George Town Literary Festival Wrap-Up

We all went to Penang for the Malaysian launch of Tell Me, Kenyalang! And it was great, though I don’t know if we managed to document it very well. Thanks so much to Eliot Weinberger, who said some very nice things about Tell Me, Kenyalang in his lecture “New Trade Routes of the World” – maybe a version of that will be published at some point?

Here’s Kulleh Grasi on a panel with Canadian writer Darrel McLeod, Australian writer Julie Janson, and moderator Chris Parry as part of a panel entitled “First Nation, Last in Line”:

kulleh panel

We had a book launch! But I was on stage so I didn’t take any pictures of that. It is too bad: Kulleh looks as good as a suit as he does in a loincloth. Maybe some pictures will turn up? In the interim, here’s a video of Nading Rhapsody playing a song at China House:

Here’s the band being interviewed by Astro Awani, a Malaysian cable news channel, after the show:

band interview

And you can see that clip here (or here, I suspect these links aren’t long for the world), though most of what’s being said is in Malay.

Here’s Jennifer Kronovet on a panel with poet/editor/blurber Jeffrey Yang and the Tamil publisher Kannan Sundaram in a discussion moderated by Christine Edwards entitled “From Ink to Blink”:

jenny panel

And we sold a lot of books! Thanks booksellers!

book for sale

November 26, 2019

Circumference Books at the George Town Literary Festival

Sorry for the late notice, but there will be a lot of Circumference at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang, Malaysia this weekend! Visit their site for the details. But here’s what’s happening:

  • 21 November, 12:30 p.m.–1:50 p.m.: Kulleh Grasi joins Nam Ron and Muhammad Haji Salleh for a discussion titled “Kata Tanpa Aksara” (which might be in Malay?), moderated by Regina Ibrahim.
  • 21 November, 2 p.m.–3:20 p.m.: Editor Jennifer Kronovet joins Tiffany Tsao, Adriana Manan, and Fahmi Mustaffa in a discussion of “The Beauty and Chaos of Translation” moderated by Jeffrey Yang (who’s on the Circumference Advisory Board).
  • 22 November, 2 p.m.–3:20 p.m.: Poet Kulleh Grasi joins Darrel McLeod and Julie Janson for a discussion entitled “First Nation, Last in Line,” moderated by Chris Parry.
  • 22 November, 5:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m.: There’s a book launch party for Kulleh Grasi’s Tell Me, Kenyalang! It will be great.
  • 22 November, 8:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m.: Kulleh Grasi’s band Nading Rhapsody plays.
  • 24 November, 9:30 a.m.–10:50 a.m.: Jennifer Kronovet joins Jeffrey Yang and Kannan Sundaram for a discussion entitled “From Ink to Blink,” moderated by Christine Edwards.
  • 24 November, 2 p.m.–3:20 p.m.: Tell Me, Kenyalang translator Pauline Fan moderates a panel entitled “The Sea and the Mirror” with Nikola Madzirov, Kim Yedeum, Charlotte Van den Broeck, Carlomar Daoana.

That’s a lot! And the rest of the program is great too! Perumal Merugan! Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip! Tell Me, Kenyalang blurber Goenawan Mohamad! Eliot Weinberger! The highest concentration of Circumference in who knows how long! If you’re in the area, come say hello!

November 20, 2019

Design Me, Kenyalang 3: The Cover

(This is the third in a series of posts on the design of Kulleh Grasi’s Tell Me, Kenyalang. Read the first one and the second one if you don’t want to be confused.)

Most book covers are terrible for very predictable reasons: they are effectively designed by committee. An editor gives an idea to an outside designer who probably has not read the book; the marketing department has concerns; the publisher, who’s paying for the whole thing, might not like a color; the author may demand that things be taken in a different direction. At Circumference, we do not have the luxury of being terrible for that reason because we are too small and do not have, for example, a marketing department to yell at us.

We still want the cover to be nice. But the purpose of a cover design is very different from the purpose of the interior design. A cover’s job is to make a potential reader pick the book up and buy it, while the interior’s job is to support the text. The concerns of the cover are primarily financial rather than aesthetic or literary. As someone who cares more about ideas than things, this is less interesting. But a cover can still convey something interesting.

The cover of this book actually started before we’d published any books: we had to have an image to represent the covers of our first two books – two so that people could subscribe. Again, the cover’s reason for being is financial. But we had to have two book covers and they had to contrast. We had our logo – cyan, magenta, yellow, and black – and using yellow and magenta as the primary colors of the two books was easy. Camouflage was magenta – the title is still magenta – and, without very much thought, Tell Me, Kenyalang became yellow. And somehow it stayed yellow.

There were a number of different fake covers that we used which aren’t particularly interesting. An inflection point happened when I realized that kenyalang was the word for the rhinoceros hornbill, a photogenic bird if ever there was one. It’s a very strong and immediate image that’s easy to visualize – just like the word camouflage. Problem solved! There are plenty of old Victorian paintings of hornbills. We could use one of them. But this is not right. A British colonial painter looking at a hornbill in the nineteenth century was seeing something very different that an Iban poet does in 2019. Colonial portrayals of hornbills don’t actually have anything to do with this book.

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A placeholder cover. What a fine-looking bird! I don’t remember where this image comes from.

Another image came my way. I discovered the work of Carol Rubinstein, which is really worth talking about at great length by itself. She went to Borneo in the late 1960s and spent several years living with Dayak groups, recording their songs and poetry. The Sarawak Museum in Kuching published two enormous volumes of her work as issues of the Sarawak Museum Journal in the 1970s (and a handful of selections of the poetry were published by other presses and ended up in Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies of ethnopoetics). The title page of one of the volumes features drawing of a kenyalang. Perfect, I thought, here’s a kenyalang, one that has previous experience with poetry in translation. That’s our bird.

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Volume II of the Sarawak Museum Journal Special Monograph No. 2: Poems of Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak: Some of the songs and chants (Part II). This particular volume seems to have traveled from Kuching to Detroit, then, somehow, to New York, then to Singapore, where I took this picture and gave the book to Pauline Fan, who gave it to Kulleh Grasi who brought it back to Kuching.

Because of a desire to have this book match our first book, I took that photo of the kenyalang and turned it into a shape – the same thing I did to turn the image of a tree into camouflage. The first thing I did was to make it black and put it on a yellow background with the title treated just as in Camouflage:

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First version of a cover with the kenyalang design.

This pretty clearly moved to the abstract: the drawing isn’t really recognizable when it’s just the front cover (though it becomes more recognizable when the flaps are opened). I like this: it’s striking. But it also seemed like I was inadvertently plagiarizing Andy Warhol’s design (and color palette!) for The Velvet Underground & Nico:

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Andy Warhol’s 1967 design for The Velvet Underground & Nico in unpeeled (left) and semi-peeled (right) states.

That’s a great design – particularly when the banana could be peeled off. But it doesn’t quite fit; and variations on that design are everywhere in Southeast Asia for the past few years, pretty quickly going from signifying a hipster to just being another part of vernacular fashion. And a similar issue came to light when I spent a little time in Borneo: just like the VU banana, the kenyalang image is on everything. Here, for example, you see it on the Sarawak Hornbill Tourism Award:

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Good work, Gunung Mulu National Park!

Again there’s a reason that this image is popular. It’s a good design. But it also signifies preconceived ideas about Borneo: as the place where you go on a fancy vacation to see the orangutans. This is not what we were trying to convey. Kulleh’s poetry moves back and forth between the ancient and the modern: one of Tokyo’s airports is in there along with Iban mythology.

What I wanted was to keep the kenyalang but also mix in something else. I thought of the weaving designs that Bruce Mau used for some of Zone’s books in the 1990s:

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Cover by Bruce Mau for The Decadent Reader (Zone Books, 1997) – the interwoven images are hidden by a translucent outer jacket. More info here.

Conceptually that’s maybe a little too direct in its equation of sex and death (though it’s a fine choice if you’re making a cover for The Decadent Reader) through intercutting images. Trying to do something a bit subtler but with the same kind of effect, I decided to use the kenyalang shape as a mask. It could be some kind of glitchy Blade Runner future city seen through the kenyalang. Here’s a version with a weird hotel in Lisbon filling that function:

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It’s hard to tell, but this shows the glassy insides of a hotel. There are weird dangling jellyfish sculptures as well.

I like the interplay between the organic shape of the kenyalang and the rectilinear lines of the architecture. But this is maybe going too far: that contrast I was trying to look for was already there. You can see the modern in the monochromatic background, the digitally processed shape of the kenyalang drawing, the typography. Things are starting to get lost; trying to figure out what the shape is as well as what’s in the photography behind it is visually challenging. So I stepped back, and instead put in a photo I had taken from a river in Borneo, the forest and the sky above the water. It’s not a particularly good photo:

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But in context it works, and the cover seemed to snap into place. The trees mirror the trees that are on the front cover of Camouflage. And, with a couple of tweaks, that’s how we ended up with this cover:


November 6, 2019

Design Me, Kenyalang 2: insides

(This is the second in a series of posts on the design of Kulleh Grasi’s Tell Me Kenyalang. Read the first one here if you don’t want to be confused.)

A lot of design – even good design – is lazy: we use existing solutions because they’re familiar and they work; the reader doesn’t need to think too much. And so many of the interior elements in Tell Me, Kenyalang are from the generally accepted model of facing-page translation; and a lot of the rest is taken from Camouflage (in part because these are two books that can talk to each other).

The difference starts coming in with the words from Iban and Bidayah and the other languages of Borneo. While you could just read the poem aloud and appreciate the sound of the words, the tricky thing about words is that they mean something. In Camouflage, like in a lot of books in facing-page translation, it’s not that hard to look at a word in Galician and get a rough idea what it means by working out which English word it corresponds to, even if you don’t speak any Galician. This isn’t the case in Tell Me, Kenyalang: the vast majority of all readers, even those who speak English and Malay, will not understand some of the words. Most readers don’t have recourse to dictionaries of these languages; my standard response of pulling up Google Translate on my phone gets me nowhere.

So we have a lot of notes which Pauline Fan very helpfully put together which explain the terms in the text, what they mean and where they come from. Notes are a problem from a design perspective. Footnotes or side notes are helpful because the reader doesn’t have to turn the page, keeping another bookmark in the back of the book. This isn’t a great solution for poetry because then the poem never gets to stand by itself: it’s visually encumbered by whatever’s around it that is not part of the poem. A poem should not look like a legal document with a lot of fine print at the bottom of the page. I think that’s particularly important for a book like this one: many of the readers may never have read any poetry from Malay (let alone the languages of Borneo), and might find the idea of reading this to be slightly imposing – the fear of setting off into the unknown can be even greater when you’re overwhelmed with the sense of how much you don’t know. (You might think of the Talmud, where the visual design makes it clear that you would need to spend a life grappling with the book to really do it justice.) And Kulleh Grasi’s poetry is actually not very hard to engage with – it’s very direct, even if it’s coming out of a landscape and history that the reader may not know. But it’s not in any way something to be afraid of: this is a book for everyone.

So I banished the notes to the back of the book. There were a handful of revisions to the way these were arranged – what I ended up doing was pulling them into a table-like format which makes it easy to see which languages things are coming from. (This arrangement also inadvertently makes something clear about the text – the way languages come in and out isn’t random but very intentional, part of the journey taken by the speaker.) Snapshots of a couple of different revisions from the process:

first version of notes
The first version of notes. To keep them straight, I was giving phrases from each language their own color.
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The second version of notes. A bit more readable; there’s one color for non-Malay languages. Still some spacing issues.
third version of notes
Now languages are separated out into columns. Everything suddenly becomes more clear!
fourth version of notes
And in the final version: page numbers are added in the margins to help the reader find their way back to the poem.

That last version – what’s in the printed book – brings me back around to the question of different languages and how they should be treated in the text. I have been pestering Jenny and Stefania for a very long time to let me set poetry in translation in two colors: the first design for Circumference the journal is long lost, but I wanted the interiors to be in black and red ink. The reason that didn’t happen is pretty obvious: printing in two colors is generally twice as expensive as printing in one color, and people do not seem to be falling over themselves to give us a lot of money to print luxurious editions of poetry in translation. But I asked again for this book, and our printers came back with a quote that was surprisingly reasonable.

Circumference poster
A Circumference poster from 2004, fifteen years ago. We are very old.

One issue created by moving the notes to the back of the book is that there’s not necessarily a way for the reader to know that there’s a note they should be looking up. You can add superscript numbers or asterisks, but again that clutters the space of the poem with things that are not part of the poem. What is wanted is a visual indicator that shows that there’s something else; but, crucially, one that doesn’t distract from the reading experience. Using a second color of ink does this. It also helps that we can color words regardless of whether they’re roman or italic. It’s effectively adding another axis to the text. As for which color: very early I settled on gold. There are a raft of associations that come with gold, of course, but I liked the image of gold words sparkling amidst the regular black ink, like something secret and buried coming to light from under layers of dirt. Is that what we actually achieved? I don’t know. If we go back for a second printing, I’d add a spot varnish so that it sparkles more, like gold leaf. But if it sparkles more it might be too distracting? There are always compromises.

And it might be worth talking for a bit about the electronic forms of the book – there have been two so far, and who knows what might happen. If you’re a subscriber, you can go to the subscribers’ page and read the whole book online. If you not, you can go to the book page and read one poem from the book per day for the month of November (or whenever we remember to turn it off). What you see there is another form of the book; it’s not perfect, because it’s still a tremendous pain to set poetry online, let alone when you’re dealing with two languages and you’re trying to making something that you can read on a computer or a tablet or a phone. But it mostly works. There the reader has a bit more choice about how to read the poem: if you’re looking at it on a phone with a narrow screen, for example, you’re forced to read either the English or the Malay. If you’re looking at it on a bigger screen, you can see both at the same time.

There’s one way, I think, in which the electronic version is superior to the print one: and that’s how we deal with the notes. Because the screen you’re looking at has to compose color in terms of red and blue and green blobs of light, there’s not really a way to have gold text. We could have a dark yellow color, but at best that would be like a photograph of gold rather than actual gold, a crummy copy. But we can make the color cycle! So I did that, which creates a similar, but different, feeling. That’s not what’s better about the electronic version – I think that’s probably distracting, a little too flashy for serious reading. But that’s okay: we are ostensibly a business, and we do want the people coming to the book’s page to buy the print book. (If you’re a subscriber, you should have a print copy – if not, please let us know! – and the electronic version is just a cherry on top.) What’s better about the electronic version is the ability to go to an annotation without losing your place in the text: click the colored text to bring up an annotation, click again to make it go away. There’s less distraction to the practice of reading than you have with the print version.

Why are you not a subscriber? If you were you could look at the poem instead of this screenshot.
What you see on the subscriber page if you click on a note.

I should probably talk about the cover! Next time.

November 6, 2019

Design Me, Kenyalang 1: background

We have a new book! And design-wise it’s similar to our first book, but also very different. I want to talk a little bit about the design of this book: how it came about, some of the things that we imagined, and the different places that this project has gone and will go.

The first thing I did was make a mistake. I heard about the book from Jenny who had been told about it by Pauline Fan, the translator. And my first understanding of the book was that it was an English translation of a Malay version of an Iban original, some sort of weird double translation. I had not actually seen any of the text at this point. But the image that came to my ignorant mind was of something layered, of moving through different levels of language to reach the meaning of the text. And this made me think of the exciting part of encyclopedias when I was a child, the transparent pages that you can layer to show the various anatomical systems of the body and how they fit together:

Different layers of the anatomy of a grass frog
Different layers of the anatomy of a grass frog in a 1965 World Book Encyclopedia for children.

What we would do, I thought, is publish three texts that would be on top of each other – we’d find some printer that could make half the pages out of cellophane, and the English page would overlay the Malay page which would overlay the Iban page. This idea, of course, bears no relation at all to the actual book. The actual text of the original is mostly in Malay, but with a lot of words and phrases from not only Iban, but many other indigenous languages of Borneo. (The keen-eyed might have noticed that this website used to describe the book as “translated from Malay and Iban,” though it’s moved, mostly to “translated from Malay”. Maybe it still says that somewhere?) And a lot of (but not all of) those words appear in the English text as well. So I shelved the idea of layering, though that’s something that will come back in later.

I started by falling back on putting the Malay text and English text side by side. Yes, this should be read as a bit of a cop-out in the light of how we threw out all the rules of poetry in facing-page translation when we made Camouflage. But a tenet of design is that one follows the rules until you’re good enough to break them. And putting the texts side by side actually is interesting: in a lot of these spreads what you notice with Tell Me, Kenyalang isn’t what’s different between the original and the translation but the sheer number of words – mostly those from the indigenous languages – that are shared between them. This isn’t what you’d expect from two languages that don’t share a lot of cognates. And you have a sense – even if you don’t speak a word of Malay – which words are those from indigenous languages, because most of them are italicized.

Maybe it is worth talking for a little bit about italic and Roman type. Roman type – the upright type that most things are in – is more of a mutt than its name suggests. The capital letters, of course, come from the inscriptions of the Roman Empire: it’s the lettering of power. But lower-case letters don’t come from Rome at all: they were only invented by monks in the Middle Ages to save space when copying manuscripts. Sticking the two together makes a nice rhythm; too much lowercase becomes claustrophobic, perhaps what might be expected from its monastic origins. Italic type comes from fifteenth-century Venice: it imitates not the capitals of imperial inscriptions or the lowercase of monks but rather the elegant handwriting of northern Italy. It is a design based on aesthetic pleasure rather than on the demands of power or religion. Aldus Manutius saw italic as a superior alternative to Carolingian miniscule and set whole books in it, though this is not something one sees done very often any more. Illustrations:

The text on Trajan’s Column in Rome, carved in stone 1900 years ago, is identical to the way we use upper-case letters today.
Handwritten lowercase (“Carolingian miniscule”) from the middle ages
Handwritten lowercase (“Carolingian miniscule”) from the middle ages.
Type designed by Francesco Griffo in Venice around 1500. Note
Type designed by Francesco Griffo in Venice around 1500. Note that he’s using what looks like lower-case italics with Roman capitals.

Viewed historically mixing Roman and italic type as we do today is thus a sort of cultural mixing – one suspects the inventors wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with one another if they had any choice in the matter. But generally the usage in English has been to set foreign words in italic: to set them off, to mark them as being apart, something not quite assimilated. And this is maybe appropriate for Kulleh Grasi’s Malay, which is full of other cultures – like the cells of our bodies, which contain mitochondria, tiny energy factories that were once free-living bacteria until hundreds of millions of years ago they took up residence in the cells of our ancestors.

But I digress. Malay, it should be noted, is mostly written in Roman script today; that reflects British colonialism. (The Dutch colonial system, which was running much of what’s now Indonesia, had very different language policies, but that’s a subject for another time.) Before the British, most Malay would have been written in Jawi, a modified Arabic script; the British imposed Roman scripts on Malay, and that’s largely what’s used today. And the Dayak languages are from outside of the Muslim Malay world, though they did engage with it. The point of all of this is that even before we start thinking about what the words means, by just looking at the visual symbols that comprise them, there’s a huge amount of historical baggage that, consciously or not, is going to impact the way we read.

So we have a text that consists of other kinds of texts, which have complex – and very loaded – interrelationships. Next time: we’ll go through how this comes out in the text.

November 6, 2019

Singapore Writers Festival Wrap-Up

Kulleh Grasi, Pauline Fan, and Kulleh’s band Nading Rhapsody all appeared at the Singapore Writers Festival this year. Some photos and videos for those who couldn’t make it:

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Translator Pauline Fan and poet Kulleh Grasi seeing the book for the first time.
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Our book is real! And available in the festival bookstore.
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Pauline Fan on a panel. It is impossible to make a panel look interesting, and the lighting of this one made it look like a prison interrogation.
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Poet and translator and book, right before Nading Rhapsody’s first performance.
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Kulleh Grasi on a panel.

Two clips from Nading Rhapsody’s first performance:

The start of Nading Rhapsody’s second performance – that’s Kulleh on the right:

The end of Nading Rhapsody’s second performance, when everyone joined in:

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Kulleh Grasi being interviewed by Singaporean television after the performance – we should figure out whether this ever aired! Also Kulleh was interviewed about the book on Malaysian television last week, which we should also find.
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Poet and translator after the show.

November 5, 2019

Tell Me Kenyalang is out!

Our second book, Kulleh Grasi’s Tell Me Kenyalang, translated by Pauline Fan is out today! If you don’t already have a copy, you can get one from our store.

Are you feeling unsure about buying poetry sight unseen? If you visit the book page for the month of November, you can read the book yourself! Or you will if you keep visiting that page: for every day of the month of November, we’ll post a poem from the book – the first poem on the 1st, the last poem on the 30th. The cheap (and dutiful) can read the book that way! If you don’t think you can reliably visit that page every day of the month of November, you are more than welcome to visit the store, where you can buy a copy of the print version and read the whole thing, along with Pauline Fan’s introduction.

(And consider becoming a subscriber? If you were a subscriber, you would have been able to go to our secret subscribers’ page a few weeks ago and read the whole book (and the introduction!) online. Subscribe now and you can still get in – and you’ll get our next book, which we’re not quite ready to announce, but we will very soon.)

October 31, 2019

Tell Me, Kenyalang at the Singapore Writers Festival

We have some events coming up for Tell Me, Kenyalang if you happen to be in Singapore! Poet Kulleh Grasi, translator Pauline Fan, and Kulleh Grasi’s band, Nading Rhapsody, are going to be appearing at the Singapore Writers Festival. Here’s the schedule of events:

  • Saturday 2 November, 5 p.m.–6 p.m.: Pauline Fan appears as part of a panel entitled SWF Translation Roundtable with Babak Tabarraee, Lian Hai Guang, and Shelly Bryant.
  • Saturday 2 November, 6:30 p.m.–7 p.m.: Nading Rhapsody performs at the SWF POP Stage
  • Sunday 3 November, 10:30 a.m.–noon: Kulleh Grasi appears on a panel entitled The Death of Languages with Louis-Jean Calvet, Caryl Lewis, and Waubgeshig Rice
  • Sunday 3 November 7:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m.: Pauline Fan appears as part of Navigating the SEA with Joshua Ip, Martin Villanueva, and Christine Chia.
  • Sunday 3 November, 8 p.m.–9:30 p.m.: Nading Rhapsody appears in A Spotlight on Indigenous Voices with Wab Kiew, Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, Moe Clark, and Annaliza Bakri.

The Nading Rhapsody performance is free; other events are ticketed. While the price per event seems ludicrously high, you can buy a Festival Pass for SG$20 if you buy before the end of September; after that, it’s SG$25.

September 3, 2019

Tell Me, Kenyalang is out soon!

As mentioned, we’re putting the finishing touches on Kulleh Grasi’s Tell Me, Kenyalang, which will be out at the beginning on November. But we have a handful of blurbs that we can share with you now:

Kulleh Grasi has channeled “the rhythms from sebayan, / qasidahs from bunian” to bring us the “fragrance of paradise” of his native Sarawak, the place at the heart of his akui-self that springs forth from the Sea Dayak longhouse community (“leaf of the world”) like a Kalang deer and suffuses his poetry with Iban myths, sensual beauty, ancestral bonds, dreams, and the songs of trees, birds, river, and sun-rain. Pauline Fan’s finely woven pua-kumbu translation comes to us as a blessing from kenyalang’s beak.

—Jeffrey Yang

If you need a reason to believe in the value of translation, here are thirty. Pauline Fan’s versions of Kulleh Grasi’s poems teach Malay and Iban to English. Translation changes us, into and out of languages, thankfully, because without it we might not know what it is like to be young and full of myth, music, and meaning in Malaysia. This multilingual voice sounds like it’s from right now, because it is.

—Paul Legault

The vitality of poetry hides in its secret veins, from which the unordinary — words, images, dreams — spout and sparkle.
 Kulleh Grasi’s verses affirm this and Pauline’s translation gives them a poetic rebirth.
 There are many instances of enchantment in this collection of poems. As I see it, in Kulleh Grasi’s pieces Malay poetry finds its “minor literature” (in the Deleuzian sense)— as they create idioms that slip away from the confine of identity (“deterritorialized”) and are linked with issues of finding a voice within a language that is both alien and familiar. The poems stammer, as it were, and disrupt the typically linear, narrative-bound verses in mainstream Malaysian poetry.
 What a gift.

—Goenawan Mohamad

September 3, 2019

Women in Translation Month

It turns out that it was Women in Translation Month in August, though we were too busy putting the finishing touches on Tell Me, Kenyalang and didn’t notice until the month was almost over. But! Women in Translation Month never ends at Circumference, or at least it goes on for another month. For all of September, you can buy Camouflage by Lupe Gómez for the reduced price of $13! Click here to visit our store and pick it up if you haven’t already – or buy another copy for a friend?

September 3, 2019

Snapshots from Work in Progress

The electronic version of Camouflage has taken longer than we expected it to! But it’s on the way, and here are a couple of screenshots from the app in development:

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The main screen of the app in an iPad simulator.
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A spread from the book. Pressing the “English” and “Galician” buttons let you choose which languages you want to read in.
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Just an English poem, in dark mode so you can read at night.
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Erín Moure’s introduction, in portrait mode.
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What about the footnotes? you ask. Footnotes!
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Also, for good measure, there’s a settings page.

It’s coming along! Any day now. This is being done in something called ReactNative, which will let us make both Android and iOS apps; and while the experience will probably be better on a tablet than a phone, it should work on phones too. If you’re interested in beta testing, let me know? Potential Android tablet users would be particularly useful!

April 15, 2019

How Does a Book Get Made?

Making a book can be a complicated process involving a lot of people. In our case, it takes place all over the world. Here’s a diagram that explains exactly how it happened!

April 8, 2019

Proust Questionnaire: Lupe Gómez

Original in Galician on Ramón Nicolás’s highly respected literary blog, Caderno da Crítica [Critical Notebook]. Translated by Erín Moure.

1. What is your most obvious character trait?

I’m very steadfast. I have a great capacity for concentration. Never do I abandon words. Words never abandon me. I always seek Silence, spaces of calm. I’m continually inspired. Every night, inspiration goes to sleep on the roof of my house.

2. What quality do you most appreciate in a person?

Loyalty. I really appreciate people who are straightforward, real and true as bread fresh out of the oven. Without masks or tricks. Waters that run clear in the channels. It makes it easier to understand each other and create lasting relationships.

3. What do you most value in your friends?

That they are loyal and understand me even when I vanish or don’t wish to laugh, dance, be very social. I love mailing or emailing my writings to my friends and am delighted when they read me with excited complicity, in that impulse and euphoria that brings us close and yet lets us fly, break free…

4. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I admit that I’m fairly vulnerable, very demanding of myself, of writing, and also of those who surround and love me. My family and friends are aware of this and take it into account. I try to be more flexible, more understanding of imperfection, try to accept life as it is, love myself and let the winds blow where they will, in the secret freedom of the human condition.

5. What is your favourite activity?

Writing letters with all the passion in the world. Let my poetic secrets flow onto the page whether white or multi-coloured. Wrapping the letter in gift paper, writing addresses on envelopes, sticking stamps on the envelopes as if they were honeyed kisses. Heading to the post office on my blue bicycle; it’s my way of travelling the world, full as a bird with surprises.

6. What makes you most happy?

Writing and receiving letters. I love revitalizing the old custom of letter-writing, so noble, exceptional, and right. The epistolary genre is my favourite of all. One day my letters will appear as a book with Alvarellos. Normally publishers are only interested in volumes of letters by people who are dead, but I’m still alive, and have blood, words and frank feelings to share.

7. What is your greatest regret?

That there is no longer any bus to my village, Fisteus. Having to close up the family home, our nest of music, forever, as a result. Not being able to easily visit my parents in their graves. Not being able to share beautiful words with the village world that feeds me so much electricity and makes me who I am. 

8. If you were return after death as someone or something, what would it be?

Back in high school at the Instituto Zalaesta, far off in the city of A Coruña, I read One Million Cows by Manuel Rivas on the sly. My dream was to become a writer and journalist. To join that “world” in which Rivas was a teacher and towering example. Today, he is my mentor and friend. And I still feel as I did when I was fifteen years old, avid to learn . . .

9. Where would you most like to live?

I’ve been on the Rúa Basquiños in Santiago de Compostela for almost twenty years. A whole lifetime, really. In that time, I’ve written twenty books. I’d like to live here another twenty years; with my house and garden, I’m firmly rooted in the cartography of this place.

10. Your favourite colour?

Blue. To me every day is the colour blue.

11. The flower you love best?

The camelia, because it’s tough and embattled, but also very delicate. There’s a camelia tree in my garden, and its flowers are with me from December to March. They don’t realize it but they take part in all my paintings and calligraphy.

12. The bird you are most fond of?

Blackbirds. I adore wrens too, and all tiny birds. The smaller they are, the more I love them. I always draw birds. I find it easy to talk to them, and to understand their language. As a child, I listened to the cuckoo in the distance, and it made me dream and imagine, for it’s a furtive bird, mysterious. Always hidden and camouflaged. I never managed to see it. I would have liked to play with it . . .

13. The prose that most attracts you?

I’m fascinated with the Bible, with its clean, clear, terrible, fantastic, brilliant literature. The Old Testament is amazing. I am especially attracted to the Epistles of Saint Paul, the book of Genesis, the Apocalypse. As a lector at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I use my voice to add a poetic touch to the reading of the Scriptures; it’s like entering “another dimension.” It’s wonderful, a real privilege, an adventure.

14. And in poetry?

There are two books that are cornerstones in a river of joy, patience, and commitment. Do Courel a Compostela [From the Courel to Compostela] by Uxío Novoneyra and Cantares gallegos [Galician Songs] by Rosalía de Castro. For some unknown reason, they travel together with me. They cross paths and constantly jostle each other, giving rise to a strange beauty; it’s a very intimate relation.

15. Your favourite book?

Dos soños teimosos [Of Stubborn Dreams] by Uxío Novoneyra, in which the poet responds to the questions of his friend, the polymath and philosopher Emilio Araúxo. These conversations are a poetic manifesto that kindles and rekindles my life and thinking. I practically know the whole book by heart. I’ve read it so many times that it inhabits me.

16. Who is your favourite fictional hero?

In my creative memory, my grandfather Antonio, who died when I was eleven, passed into the life of fiction and became my hero. A role model I will never forget. We were close friends and he’d secretly give me sips of beer. I called him “my godfather.” Together, we tended the cows in the spaces where they were pastured.

17. Your heroine?

Heidi. She was a cartoon character with whom I identified very strongly when I was a mountain child, and she always made me laugh and cry. To watch her on television was to imbibe the rich and moist soil of the earth itself.

18. What is your favourite music?

Over the last four or five years, my entire literary work is born from, resonates with, and grazes on the music of my dear friend Amancio Prada. It’s one of my great loves, and enchants me with its life-giving, fresh, new waters. I let myself be carried away every evening by his voice I have just finished a new book of poems, entitled No encanto do aire [Entranced by the Air]. All the poems were written in the cathedral in Santiago, inspired by Amancio Prado’s concert in that amazing space in October, 2017.

19. What is your favourite visual artwork?

The painting of Antón Lamazares. I’ve been lucky to meet him and delight in his rich rural language, his elegance, his wild energy and his poetry. I also love Chagall, Luís Seoane, Velázquez, and many others. To me, calligraphy is a form of painting, very basic, rudimentary even, very simple but also a great luxury within reach of our hands, a physical act of unsurmountable love.

20. Who is your real-life hero?

My aunt Lucita. She’s been in a wheelchair since she was 18. She’s now 80 and still savours life as if it were an aria of roses. She’s never given up. Always has smiles and wise life advice. She’s just finished writing her impressive memoirs, Nubes Bordadas [Embroidered Clouds]. She’s very intelligent, and taught me to read very young. She’s a seamstress of deep affects.

21. What is your favorite name?

Loaira. A name out of Novoneyra’s poetry. I’ve always loved its sonority. To me, it’s a dreamy name, very feminine and elegant.

22. What is the trait you most deplore in others?

I’m a person of few words. I express myself with silences and gestures. Because of this, I can’t stand charlatanism, constant blabbing, talk for the sake of talking, verborrhea. In my mind, people, politicans, priests, journalists, women, youtubers, and everyone, really, talks too much. It is as if words spill out in a rush and lose their original meaning, their weight, their importance and value.

23. What is it that you most dislike?

The sheer noisiness of the society in which we live. Sometimes it makes it impossible to stop and reflect. It torments the ears and causes damage to the heart.

24. Which historical figure do you most despise?

No one in particular. I figure that all historical figures are necessary parts of the incomplete puzzle that is injustice, discord, and wars. I despise people who put themselves above others, those who are corrupt, those who steal, those who cause this world to be less than the clean ring of a guitar.

25. A military feat/deed you admire?

I’m not of a military bent. I don’t know how to explain it. I admire art, invention, popular cultures, but military feats are not part of my imaginary. I admire the Galician women who have laboured non-stop since forever so that History is not just a wreck beached on the sands.

26. What talent would you most like to have?

The gift of laughter. Of graceful wit. A childlike innocence. The capacity to see and feel all the absurd threads that make life move. The subversion of language.

27. How would you like to die?

Peacefully. Very softly and quietly. Writing surrealist poetry so as to understand and embrace my own death, and embark on it.

28. What is your most usual state of mind?

I always feel full of life, with tons of energy, and in good physical shape. When I go out and walk, I feel animated and content. I forget all the pain, the disappointments, the dramatic shocks of the television news.

29. What faults are you most willing to tolerate in others?

I believe I’m very indulgent, compassionate. Compassion is a tenderness that I learned long ago from gazing into the eyes of cows. Those animals are my goddesses, my Buddhist teachers.

30. Do you have a proverb or motto that guides you?

There’s always another poem to write. A new day always brings us new words.

(June 2018, translated August 2018. Used with the permission of Ramón Nicolás.)

February 16, 2019

Circumference Books in Poets & Writers

Marwa Helal wrote a very nice piece in the January/February 2019 issue of Poets & Writers about Circumference Books. Thanks!

December 21, 2018

Design in practice, 1

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I talked about the different ways in which design and poetry in translation have intersected, for better or worse. Now I’m going to leave theory behind and talk about what we’re trying to do with Circumference Books. In this post, I’m going to explain about how we put together our first book for print; in the next post, I’ll go into the electronic edition.

Our first book is Lupe Gómez’s Camouflage, which you can read about here. Obviously, we think it’s a really good book, so I won’t tell you about that. What I will talk about is how we went about turning it into a print book: the choices that went into our design. 

So the first thing about this book: the original is in Galician. There’s a pretty good chance that you don’t know Galician: Wikipedia claims it only has 2.4 million speakers, the majority of them in northwestern Spain. Luckily, translator Erín Moure does, and she’s made us a beautiful English version. We could happily just publish the English version and let completists figure out how to get a copy of the Galician original (published by Chan da Pólvora in 2017). But it’s nicer to have them together! And Galician’s an interesting language: if you have any knowledge of Spanish or Portuguese, you’ll be able to get a sense of what’s going on in the original. And even if you don’t, it’s a Romance language, and it shares a lot of Latinate roots with English. You can almost certainly read more Galician than you think.

What’s also worth considering about this book when thinking about how to design it is its structure. A single narrative works its way through this book; it’s split into three major sections, each followed by a very short ending section. (There’s probably a better word for that.) Each major section is made up of about thirty smaller sections: some are only two lines long, most are less than ten lines long, there are a few big ones of twenty or so lines. While these sections are self-contained, they’re also very clearly part of a sequence. (You can see the first twelve poems of the first section excerpted in Asymptote—though I’m not sure about what’s been done with the design there.)

Circumference Books comes from the tradition of a journal that was all about facing-page translation. So our first impulse was to make a small book that gave each section its own page: there’d be a lot of white space, room for everything to breathe. It would be a small book, reasonably elegant. Here’s a sample spread of pages from my first mockup:

Version 1. Those lines around the edges are crop marks: if you printed this out on a regular printer, you could use a ruler and a scissors to trim this page of a PDF to the size that it would be in the book.

A couple of things to take note of here! On the left, you see the Galician. On the right, the English. At this point in time, I think the Galician text I was setting was corrupt. It’s a bit of a mess! But it does give you the idea of what the book would feel like. One thing does stand out: the sections are often small, and the form of the English (mostly!) mirrors the Galician.

(The typeface we’re using, by the way, is Century Supra, designed by Matthew Butterick.) 

So we could have pressed on with this: we know how to do poetry in facing-page translation pretty well. One thing I did notice when reading through this PDF: as a non-Galician reader, I found myself just skipping from right-hand page to right-hand page, following the thread of the narrative. This maybe happens more in a linear text – where you’re going from the bottom of one right-hand page to the top of the next right-hand page. (Yes, a right-hand page is called a recto; but I am trying very hard to keep this jargon-free.) Your eye might move differently if the book were an anthology of different poems, where you were considering each poem individually. In a sense, the problem that I’m describing here is that the reader’s tendency to read too fast: and while this is a book that could be read quickly, it’s a book that benefits from slower consideration. What I want to do is to slow the reader down, but without being awful about it.

So the next version looked very different:

Version 2. Same spread as in version 1.

There are actually only three elements that changed here: first, the Galician would be printed in reverse on a green backdrop; second, the English ink color would be the same dark green instead of black; and third, the typeface of the Galician changed. (The typeface is FF Meta, designed by Erik Spiekermann; a sans serif font does better at being printed in reverse because spreading ink won’t destroy all the serifs.) Theoretically we could make a book like this for the same price as the original; it’s still only using one color of ink inside, though it is using an awful lot of it, and green ink is probably more expensive than standard black ink.

But the feel of this book is very different – the left pages look very different from the right pages, the two parallel sequences through the book become immediately apparent. I don’t know how seriously we thought about going with this design. But I did really like how the English here feels like a reflection of the Galician: there’s a relationship between them, but it’s not as simple as simply having stanzas the same shape side-by-side, as in Version 1. That idea will come back later.

After that I started playing with another idea: running the two texts, English and Galician, in sequence: first the English version and then the Galician version. But my brilliant idea was that they’d be numbered the same way, so that you could reference page 5 of the English with page 5 of the Galician. Something vaguely similar to this is done in one of B. S. Johnson’s novels, House Mother Normal, which is set in a nursing home and multiple stream-of-consciousness accounts of the same events by narrators suffering from different degrees of dementia. The book isn’t much better than the idea, but it’s interesting from a design perspective: each character gets 21 pages, and the same events happen at the same point on every page for every character. Here, for example, you see pages 20 and 21 for two different characters:

IMG 3953
IMG 3951 1

This is a reasonably nice idea, but it’s a bit ungainly because you have to keep flipping back and forth between the narratives to figure out what’s actually going on. What if, I thought, I started the English on a left-hand page, and the Galician on a right-hand page? Then with two fingers you could look at both versions at once:

IMG 3942

Maybe I had just solved the problem of poetry in facing-page translation, I thought, although I would certainly make everyone angry by putting odd numbers on left-hand pages and even ones on right-hand pages. It will surprise no one to reveal that I had not solved anything because I had not thought about how you would read page 6 and page 6 together without completely destroying the book’s spine. But I mocked it up as a PDF:

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Version 3, from the English section.
version3 2
Version 3, from the Galician section.

This is mostly a failure, though there’s one interesting design element – the page numbers would move down the margin as the poem went on, so you could match up the English page to the Galician page by looking at the fore-edge of the book. And presenting the book like this keeps some of the original of the original: look how the eye moves from the first section of the English to the one following it, and how you can easily note the similarity between the shape of the first and the next. I liked that. Another model for how parallel narratives can be presented in fiction, J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year:

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A spread from Diary of a Bad Year, a novel which has three narrative threads happening in parallel, separated on the page by horizontal rules. 

Opening Diary of a Bad Year makes it feel gimmicky and experimental; but it’s surprisingly readable, in part because it’s structured in shorter chapters, and the reader can find their own way through. What if we did something similar?

Version 4. The left page is the same as the spread in 1 and 2; the right is the next section.

The next thing I did was to switch the axis the texts face each other across: I could divide the page in half horizontally and put English above and the Galician below. There’s plenty of space to do this, as you can see from the yawning gulf in the middle. The idea here would be that the English would start at the top and move towards the center, while the Galician would start at the bottom and move towards the center. The metaphor is maybe nicer than the reality? There are too many running headers. This mostly doesn’t work, though you can very easily follow the English sequence. So I did a few variations:

Top left: version 4.1, keeping things around a centerline, ditching the running headers. A little better? Top right: version 4.2, making the Galician hang from the centerline. Looks a little boxy, but better than 4. Bottom right: version 4.3, wondering if the running headers had been what screwed it up. A little better? But still: so much space! Bottom left: version 4.4, centering the text between the center line and the top and the bottom. It feels a bit more organic, but it’s still boxy.

There was something here that we liked, but it wasn’t quite there in these. A few more refinements based on the ones above:

versions 4 1
Left: version 4.1.1: the Galician goes into a different font (the same from Version 2) to make it seem more distinct. Not a big difference here, though having distinction is helpful. Right: version 4.3.1, where the Galician is in the same typeface as the English, but it’s grayed out. It looks a bit like a shadow – that’s interesting – but it presents the Galician as decidedly inferior to the English, as your eye has to work harder to read it.

There were some more that I’m not showing. (One reason I have so many PDFs around for documentation: I was in Singapore, Jenny was in Berlin, and I think Erín was in Canada, so everything was emailed back and forth.) But finally we arrived at this one:

version 4 1 2 1
Version Here we’re using a different font for the Galician; it’s also grayed out. The English and Galician are moved a bit further from the centerline to let them breathe. 

This isn’t exactly what we’ve ended up doing—there have been some further changes, including a couple of surprises that we might talk about later if people are interested. But it brought us to a point where we were relatively happy with the affect, and we locked in the design. What feels right is the balance in the relationship between the original and the translated text. The Galician is always there, a shadowy reflection of the English—although in this case, the reflection is actually the original. It’s very easy to follow the sequence in English—or, if you want, to follow the Galician. And it’s clear that the English and Galician texts are separate but intertwined.

(A drawback of doing it this way might be that it’s harder to go from line 5 of the English to line 5 of the Galician to figure out exactly how a phrase is stated in the original. But it’s not that hard for the reader to figure out when the sections are as short as they are; the English linebreaks are sometimes a little different from the Galician, but visually it’s a pretty close translation.)

Design is an empathetic craft. The end goal of all of this is to make the work of the reader pleasant, especially in a form which historically can feel cumbersome. Where we’ve ended up feels pretty good. It’s not a solution that I would want for all poetry in translation – it’s not intended to be. But for this book—which is about, in large part, the speaker’s relationship with her mother—it feels appropriate.

Next time: we’re making an ebook of this, and it’s not going to be terrible!

December 20, 2018

A few thoughts about design, 3

This is the third of a series of posts where I talk about the intersecting worlds of translation, technology, and design. Read the previous posts (1, 2) if you want to be caught up! In this one, I’m going to talk about the way electronic books work now. In the next one, I’ll finally get around to talking about all this has to do with what we’re doing at Circumference Books.

A lot of the way we read now is off of screens. I don’t want to make a value judgment about whether reading print or electronic is better; instead, I will say that they are different kinds of reading that engender different kinds of behavior. There’s a lot that could be said about this, but I’m going to try to limit myself here to thinking about what it means for poetry in translation.

Let me return to the Emily Wilson Odyssey, which you can buy in an electronic edition. In the abstract, one can imagine reasons why the electronic version might make for a better reading experience: hyperlinks might let the reader bounce back and forth to the notes without using bookmarks and losing focus. And the hardcover edition is big enough that it can be a pain to carry around with you. But it’s hard to seriously make that argument when confronted with the actual digital product. (An important caveat: while I might make it sound like the electronic version of this book isn’t very good, I’m not trying to single it out as being particularly poorly designed. I’m using it as an example because it’s one of the highest-profile books of poetry in translation published in the past few years; and i was published by a major American publisher who presumably had the resources to do a really good job.)

Look at, for example, how one specific reading behavior in this specific book is handled. Wilson’s Odyssey has a long list of proper names as a glossary, usefully reminding you who everyone is and how to pronounce their names. As a designer for the electronic version, you could hyperlink the name Nausicaa every time she appears; there would be a lot of blue underlines which might compromise the reader’s experience. Or you might underline her name the first time it appears, then require the reader to find the list of names if it’s been forgotten on subsequent appearances. Or you could do nothing.

Any of those choices are almost certainly worse than putting a bookmark at the list of names in the print book, which is a pretty reasonable reading behavior. What probably ends up happening most of the time: the reader copies the name and pastes it in their browser, to see how Google or Wikipedia defines it. While this could lead somewhere interesting, it’s almost certainly not what the book makers wanted.

Looking at the electronic version of the Wilson Odyssey in the Calibre desktop ebook reader, a phenomenally ugly piece of software. On the left, the list of proper names. One notes the references to the text: those aren’t actually links, and if you want to figure out where Nausicaa actually appears, you’re going to have to flip back a lot of pages until you can find line 16 in book 6, 531.3 pages (!) earlier. Nausicaa’s name on that page, for what it’s worth, isn’t a link: you can use the table of contents to jump to the glossary, then page forward to find her entry. Or you could search. Either way it’s a pain, and it takes the reader away from the reading experience.

There’s lost opportunity here: in an ideal electronic version, you’d put your finger on the name and the entry for that person would appear, reminding you but not necessarily removing you from the flow of reading. But there are other lost opportunity. We don’t have the Greek in the print edition, as noted previously, because it costs money to add paper to a book. You could certainly add Greek text to an electronic edition of the Odyssey – you could even make it optional, for that tiny fraction of readers who want it. But it’s worth remembering that when we talk about electronic books, in practice, we’re almost always talking about something with the structural complexity of a Microsoft Word document, a long scroll of paragraphs, maybe with some attached notes or pictures. It feels clunky next to the five hundred years of design experience behind a printed book.

Another example, of what’s been done with facing-page translation. Here are a couple of screenshots from Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti that Penguin published after Farrar, Straus & Giroux published it in 2010. This is a facing-page edition; it’s an attractive book in print. I like the idea of being able to read Leopardi on my phone on my commute, but the electronic edition is something of a slog.

Three pages from the Galassi Canti viewed in iBooks on an iPhone 5. It’s hard to fit poetry on a display this narrow, so some lines flip over; this is exacerbated by the design of the book, which adds margins on the left and right. Note how line numbers are inserted at the start of the lines of poems. Flipping the phone (on the right) helps things a bit, but it’s not pleasant.

It’s worth noting that the Kindle edition that you can preview on Amazon looks a little better and I would have a better time if I were trying to read this book on an iPad, which would have more space. But this is not a wonderful reading experience. The text is presented as a linear sequence, with the English version following the Italian; if you choose a poem in the table of contents, you’re taken to the Italian version, and if you’re not actually reading the Italian, you might have to page through ten pages to get to the English. Comparing the Italian to the English is certainly possible (there are line numbers), but it’s not nearly as simple as it would be in looking at the print edition. One worries if this is the best that can be done for a translation by the head of FSG.

Readers of a certain age may remember a certain strain of utopian rhapsodizing about the potential of writing on the computer, and how it was going to change everything. These predictions were almost invariably wrong. I mention this because there was once the idea that an electronic book could be something radically different from what we have on our shelves: that electronic space gave us a tabula rasa to make something new and revolutionary. It’s a useful point in time to keep in mind when starting a new publishing company, because that potential has never really gone away. From time to time I think about something Ted Nelson, the guy who once came up with the idea of hypertext said:

Imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway.

Ted Nelson explains his vision of writing and screens in much, much more depth here, though this can be a weird rabbit hole to get lost in. But he’s basically right about this: most electronic books are terrible because they’re slavishly imitating the form of print without thinking about the behaviors that we have as a culture around the technology of print. There’s an astonishing amount of wasted potential.

It’s true that the electronic books that we’ve ended up with are more boring than those we could have had – historically, there are commercial reasons for this. Something that’s as simple as a Microsoft Word file succeeds as a file format because Amazon and Apple can easily bottle and sell books like that. Books are cheaper when you get rid of publishing infrastructure. They’re also terrible, because they’re not actually taking into account of exactly how people are reading them (something that some of the people in publishing infrastructure might have had some idea about). Standard e-books are Procrustean beds for texts because it’s the cheap thing to do; and readers’ expectations are low. We should expect more.

Next time: what, exactly, we are going to do about this.

November 30, 2018

A few thoughts about design, 2

This is the second in a series of posts about translation, technology, and design. Read the introduction to the series if you’d like: that might make what I’m talking about make slightly more sense. But in this section, I’m going to talk about how poetry in translation has worked in print historically.

Design is about choices: how an author’s creation is going to be presented to a reader or viewer. Let’s look at a more specific version of this: how the design of poetry in translation works. And because the previous post was so bogged in theory, let’s start with some specific examples. (In this post, I’m talking about print; in the next one, I’ll talk about electronic versions.)

If I go out and buy a copy of the Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey, I get a thick book. Because it has a serious introduction and notes, it’s nearly 600 pages long. This is poetry in translation; but it is not poetry in facing-page translation. Those 600 pages don’t include the Greek that Wilson worked from. One reason for this is understandable: most of the people who will buy a new translation of The Odyssey can’t actually read ancient Greek. Probably a sizable percentage of them can’t even sound out Greek writing. But there’s also economic reasoning behind not including the original that the publisher (Norton) presumably worked through: if this book were a facing-page translation, it would probably be 300 pages longer. More pages means more paper, which is more expensive. More people will buy a $40 book than will buy a $50 book. From the publisher’s perspective, the argument is clear: there aren’t a lot of people angrily clamoring for an edition with Greek, it will cost less money, and it’s also less work.

What print book design does when it’s been well implemented is to present relationships between different parts of a text. The lack of Greek in the Wilson Odyssey is a valid design choice. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong not to include the original: there’s a reasonable chance that most of the potential readers who could read ancient Greek have a Loeb edition somewhere around the house. (If, by some misfortune, you don’t have one, you can buy one for $25, or you can look at it online for free.) But this design choice changes the focus of the book as a reading experience: the reader of the Wilson Odyssey might be presumed to be more interested in the narrative of the epic than in looking at the specific choices that the translator made in remaking the poem in English.

There are, of course, other ways that this could have been done with poetry in translation. Facing-page translation generally presents the language of the original on the left, with the language it’s been translated into on the right. First, a spread from Eugenio Montale’s Poetic Diaries 1971 and 1972, translated by William Arrowsmith: 

IMG 3928
Pages 98 and 99 of Eugenio Montale’s Poetic Diaries 1971 and 1972, translated by William Arrowsmith, published by W. W. Norton in 2012.

The publisher might grumble that there’s a lot of paper that needs to be paid for that isn’t really being used. A designer might quibble that the English (on the right side) is unnecessarily falling into the gutter between the pages, and it might have looked nicer to horizontally center the block of poetry. But designers always find something to quibble about.

From a reader’s perspective: this is great! A lot of white space means that the poems get space to breathe. It’s fairly easy to go back and forth between the English and the Italian even if the lines don’t exactly match up because of the translator’s choices. (This might focus the eye of some readers, myself included, on what the translator did differently.) Facing-page translation works really well with poems that can fit on a single page, like these. It gets more complicated when the poems span several pages (as would be the case with The Odyssey): differences in line lengths can mount up, and keeping the two texts synchronized can become complicated. This book works well because you can open it to any spread and just start reading.

Next, a different model, from The Penguin Book of German Verse:

IMG 3926
Pages 388–9 of The Penguin Book of German Verse, first published by Penguin in 1959; this edition is from 1967.

What’s been done here with these translations of Christian Morgenstern (no translator is credited, but they’re presumably by Leonard Forster, the editor) is quite different: an English prose translation appears in the space on the page where one usually expects to find footnotes. The presumption here is that the reader is reading the German, looking at the English for help if necessary – the translations here don’t bother to attempt to match the German form. The reader who doesn’t have any German is a second-class citizen, forced to squint at the small text, to ignore two-thirds of the page, and to always remember that they’re not reading the real thing, which can’t be captured by a translation. This isn’t a design that one sees very much any more: maybe we don’t like our design to be so accusatory?

An audience of English-readers might be presumed to get more out of a text in Italian or German than one written in ancient Greek: even if the reader has no Italian or German, they can sound out words and recognize cognates. Scripts like Greek or Russian will find fewer readers; languages like Turkish or Vietnamese, written in Roman script but with few cognates present their own challenges. Non-Roman scripts may only be legible as graphic form. This is a reason that not all languages are as likely to appear in facing-page translation.

Another reason that more things don’t appear in facing-page translation is more purely technological. When we started Circumference as a journal, you couldn’t use Bengali – the seventh most-spoken language in the world! – on a Mac. To handle left-to-right languages like Arabic or Hebrew or Persian, you needed a separate layout program. There were not attractive fonts for many of the languages we worked in. Things are better now, but it still requires a modicum of knowledge about how a script works to think about publishing a book in it. More often than not, the publisher takes the easy way out and just publishes the translation.

We’re living, you may be surprised to know, in a golden age of publishing technology. Next time, I’ll look at how that’s been serving electronic editions poetry in translation.

November 23, 2018

A few thoughts about design, 1

This is the first of a series of posts about the overlapping circles of translation, technology, and design, which have a lot to do with what we’re planning with Circumference Books. This is a complicated subject! So I’ve split it up into a number of easily digestible chunks. Here, I’ll lay out some terms; in the next post, I’ll talk about print design; following that, I’ll talk about the design of electronic books; and finally, I’ll talk about about what we’re doing with our first book, both in print and electronically. But first, some background! There’s a lot to cover here.

The history of translation and publishing technology goes back a very long way: the first book printed in Europe, Gutenberg’s Bible, was the Vulgate, the version that St. Jerome had translated into Latin. A lot of other things happened, and five and a half centuries later we are setting out to make Circumference Books.

Historically, this is a vexed moment to do so. Publishing and book are concepts that have become considerably more ambiguous since Gutenberg was going broke publishing translations. In a sense it’s ludicrously easy to publish: open Facebook, start writing, and more people might read your words than ever read anything Gutenberg printed. If you’re holding out for a printed book, fifteen minutes on Amazon or Lulu can make you a published author. Everyone has a printing press at their disposal now. You, a reader, consequently have too many things to read. Most of them are absolutely terrible!

Publishing is easy now because we have so many tools at our disposal. Technology is better and more accessible than it’s even been. But publishing things that are actually worth reading is still hard. It might be worth pausing briefly to think, as we set out to make something new and worth your time, about the intersections of technology, translation, and design in the present moment – and how that comes into what we’re doing with Circumference Books.

If we’re going to think about translation and technology and design, let’s start at the beginning: how writing works. An idea in a brain goes to the mouth, to the hand, to the paper. It becomes, somehow, words on paper. Or on a screen. Someone else can read it.

Design is what’s in between the writing and the reading. Someone might think about the words and how they might best appear on the page or the screen so that they might best be understood. More often than not, this is passive or even accidental design. Words remain in the fonts that Microsoft Word comes with because we’re so used to them that we don’t see them any more, don’t think about what they might be saying.

There’s a chance for intervention here: someone can stop and say “something specific needs to happen here.” This is complicated: there’s a tradition that good design should be self-effacing, drawing attention away from itself and toward the text that it’s meant to serve.

Now let’s add in translation. Translation is interesting because instead of one text, there are two: the original and what the translator has made. The model of writing becomes more complicated: somebody writes something which somebody else reads. Then that person writes something else, which is then read by a third person, who imagines that it’s what the first person was thinking.

There are more relationships to account for: the relationship between the two texts (which can be complicated), as well as the relationship between an individual reader and the texts, which can also be complicated. Most of the audience for a translation will not be familiar with the original: if they were, they could just be reading the original (unless they have a special relationship with the translator). The audience might not care about the original: they might just want the story. Alternately, the audience might be curious about the original, how it came to be in their language, what had to be changed to bring it over. The audience might have some knowledge of the original, but not enough they they don’t need a translation.

These questions come into theories of translation, which I won’t go into here. But they also come into the question of design. If I am, for example, a newspaper in Singapore reporting what Angela Merkel said yesterday in German, there is almost always little need for the original German: the vast majority of the Singaporean audience just wants to know the substance of what she said, not the words that came out of her mouth. It would be wasting paper (and the audience’s time) to print both. Even if we’re talking about an online newspaper, we’re still wasting the reader’s time by printing both. This could also be quantified as a cost. The design choices to be made are very clear. 

Next time: we’ll dig into how that’s been done in print design!

November 15, 2018


Welcome to the Circumference Books blog, where we’ll post ideas about translation and design, interviews with our authors and translators, poems from upcoming books, links to great essays on translation and translation news, and more! 

November 14, 2018