Design Me, Kenyalang 2: insides

(This is the second in a series of posts on the design of Kulleh Grasi's Tell Me, Kenyalang. Read the first one here if you don’t want to be confused.)

A lot of design – even good design – is lazy: we use existing solutions because they’re familiar and they work; the reader doesn’t need to think too much. And so many of the interior elements in Tell Me, Kenyalang are from the generally accepted model of facing-page translation; and a lot of the rest is taken from Camouflage (in part because these are two books that can talk to each other).

The difference starts coming in with the words from Iban and Bidayah and the other languages of Borneo. While you could just read the poem aloud and appreciate the sound of the words, the tricky thing about words is that they mean something. In Camouflage, like in a lot of books in facing-page translation, it’s not that hard to look at a word in Galician and get a rough idea what it means by working out which English word it corresponds to, even if you don’t speak any Galician. This isn’t the case in Tell Me, Kenyalang: the vast majority of all readers, even those who speak English and Malay, will not understand some of the words. Most readers don’t have recourse to dictionaries of these languages; my standard response of pulling up Google Translate on my phone gets me nowhere.

So we have a lot of notes which Pauline Fan very helpfully put together which explain the terms in the text, what they mean and where they come from. Notes are a problem from a design perspective. Footnotes or side notes are helpful because the reader doesn’t have to turn the page, keeping another bookmark in the back of the book. This isn’t a great solution for poetry because then the poem never gets to stand by itself: it’s visually encumbered by whatever’s around it that is not part of the poem. A poem should not look like a legal document with a lot of fine print at the bottom of the page. I think that’s particularly important for a book like this one: many of the readers may never have read any poetry from Malay (let alone the languages of Borneo), and might find the idea of reading this to be slightly imposing – the fear of setting off into the unknown can be even greater when you’re overwhelmed with the sense of how much you don’t know. (You might think of the Talmud, where the visual design makes it clear that you would need to spend a life grappling with the book to really do it justice.) And Kulleh Grasi’s poetry is actually not very hard to engage with – it’s very direct, even if it’s coming out of a landscape and history that the reader may not know. But it’s not in any way something to be afraid of: this is a book for everyone.

So I banished the notes to the back of the book. There were a handful of revisions to the way these were arranged – what I ended up doing was pulling them into a table-like format which makes it easy to see which languages things are coming from. (This arrangement also inadvertently makes something clear about the text – the way languages come in and out isn’t random but very intentional, part of the journey taken by the speaker.) Snapshots of a couple of different revisions from the process:

The first version of notes. To keep them straight, I was giving phrases from each language their own color.

The second version of notes. A bit more readable; there's one color for non-Malay languages. Still some spacing issues.

Now languages are separated out into columns. Everything suddenly becomes more clear!

And in the final version: page numbers are added in the margins to help the reader find their way back to the poem.

That last version – what’s in the printed book – brings me back around to the question of different languages and how they should be treated in the text. I have been pestering Jenny and Stefania for a very long time to let me set poetry in translation in two colors: the first design for Circumference the journal is long lost, but I wanted the interiors to be in black and red ink. The reason that didn’t happen is pretty obvious: printing in two colors is generally twice as expensive as printing in one color, and people do not seem to be falling over themselves to give us a lot of money to print luxurious editions of poetry in translation. But I asked again for this book, and our printers came back with a quote that was surprisingly reasonable.

A Circumference poster from 2004, fifteen years ago. We are very old.

One issue created by moving the notes to the back of the book is that there’s not necessarily a way for the reader to know that there’s a note they should be looking up. You can add superscript numbers or asterisks, but again that clutters the space of the poem with things that are not part of the poem. What is wanted is a visual indicator that shows that there’s something else; but, crucially, one that doesn’t distract from the reading experience. Using a second color of ink does this. It also helps that we can color words regardless of whether they’re roman or italic. It’s effectively adding another axis to the text. As for which color: very early I settled on gold. There are a raft of associations that come with gold, of course, but I liked the image of gold words sparkling amidst the regular black ink, like something secret and buried coming to light from under layers of dirt. Is that what we actually achieved? I don’t know. If we go back for a second printing, I’d add a spot varnish so that it sparkles more, like gold leaf. But if it sparkles more it might be too distracting? There are always compromises.

And it might be worth talking for a bit about the electronic forms of the book – there have been two so far, and who knows what might happen. If you’re a subscriber, you can go to the subscribers’ page and read the whole book online. If you not, you can go to the book page and read one poem from the book per day for the month of November (or whenever we remember to turn it off). What you see there is another form of the book; it’s not perfect, because it’s still a tremendous pain to set poetry online, let alone when you’re dealing with two languages and you’re trying to making something that you can read on a computer or a tablet or a phone. But it mostly works. There the reader has a bit more choice about how to read the poem: if you’re looking at it on a phone with a narrow screen, for example, you’re forced to read either the English or the Malay. If you’re looking at it on a bigger screen, you can see both at the same time.

There’s one way, I think, in which the electronic version is superior to the print one: and that’s how we deal with the notes. Because the screen you’re looking at has to compose color in terms of red and blue and green blobs of light, there’s not really a way to have gold text. We could have a dark yellow color, but at best that would be like a photograph of gold rather than actual gold, a crummy copy. But we can make the color cycle! So I did that, which creates a similar, but different, feeling. That’s not what’s better about the electronic version – I think that’s probably distracting, a little too flashy for serious reading. But that’s okay: we are ostensibly a business, and we do want the people coming to the book’s page to buy the print book. (If you’re a subscriber, you should have a print copy – if not, please let us know! – and the electronic version is just a cherry on top.) What’s better about the electronic version is the ability to go to an annotation without losing your place in the text: click the colored text to bring up an annotation, click again to make it go away. There’s less distraction to the practice of reading than you have with the print version.

What you see on the subscriber page if you click on a note.

I should probably talk about the cover! Next time.

Dan ViselNovember 11, 2019