Typography and Crystal

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Already the Ides of March... not a very propitious date it you happen to be Caesar, I suppose, but not at all bad if you are a struggling translator hoping to escape the chills of winter and be able to work with the windows open. And while I can't see them from here, the morning walk with the dogs revealed a whole stand of cherry trees in full bloom! Strange, because all the other trees nearby still show green buds, but if it stays as warm and sunny as it is today it won't be long before the park is full of pink trees and revelers.

I had nothing to do for ten or fifteen seconds last week, and at a loss for what to do with the unexpected treasure, picked up a book from my pile of 'Really important work-related books that I have to read immediately,' most of which have been there for at least six months waiting for me to have ten or fifteen seconds...

The book on top of the stack, which I have glanced at now and then, was The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. This is generally considered one of the all-time classics in the field, and is unquestionably worth reading if you are even remotely interested in thinking about what makes books great (in addition to immortal prose, of course). A few rather nice quotes caught my eye, however:

"The first task of the typographer is therefore to read and understand the text; the second task is to analyze and map it. Only then can typographic interpretation begin."

This same sentiment is echoed in another classic, Richard Hendel's On Book Design, which contains the following:

"The author's words are the heart of book design. To solve the design problem for a book, a designer needs to know both what an author is saying (what a book is about) and how it is being said (the actual words being used)."

"Book designers serve two clients: the author and the reader. For me, the goal is to make the communication between them as clear as possible."

Figuring I was on a roll here, I checked another couple classic works, and sure enough, they all echo a similar sentiment. For example, First Principles of Typography by Stanley Morison reads:

"Typography may be defined as the art of rightly disposing printed materials in accordance with specific purpose: of so arranging letters, distributing the space, and controlling the type as to aid to the maximum the reader's comprehension of the text... Therefore, the disposition of printing material which, whatever the intention, has the effect of coming between the author and the reader is wrong."

And the ageless The Crystal Goblet by Beatrice Warde says:

"...you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wineglass have a parallel in typography. There is the long, thin stem that obviates fingerprints on the bowl. Why? Because no cloud must come between your eyes and the fiery heart of the liquid. Are not the margins on book pages similarly meant to obviate the necessity of fingering the type-page? Again: the glass is colourless or at the most only faintly tinged in the bowl, because the connoisseur judges wine partly by its colour and is impatient of anything that alters it."

So, you ask, what do typography and book design have to do with translation? Directly, not much, but I think if you replace words like typography and design above with words like translation, you'll see what I'm getting at. To me, the best translation is transparent, like crystal: It reveals the full color of the wine, and gives it shape, but does not add flavor, or fragrance, or color. In fact, the shape of the glass is designed to deliver the aroma of the wine to you at its best... as a fine translation should deliver the source content unaltered, but shaped in such a way that it reaches you with full flavor, adapted to your particular cultural interpretations.

There will of course be elements in any translated work that are outside the reader's culture: All cultures are sort of by definition unique, and not all of that can be rendered accurately in a few lines of translated text. But to quote again from Bringhurst,

"The typographer must analyze and reveal the inner order of the text, as a musician must reveal the inner order of the music he performs. But the reader, like the listener, should in retrospect be able to close her eyes and see what lies inside the words she has been reading. The typographic performance must reveal, not replace, the inner composition. Typographers, like other artists and craftsmen – musicians, composers and authors as well – must as a rule do their work and disappear."

As always, if you are interested in writing a guest article, or becoming part of Kurodahan Press in any capacity, please contact me at any time. The most important resource is, as in almost anything, good people!

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