A Framework for digital editions and translations

Executive summary:

Ideas for establishing a framework that will make it possible to create born digital critical editions and research translations in an easy, robust and distributed manner. This makes creation and curation of such texts more flexible and systematic, while completely new avenues of analysing and interacting with such texts will be opened up.

Goal and elements

The goal is a framework for creating born digital critical editions and translations of philosophical texts. This goal will be pursued both conceptually and practically.

The conceptual development involves describing the special considerations and challenges associated with creating digital editions and translations of philosophical material. Here, considerations on analysis and categorization of terminology, the development of references and arguments within and across traditions, and the particular genres and structures of philosophical texts are all central.

The practical development involves implementing a suite of software that makes the production of born digital editions in accordance with the special considerations of philosophical texts (1) easier, (2) more robust, and (3) distributed.

The production is made easier by formalizing a schema according to which documents encoded in TEI P5 compliant XML-files can be validated and confirmed to conform to a stylesheet that takes the special elements of this type of texts into considerations.

Robustness is sought for by establishing a general workflow for creating editions and translations according to a unambiguous versioning system, ensuring that although a digital edition of a text keeps evolving after the initial publication of the text, it is still possible to make stable references to a specific version of the text, reflecting that status of the text at the time of the reference. Furthermore, it must also be possible to retrieve any given version of a text at will.

Finally, distributed creation of editions and translations is a goal. By applying the advanced tools of modern software development in the production of textual editions and translations, the co-production of editions across geographical and temporal boundaries can be improved significantly. These tools also enable unambiguous attribution of editorial credit and responsibility at a much more fine grained scale than what is possible in traditional printing systems. Finally, enabling the production of partial editions should increase the availability of texts, as the production is no longer encumbered by the often daunting task of creating a complete edition or translation of a whole text.

Within the Representation and Reality project

This work fits into the the framework of the Representation and Reality project at two levels:

  1. Dissemination and creation of awareness, and
  2. demonstration of application.

Concerning dissemination: As the development of the theoretical and practical aspects of this framework matures, I can discuss and demonstrate the possibilities of the approach to the project group at large. To the extent that it is of interest to the members of the group, I could facilitate training in these technologies. But it may be posited that the technological revolution that has taken place since the mid 20th century makes a fundamental rethinking of how we create, store, analyze and interact with text. If that is granted, it is imperative that the development of such methods must be disseminated within the wider network of textual scholars. The Representation and Reality project is a nexus of the three main language traditions within ancient and medieval philosophy, and is therefore a perfect venue for spreading an awareness and knowledge of these new possibilities.

Concerning practical demonstrations: In my own PhD dissertation I will include a range of editions of Latin commentaries on De anima. These will, of course, be part of the dissertation in the form of traditional print editions, but it would also be possible to show them in a more interactive web interface where different aspects of the texts (the critical apparatus, a single witness or my editorial comments, for instance) can be toggled interactively. Both representations of the text will be made on the basis of the same encoded files, which are made within this framework. My practical application will not make use of all of the possibilities that this born digital approach makes possible, partly due to time constraints, partly due to the relatively small extent of the edited corpus.

Application examples

Let me sketch some examples of possible uses that would be relevant within a context like that of the Representation and Reality project. Imagine a tradition with a range of commentaries on texts that are included in the project, to Aristotelian works such as De anima, De sensu, De somno et vigilia, De insomniis, De divinatione (across all the language traditions). Some of the following applications could be envisioned:

  • The collection of texts would together constitute a highly curated corpus of texts relevant to a researcher within this tradition. Interaction would be possible across a range of interfaces: Online digital editions, abstract visualization of relations in the set, automated machine interaction, as well as traditional print editions. This would all be based on the same textual foundation. One set of files, a whole range of applications.
  • Advanced searching possibilities would be enabled. Imagine searching for the term 'intentio' on just early 14th century commentaries on De somno, or 'scientia' in all prologues and initial questions across the whole tradition, to investigate a question within the medieval philosophy of science.
  • We could trace the reference to and interpretation of a given passage in Aristotle across our known texts by showing all the passages where such a reference is made.
  • By the same approach, it would be possible to show the interpretative context of a passage in Aristotle (or any other part of the tradition) by showing all the other passages that are also referenced within a paragraph with a reference to the original passage.
  • It would be possible to create a print ready and online interactive anthology of philosophical commentaries dealing with the concept of visual perception across all three traditions or within a specific tradition, say the Latin commentaries from the late 13th century.

In the context of the Representations and Reality project, these possibilities are still at the level of speculation, as the integration of editions already published or under publication would would lie outside the scope of the project. Furthermore, realizing all of these possibilities would in effect be a different and separate project in its own right. But the development of the terminology, methodology and usable prototypes are a first necessary step towards that end, while the dissemination of knowledge about these possibilities and a heightened awareness within the broader scholarly community is a second, but just as necessary step.


I am, fortunately, not alone in this. I have established a collaboration with Dr Jeffrey C. Witt, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Loyola University Maryland. Together with Dr Nicolas Vaughan, Assistant Professor, Universidad de los Andes we develop a standard for how to mark up digital editions of scholastic literature and an associated schema for validating a document according to that standard. We are preparing the publication of the first 1.0 version of the schema (see https://github.com/lombardpress/lombardpress-schema/tree/develop) during this fall.

Dr Jeffrey Witt and I regularly discuss edition infrastructure in relation to a database system that he has started under the name SCTA, Scholastic Commentaries and Text Archive (see http://lombardpress.org/2016/08/02/bcht-scta-lbp-overview/). That database makes it possible to make use of and analyse scholastic texts at a scale and across a wide range of text that if often practically difficult, and in some respects impossible withing a traditional publishing framework.

Finally I collaborate with Dr David Bloch, Professor of Classics, University of Copenhagen, on the further development of these ideas of born digital texts within translation theory and practice. Soon I hope to make a short write up of some of the possibilities and ideas within that closely related domain.