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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.
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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?

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Version 4.1.2.1. 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!

Dan ViselDecember 20, 2018