Monday, October 29, 2012

On Fonts

I originally published this review in Wales Arts Review, a publication I regularly review for. But I thought it was worth posting it here too.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Why does font matter? How does the choice of font affect the way people read text or what impression they get of a website or a film? Who creates fonts, and how, and why? Simon Garfield explores all this and more in his new book, Just My Type.

You might think that this sounds dull. In fact, this book about fonts is highly entertaining. It gives short histories (“font breaks”, as Garfield phrases it) about various fonts and the people who shaped them, while also exploring the history of print and the importance of fonts in general. Garfield manages to impart information while also giving juicy titbits of information about the often eccentric people and/or circumstances involved in the development of new fonts.

The author ranges all over the field in this book. Garfield discusses why legibility/accessibility/readability are such essential concepts in the field of fonts, how they have been understood in different ways over time, and how some appear more honest than others (such as Gotham, as discussed on p. 209). And he explores why particular fonts have become successful and now appear all over the place (such as Helvetica, which he says is everywhere in urban settings (p. 132)). Then he moves easily into giving background about some of the people behind the fonts, such as Margaret Calvert, who developed many road signs (p. 149), or sixteenth-century Frenchman Claude Garamond, who offered “the first real flight of fancy” in text (p. 96). Sometimes, Garfield even offers gossip about others, such as Eric Gill, the creator of Gill Sans, who was also known for his “dramatically outré [sexual] meanderings with his daughters, sister and dog” (p. 48). Gill was influential in the way he created typefaces without serifs (i.e. sans serif, hence the sans in Gill Sans). Since Garfield has already explained what serifs are and how bracketed versus unbracketed serifs differ, and what x-height is (as on p. 45), the reader feels part of the world of the typographer and understands the lingo. This is the case even if the average reader is unlikely to become obsessed by identifying particular fonts, which Garfield says is a problem for font designers that is “far worse than trying to identify a song from a snippet of lyric or melody.” (p. 174)

Garfield also explores the influence of font on particular types of text. For example, he talks about the fonts used in comics and how the typographer of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns “achieved that near-sublime melding of visuals and text, where one didn’t swamp the other, and both could be absorbed simultaneously” (p. 21). Staying with the theme of media, he explores how anachronistic some historical films are, because they show signs in fonts that didn’t exist at the time when the film is set (an example is Ed Wood, which is set in the 1950s but uses a font developed in the 1980s (p. 72)). But in a rather more serious and dramatic section, Garfield analyses fonts in Nazi Germany, and how Gothic was “outlawed by decree”, because it was viewed as Jewish and also was hard to read, especially by foreigners, which was a problem as Germany wanted to invade other countries and expected the people there to read any signs and materials they published (pp. 191-2). Instead, the regime switched to a roman type.

In short, this book is packed full of detail about a topic that should fascinate just about anyone. After all, whenever we read, we are being subconsciously influenced by the font the text is printed in, and we get ideas about the author, the content, and the context from it. This review is printed in Century Gothic. What do you think that’s doing to you as you read it? For one thing, I hope it encourages you to go out and get Garfield’s book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Round-Up of Articles

It’s time for another round-up of articles!

What’s interesting to see is that more and more large publications are talking about translation, language, and related topics. In this round-up, there are pieces from the New Statesmen, the BBC, the NY Times, and Nature, and I’ve written on translation myself in the Huffington Post, among others (see here for the most recent one). So the topic that’s so important to those of us who work with translation is finally becoming more visible.

This is the first of the New Statemen’s two pieces, which discusses, among other things, how reviewers should analyze the translation (and thus be bilingual), which is something I’ve long thought but I know isn’t always practical.

And here’s the second, on the “trials and tribulations” of translation.

Here’s a piece from the BBC on obscure words.

Also in the BBC, an article on a language in Nepal.

And a story on India’s contribution to the English language.

This article explores how Native American tribes try to save their languages.

And, finally, an article on how the shape of a country can shape its languages.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Save the Words

My friend Persy sent me this link. Try to use some words you’ve not used before, or not in a long time!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Delighted Beauty: An Interview with Tom Cheesman

Dr Tom Cheesman at Swansea University runs a fantastic website, Delighted Beauty, on the multiple translations of great writings, and the differences between the translations, and what that can tell us about the work in question.

 You can try out the site/tool here and you can read about it in this article.

 How to use a 2-minute introduction:

 • Sign in top right of home page, as guest (instructions provided). Select Corpora > Othello corpus > Open.

 • On the right of the ‘Base text’ pane, the buttons lead to various visualisations. (Another is accessed by clicking any name in the corpus.)

 • First choose ‘E & V’ (Eddy and Viv): and for a good example of what’s on offer, locate Brabantio’s ‘Here is the man, this Moor’, click on it, and then try the ‘Sort by’ and ‘Order’ options above.

Dr Cheesman agreed to answer a few questions for Brave New Words.

Q: Why did you decide to start this project?

A: A few years ago I was working on a very interesting and controversial trans-adaptation of Othello, by Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel. They said in an interview that they’d looked at “more than a dozen” other German translations. I’d no idea there were so many. Thinking of comparing their translation with earlier and contemporary ones, I started collecting books and scripts. Soon I had about 40: far too many! Studying multiple translations throws up problems of presentation, scale and navigation. They’re all acts of interpretation both of the translated work and of their own cultural contexts; they differ in countless details, all of which can be significant and interesting; it’s difficult to present a study of such a mass of texts without demanding far too much of your reader. You can study how a tiny sample gets differently translated; I did that, with one couplet, and I also created a website for crowd-sourcing the same couplet in any language. But really I wanted to find a way to explore whole texts and whatever aspects we want to. In 2010 my colleague David Berry convinced me of the potential of computational methods. Amazing work such as Ben Fry’s Traces made me realise that web-based digital tools, especially data visualization techniques, can help anyone explore multiple translations of anything, any way they want. Instead of being piled on shelves, digitised translations are available for anyone to look into (subject to ©). Text data visualisations (textviz) can work with full text contents (like the ‘parallel view’ on our site), or with representations derived from texts (using non-words, like our ‘alignment maps’, or words, as in things like Wordles). So textviz can bypass language barriers to some extent: I can find things out about Chinese translations compared to Russian ones, without knowing either language. In our ‘Eddy and Viv’ view, we use machine translation, which cries out for a user correction and discussion option, in a Wiki or whatever: still, it’s useful. -- ‘Eddy and Viv’ was a key conceptual breakthrough: at some point I worked out that formulae from information retrieval and stylometry could be adapted to put a mathematical value on the ‘distinctiveness’ of a translation in relation to others (a lot of retranslations are often similar, but some are more dissimilar than others); and that, if you first break a translated text into segments (sentences, play-speeches, or whatever), and then calculate distinctiveness values for all the translations of each one, then you can derive a value for the amount of variation among translations which a segment provokes. Where in a text do translators disagree more and less? Which speeches, which character parts? That’s the idea behind the tool we call ‘Eddy and Viv’.

Q: Was it a challenge to find funding? What about to find collaborators/contributors?

A: The idea might take a few minutes to explain but is basically simple and powerful, and funders like that. I’ve been very lucky with collaborators here in Swansea. David Berry put me in touch with a Computer Scientist, Bob Laramee, a specialist in Data Visualization. He’d not worked with texts before but was intrigued by the idea, and he and his PhD Zhao Geng have done some great work – as yet offline. Then we came across some fascinating text visualisation work by Stephan Thiel, doing just the kind of things we were interested in: ‘Understanding Shakespeare’. Obviously here was a designer we could work with. And Stephan was up for it. Our university’s Research Institute for Arts and Humanities funded a pilot project – an RA, Alison Ehrmann, copied and scanned my collection of German Othellos. We had a really good break when I requested a free trial of OCR software from ABBYY, and their UK sales manager Colin Miller got in touch personally and offered to help. He gave us free use of their Recognition Server, with Gothic fonts recognition and a suite of historical and modern dictionaries. And finally, along came the AHRC with their ‘Digital Transformations’ funding opportunity, just as my head of department, Andy Rothwell, recruited Kevin Flanagan to do a PhD here on Translation Memory. Kevin just happens to have all the skills and attitude needed to build a corpus management database and segment/align tools from scratch in order to make a ‘Translation Array’ actually work, feeding data to cool interfaces designed by Stephan at Studio Nand. I can’t code for toffee. It could all have gone horribly wrong.

Q: What has been one of your most interesting findings/realisations?

A: Lots! At the level of ‘Tell me about German Othellos’, my one-couplet sample study showed that in the 1950s and 60s, translations briefly became more distinctive or perhaps ‘daring’ than ever, then more conservative than ever, and then around 1990 they became really quite wild. The Array confirms that overall pattern but with some adjustments. Now the translator Hermann Motschach, in the 1990s, turns out to be right at the top of the scale, or to put it another way, his version is wildly wilful in almost every line. There is no public information at all about Hermann Motschach, except that he has translated almost all of Shakespeare’s plays and his scripts are used quite a lot by German theatres. Needs studying!

I found out a lot of interesting things when I researched the short descriptions I wrote for each translation. The stories behind them tell the 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century history of Germany and Austria. Check out Bab/Levy and Zeynek, for instance.

More broadly, I keep finding out about more and more examples of multiple translations, sometimes quite astonishing, all grist to the Arrays mill of the future. For example, Project Yao is a database of American fiction in Chinese, co-created by Joe Lockard, who tells me that some canonical novels such as Call of the Wild, published in 3 or 4 translations until about 1990, have since been published in up to 40 translations: that’s different translations, not re-editions. The sheer volume of versions of Shakespeare is crazy, too…

Q: What have you enjoyed the most about this project? And the least? A: The worst thing is that now that we’ve created this site with its array of Othellos, I have no time to use it for research, to explore the texts and find out how they vary and what that might correlate with. (Do translators translate Othello’s part more differently than other parts? is one question raised by what I’ve been able to do so far.) The priority now is to get more funding. When I’m not teaching, preparing teaching, or writing for you, BJ, I’m working on the next grant proposal.

There are many good things. Working with my collaborators. The delight of Jan Rybicki at seeing the platform: as soon as it was launched he started using it to work on his English-Polish novels corpus. The sense of exciting new horizons. What we have is a proof of concept prototype which just demonstrates the potential in a small way. This could become a big deal, not just for translation studies, comparative studies, language studies, cross-cultural studies, but beyond ‘studies’: for public understanding of translation and language, and for creative translation practice. If you’re doing a new translation/adaptation of a classic, and 300 versions are explorable online, in umpteen languages, with interpretative tools and a global social network around them, then of course you can ignore that. But you have some interesting new options too. 

Thank you so much, Dr Cheesman! And good luck with Delighted Beauty!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nobel Prize in Literature

This year’s Nobel Prize in literature goes to Mo Yan.

What do you think? I must confess I'd never heard of this author!

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Guest Post: Online Universities and Resources Look to Increase Bilingualism Around the World

Learning a language is a very valuable skill in a globalizing and increasingly competitive economy; however as this post discusses, it is something few Americans have managed to do. As technology improves, online language classes are becoming a viable option for people to use when learning a new language. Brave New Words visited the issue of a lack or language training in the United States in a guest article about 5 years ago. But since then, many more options have become available through the Internet for Americans who wish to learn a second language, as Jennifer Jenkins writes below. Jennifer is well-versed in all issues related to technology and online learning. Frequently, she contributes to, a resource for students who are considering attending school online.

Despite the need for bilingualism within our globalized society, most Americans only speak one language. Today, many US citizens are turning to web-based resources in order to learn another language – and many experts agree that these measures are highly effective.

According to a Gallup survey, roughly three-quarters of Americans believe that English fluency should be compulsory for US immigrants. However, the poll also revealed that only one quarter of the population could hold a conversation in a language other than English; the majority (55 percent) spoke Spanish, followed by European languages like French (17 percent) and German (10 percent). Rates of bilingualism did seem to increase with education; while one-fifth of high school graduates are bilingual, the percentage rose for college students (25 percent), college graduates (33 percent) and those with postgraduate degrees (43 percent). However, nearly 70 percent of all Americans believe that bilingualism is either essential or valuable in today’s job market.

According to a March 2012 article in The New York Times, employment opportunities are merely one of the benefits of bilingualism. Recent studies indicate that learning another language improves mental and cognitive skills – and may even ward off dementia and other conditions that come with age. Additionally, those who speak two or more languages are also more aware of their surroundings, says Spanish researcher Albert Costa. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” he noted. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” There are also social benefits, due to the diverse social fabric in this country. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of children (ages 5-17) who spoke a second language at home rose from 10 percent in 1980 to 21 percent in 2009. In the coming years, bilingualism will play a major role in the way Americans communicate with one another.

The solution to improving widespread bi- and multilingualism may lie with the Internet, writes Eric A. Taub of NYT. As connectivity has risen on a global level and the advent of social media has essentially brought the world together, many companies have unveiled language programs for the masses. Breaking away from traditional curricula, these programs utilize interactive media, social networking and other unconventional tools to teach new language fluency. Many of these programs are free, though experts note that even the most expensive ones are far less costly than college tuition. And while brick-and-mortar courses typically require a substantial time commitment from students, e-courses allow learners to acquire language skills at their convenience.

The most popular electronic language program in recent years has been Rosetta Stone. For $1,000, students receive structured lessons, live video chats with native speakers and access to a web-based discussion forum; Rosetta Stone currently offers 30 language programs. TellMeMore is another popular online program. For an annual fee of $390, users can access extensive glossaries, communicate with native speakers via video and complete practice exercises for up to six different languages. Less expensive options include LiveMocha, which offers free lessons and charges a small fee for live tutorials with native speakers, and Babbel, which offers free trial lessons in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian, followed by a fee of $12 per month. Free programs include BBC Languages, which features audio and video media for more than 30 languages, and Busuu, an interactive course that utilizes online communities. Finally, smartphone apps are available from Lonely Planet Phrasebooks, Oxford Translator Travel Pro and World Nomad.

For years, Americans have earned a negative reputation among the international community for their low collective levels of bilingualism. Now, thanks to electronic media, US citizens are learning foreign languages at an unprecedented rate. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Guest Post: Translated Fiction Favourites

For myself, the joys of being an avid fan of fiction come not just in reading, but also in discovering books and authors. It may be something that’s new, passed me by before, or come before my time.

Fortunately in this sense, the last decade or so has seen translated fiction widen as an avenue which to explore. My knowledge of the publishing industry is limited to say the least, so I’m not sure whether this is mostly down to a conscious effort on some part or just the way publishing and the literary world has evolved; all I know is that translated fiction accounts for some of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

I obviously only get to greedily enjoy the end product of translated fiction as a monolingual reader (ashamedly, I might add!) who never sees nor would understand the original text. The translation process is never far from my mind when I’m reading, though. A lot of the time the prose flows so naturally that it’s unnoticeable that someone has gone to agonising lengths to capture the essence of the source text. Other times you detect evidence of a translator’s work, which often serves to give the novel a special charm that only a translation can give. Certain words and phrases stand out which you realise must have been derived from words wholly unique to the source language. Take fictional French detective Commissaire Adamsberg for instance, who is frequently referred to as a ‘cloud shoveller’ in the novel listed below. It’s a translated phrase you’ll never hear in the English language, yet it has a unique meaning in French which is described by Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds) and perfectly epitomises Adamsberg’s character. And no, I don’t know what the original French term is!

Below are some of my all-time favourite translated works and some recently published ones well worth a place on your bookshelf or kindle. There is a particular emphasis on the Latin American fiction that has captivated me since first reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Grizzly Scandinavian crime fiction seems to have got the sort of exposure only topped by ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ lately, so doesn’t make the list!

Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez (translated by Frank Wynne)

An absorbing and deeply personal semi-ghost story from Tomas Eloy Martinez, underpinned by the fascist regime in 1970s Argentina. An Argentine woman in exile in the States finds a man in a restaurant identical to her husband presumed killed in conflict thirty previously, and from there unfolds a stunning narrative that proves why Martinez is one of Latin America’s most celebrated literary greats.

The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov (translated by Amanda Love Darragh)

A pessimistic portrayal of a Russia saturated with greed and corruption is all too relevant in these turbulent times for the country. Kurkov intertwines several bizarre storylines, including a man having an affair in his sleep and a cat arisen from the dead, in this compelling combination of black humour and social commentary.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (translated by Lucia Graves)

You’ll be unlikely to question why this tale stemming from young a boy’s discovery of a mysterious volume in a labyrinthine library has sold 15 million copies and counting sold worldwide after reading it for the first time. It has the style and suspense you would expect of an international bestseller, whilst at the same time being thought-provoking and capturing the claustrophobia of Franco-era Spain.

The Blue Hour by Alonso Cueto (translated by Frank Wynne)

A wealthy lawyer serves as the The Blue Hour’s main character, but this is no bland legal thriller. Similar in ways to Purgatory in that the past of a bloody civil war catches up to engulf those in the present, Cueto unlocks the horrors of Peru’s history to a dramatic yet beautiful narrative.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marcia Marquez (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

South American literature shines just as brightly in Colombia, too. This classic from the country’s most acclaimed author isn’t always easy to follow and is one of those novels in which you will notice new subtleties each time you read it that escaped your attentions previously. It’s magical in a way that detracts nothing from the realism of the events that hugely inspired it.

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro (translated by Ian Barnett)

Carlos Gamerro tackles more dark South American themes in a full-on action-packed and at times even hilarious fashion not attempted before, as the protagonist Felix still suffering from the traumatic effects of the Falklands War is drawn into an explosive present-day narrative. Perfect for those who want a thrilling page-turner that doesn’t sacrifice literary prowess.

Death and the Olive Grove by Marco Vichi (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Who would of thought that Italy would eventually come to rival the English in producing classic murder mysteries and detective novels? You know roughly what you’re going to get from detectives like Inspector Montelbano and Inspector Bordelli, the latter of whom on this occasion is tasked with finding the culprit of a series of gruesome murders. Still, it’s a genre that never gets tiresome if delivered with the panache, humour and wit with which Vichi writes.

Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand by Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds)

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series is a refreshingly quirky alternative to so many ultra-slick modern crimes series knocking about these days. The award-winning fifth installment sees Adamsberg forced to clear his own name while a trident-wielding serial killer runs amok – a plot that brings about a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud moments and philosophical musings. 

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

The oldest title on this list and perhaps the most prestigious. The Leopard is the ultimate historical novel, set amidst the turbulence in Sicily during the Rigordimento and navigating themes of class, loyalty and family. The labour and skill that must have gone into producing such a layered and intricate masterpiece – and translating it – is difficult to comprehend.

Robert Davies is Marketing Manager at London Translation Agency.