2.1 The principles underpinning the transcriptions
The basis of any scholarly text edition is a good transcription that provides the most reliable possible rendition of the source text. The transcription is the point of departure for the published text – the reading text – which may differ from the transcription because, for instance, handwritten details such as text that has been crossed out are not printed and errors of spelling or grammar are emended to make the text more readable.
We have made transcriptions of Van Gogh’s correspondence; three people checked them against the original manuscripts. This was obviously not a problem when it came to the letters in the Van Gogh Museum and other public collections and archives, but letters in private hands were a very different matter. There are fourteen letters that are known or suspected to have survived which we were unable to consult in the original.10 Several other letters have survived in the form of a copy. We know the content of a telegram Van Gogh sent to his parents (letter 75) because his father copied it out in a letter he wrote (the text is published here for the first time). Letter 778 from Joseph Ginoux to Van Gogh is known only as a carbon copy of a typed transcription now in the archives of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. Nothing is known about the circumstances in which the copy was made nor about the original manuscript. Letter 893 exists in a handwritten copy in the Van Gogh Museum; we do, though, have a facsimile in a book published in 1953.
The transcriptions of the letters are not published in this edition. They can be consulted in the library of the Van Gogh Museum, where they are accompanied by an explanation of our principles and methods. The notes to the reader and the notes to the transcriptions are in Dutch.
To sum up, the transcriptions include all Van Gogh’s slips of the pen, inconsistencies, epistolary conventions and peculiar spellings.11 The intended reading is given on the basis of the graphic and substantive context. Exceptional cases are explained in a note.
The graphic characteristics of the texts of Van Gogh’s letters are not complicated, so we have used a simple system of diacritical marks. There are essentially three sorts of variants: crossing out, insertion and overwriting.12 It is clear in many cases that later changes to a letter, such as corrections and additions, were made when the writer re-read his letter.
Van Gogh’s slips of the pen, inconsistencies and odd epistolary conventions include randomly joining two words that should be separate, or breaking up what should be a single word (such as zomeravond and zomer avond; peutêtre and peut-être and peut être), missing or unusual punctuation and accents, repeated quotation marks at the beginning of each line in long quotations, varying numbers of dots in ellipses, the absence of a closing quotation mark after a previously opened quotation mark and the inconsistent use of capitals (Zondag and zondag; Mauve and mauve). Typical variant forms include Kersmis as a spelling of ‘Kerstmis’, groete for ‘groeten’ and de klus kwijt. The use of French words and spellings occurs in rhumatiek, omoplates, bronchite and esquimaux. Van Gogh sometimes wrote words as they sound, for example s’ochtens for ‘s’ochtends’ and tout effet for ‘tout à fait’.13 Misspellings include words like flaauw, herrinneren, bedistelen, moeielijk, eigentlijk, defineeren, rei instead of ‘rij’, as opposed to teekengerij and huisgerij for ‘teekengerei’ and ‘huisgerei’, ligchaam, Dingsdag, the plural form lithographiën, fidutie for ‘fiducie’, and zielstrijd for ‘zielsstrijd’.
Over and above these issues, there remain particular problems caused by the idiosyncrasies in the handwriting and the limited options for rendering them in a transcription. There are variations, sometimes considerable, in the spacing between words (wide gaps) and in the distance between words and punctuation marks immediately preceding or following them. In some cases one or more characters are written carelessly; the meaning is completely unambiguous, but out of context they could represent a different character. Prime examples are the o and the a, which sometimes resemble each other so closely as to be indistinguishable. The distinction between lowercase and uppercase letters is blurred; there is often very little difference between c/C, f/F, k/K, m/M, o/O, s/S, u/U, v/V, w/W, z/Z, while for some letters – A/a, D/d, F/f, G/g, M/m and S/s – Van Gogh has two different ways of writing the capital. We based our reading on the context and on similar instances elsewhere.
In these cases we have reflected the intended meaning on the basis of the graphic context and the content, in other words taking account of Van Gogh’s habits. Incidental, exceptional cases are explained in the annotations. We have tacitly corrected a number of anomalies that arise out of Van Gogh’s indifference to some of the conventions. He frequently failed to dot the letters i, j and ij, and in the case of double vowels he wrote a circumflex on the first of the two. Nineteenth-century practice was to place this accent over the second vowel (as in meê). Van Gogh dashed accents down swiftly and without a clear ‘direction’. Where he wrote an accent we have rendered the intended meaning, as the spelling requires. His use of ij (with and without dots) and y in proper names (for instance Schreyer), topographical names (for instance Parys) and months (Februarij, July) was quite arbitrary. Except where y is the most common spelling (usually in names, and obviously in loan words that demand a y and in French and English texts) we have consistently transcribed this as ij.14 The long s (always as the second letter in the double s combination) is transcribed as s. When Van Gogh clarified a letter or letters we have not commented this. Insignificant quirks in the handwriting, as in the case of tusschen, where the upstroke in the letters ‘us’ is missing, are not noted; however such cases as ‘hem/hen’ and ‘aller/allen’, where either reading could have been intended and this impacts on the meaning, are documented in the notes. The suffixes -ig and -ag are sometimes so sloppily written that it appears as though Van Gogh only wrote the letter ‘g’; in these cases the transcription gives the intended reading. The way he wrote a full stop, a comma and a dash is very similar; the transcription was governed by the context. Van Gogh wrote parentheses in three ways: ( ) and [ ] and / /; they are always transcribed as ( ). Where they are [ ] or / / in the manuscript, this is stated in a note.
Each transcription is accompanied by notes indicating particular graphic features and questions in the transcription that require explanation because they could not be reproduced with the diacritical apparatus. These notes are as factual as possible and contain no hypotheses or motivations. They also indicate where in the manuscript in question there are notes in another hand.
2.3 Notes in another hand
Many of the manuscripts were annotated by people other than their writers. There may be numbers indicating the sequence of the letters, dates attributed to the letter, marks such as underlined text or vertical lines in the margin, typesetting instructions and even comments on the contents, such as Theo’s remark ‘très belle lettre’ (letter 854). Additions in another hand are not part of the reading text; where we consider them relevant they are referred to in Additional details or in an annotation. Generally speaking they are numbers – sometimes changed several times – denoting the sequence of the letters in Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s possession or date indications that she wrote at the top of them. There are also instances where later readers of the manuscripts underlined words or passages. In some cases we know this for a fact, in others it is a suspicion. In earlier editions marks of this kind were often mistakenly taken to be autograph and this had implications for the printed text. One example is a passage in the letter to Aurier (letter 853) in which Van Gogh writes that he feels he has contributed little to ‘la question d’avenir “peinture des tropiques” et la question de couleur’ (the question of the future ‘painting of the tropics’ and the question of colour) and that Gauguin and Monticelli had been much more important in this regard. He continues: ‘Car la part qui m’en revient ou reviendra demeurera, je vous l’assure, fort secondaire’ (For the share that falls or will fall to me will remain, I assure you, very secondary). This line was underlined in the manuscript – not in fact by Van Gogh himself, but because of the underlining the last sentence was printed in italics in earlier editions, creating the erroneous impression that Van Gogh wanted to emphasize it. Such passages often reflect clichés and myths in the reception of Van Gogh.15