made some improvements in the first proofs, I received what I was told were the final proofs. The final proofs. I.e., the version of a text that is sent to the author before printing, and which, if he or she has nothing more to add or change, is the one that is printed, in precisely that form. I had nothing more to add or change. I approved those final proofs. In them, per definitionem correctly appeared in the two different places.

A couple of weeks later, the new issue of the journal appeared and was sent to me across the Atlantic. Everything looked good, identical to what I had approved – except this particular phrase. It didn’t say per definitionem. Unbelievably, the editor’s assistant had, on her own initative, made a change, or two changes, after the final proofs had been approved by me.

That simply shouldn’t happen. Why did she do it? It turned out she didn’t have basic knowledge of Latin. She must simply have thought per definitionem was wrong, and decided to correct it. Or thought it looked strange, and felt a need to do something about it. Now, since per definitionem is indeed unusual in English texts, it would have been understandable if she had changed it to per definition, not least if – as wouldn’t have been unreasonable – there had been an editorial policy according to which unnessecary Latin should be avoided. But if so, she should have pointed this out to me, or I should have seen the change when she sent the first proofs. I would of course have had no problem with that change.

That is not what she did. What she did was something that made this case particularly ridiculous. Without letting me know, despite obviously having no knowledge whatsoever of Latin, and without consulting anyone else, she thought there was something wrong with per definitionem – as Latin. She didn’t want to change it into English, but preferred to keep the Latin – but a Latin more to her untutored liking. So she boldly went for – “per definitione”.

The latter form, definitione, is ablative, and cannot follow per which always takes the accusative. And it exists only as ablative singular in Latin – she cannot have been thinking of the expression in some modern language other than English which, perchance, she spoke.

It was bizarre. An editorial assistant at a first-class scholarly journal, an assistant whose job is to go through manuscripts and correct not the substantial content, but precisely formal and linguistic errors only, errors of spelling, grammar, usage, simply does not do such a thing. It’s not just that such assistants absolutely do not make changes in the final proofs. Those proofs are final indeed, the author must have seen and approved precisely what is going to be printed. There must be absolutely no changes whatsoever in that final version after the author has approved it. But this time it was even worse. The assistant added errors of her own.

This was more than obvious evidence of incompetence. It was incompetence of a particularly silly kind. It was the kind of thing a child without any knowledge, experience or judgement does. It made it wholly incomprehensible how she could have been hired in the first place. But it was a fact. This kind of people is now in charge of editing at publications of this kind.

It was not the editor’s fault. It seems he hadn’t noticed any of the assistant’s lack of professional qualifications. According to him, she had until then done a good job. Perhaps there wasn’t much Latin in the manuscripts she was given. But shouldn’t an editorial assistant at a humanities journal on this level know at least a little Latin? How was this possible? How could a person with such a job decide to make changes in forms of words in a language of which she obviously had no knowledge at all? Shouldn’t it be absolutely self-evident that, if in doubt about anything whatsoever in the use of a language she knows nothing about in a manuscript she has been given the responsibility to review, she must consult a specialist in that particular language?

There had, as I said, been other cases where I know I was not responsible for the respective errata. And also cases where editors had insisted on changes that I found problematic, formulations that I found less felicitous than my original ones. Again, some errata are mysteries, and I’m of course not saying that some may not be my own. Nor am I saying that good editors can never improve my own manuscripts. And I am certainly not saying my mastery of Latin is perfect. But in the case describben here, I still do have the final proofs that I approved, and I know I’m not to blame.

The incident really brought home to me the nature and the extent of the crisis of the humanities. As we know, the humanities are increasingly challenged by the requirements of capital and technology, and, in close relation to this, ravaged by much of the post-Marxist theory. The knowledge acquired is increasingly vague and without structure, order, and depth. It often seems to me the humanities can best be saved and their substance as real education restored by again basing them solidly on the study of the classical languages.

There hardly is any real and serious access to the world of western humanism without them. Couldn’t at least basic Latin and Greek in secondary education be made a requirement for those who seek admission to humanities courses at the university level? If one doesn’t care about those great languages which have meant so much for humanistic culture in the West, and from which almost all of the central terms of philosophy are derived, what is the point of the humanities and philosophy in the academy?

The current state of affairs, as evidenced by this grotesque American journal incident, even made me doubt the meaningfulness of humanistic academic publication – as I had also doubted other publication, in newspapers and magazines which were undergoing a precipitous formal decline. I no longer have much trust in such other publications either; several times, my articles (and again, they’re not many) have appeared with strange distortions of my formulations and new formal errors. Social media have revealed how poor and careless, in formal respects, is often the writing even of top journalists and political commentators when wholly unmediated by any editing. And the editing staff of newspapers seems to be constantly reduced. The situation is so bad that flagrant errors are not even corrected in online editions. There can be only three reason for this: the editors don’t care when readers – including people employed by the respective publications – report them, no readers care to report them, or readers don’t even read the articles.

Despite the fact that I have also worked with the very best of academic publishers and editors, this was one of the experiences that made me think that a modest website of my own, where I did everything myself, might be a better form of publication than any kind of traditional print publication. Why should I have a text appear in a suboptimal form, different from my own, if I didn’t have to? I’m well aware this is an unrealistic stance, which cannot be maintained in the long run. But since then, I have published only in that modest format, which no one else can tamper with. If someone wishes to republish what I write here, I make it a strict condition that nothing be changed without my approval. Since what happened in the American journal is today possible, that is not a guarantee, I guess. But it seems it’s all that can be done. It may be true that there must always be errata, that the inexplicable mystery of how some of them arise must remain. But surely it’s possible to fight those causes that are clearly identifiable.


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