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: 

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:

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.

Dan ViselNovember 23, 2018