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.

Dan ViselNovember 29, 2018