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!

Dan ViselNovember 16, 2018