Norbert Lain, classics professor at Stanford University, was the latest guest of the Harker Cum Laude Society’s Lecture Series on April 7. Lain gave a talk on the practice of textual criticism, a crucial part of the process of reconstructing ancient documents, which involves finding and correcting errors in texts by examining their surrounding context and patterns.
“Texts get garbled all the time, and no matter how often we try to fix them, they still get garbled,” he said.
One of Lain’s particular interests is the work of the ancient Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. “Textual critics are the people who have largely brought us the text of Catullus that we now have and for the most part we know to be right,” Lain said.
Lain illustrated what textual critics do by having students examine excerpts from various texts and correcting the errors found within them, ranging from typos to missing letters to incorrectly used words. Several passages required significant examination before their real meaning was discovered.
He also showed an example of a Catullus excerpt that he corrected, as well as corrections by others that have not yet been integrated into modern texts. “The first thing I do when a poem has a textual problem in it,” Lain said, “is I recite the poem hundreds of times with the mistake in it, then I go and memorize lots of other poems from Catullus and sometimes from other people. And then I just sit there. And then suddenly, ‘Oh! This one is like that one! Ah-hah!’ End of problem.”
After taking a sip from a glass Coke bottle, he added, “After 25 years or so.”