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.

Dan ViselNovember 6, 2019