26 April 2019: It’s Conference Time

What is true for battles is definitely true for conferences: one needs to pick them. When I was a PhD student, I went nerdily wild, and presented at five or six a year all over the world. But with experience and wisdom (jaded, anyone?) I now focus on what’s immediately important for my field, rather than just interesting – though nothing wrong with that if the conference is not expensive, and you can pick it up on the way to the library, as it were, rather than having to fly. Oh, all you London people, we provincials can only envy you.

So, here I am, off on a home visit in Berlin, and a little detour to the German Shakespeare Society Conference in Weimar, the town of Goethe and Schiller, one of my favourite places. As was to be expected, 2019 is all under the sign of inter-culturality and translation, both in Weimar as well as at the British Shakespeare Association conference in Swansea in July. Once again, this year more than ever, poor old Shakespeare has to serve as straw man: European for Remainers, Islander for Leavers, for or against immigration, women, gays, Jews, Blacks – you name the marginalised group or political issue, and he’ll have something to say about it, and it’s going to be what you want it to be. In any case: translation, and I’m presenting on what it means to translate women (and when women translate) across languages, plays, and times.

I’m looking at Ariosto’s 1509 comedy I Suppositi (roughly, The Changelings), George Gascoigne’s 1566 English translation Supposes, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (which uses the Supposes for the Bianca plot), and an anonymous late seventeenth-century German version of the Shrew, called Kunst über alle Künste: Ein bös Weib gut zu machen (An Art beyond all Art: How to make an Evil Wife Good – all translations here my own). Phew, that’s a lot of words to mean this: I’ll compare four plays in Italian, English, and German, and explore how the women are being treated in each of them, in the sense of how do the authors portray them in relation to genre, and the language they write in, what do they omit or add. Is there something lost or acquired in translation?

It’s exciting, and I’ve got lots to say, most of all because I’ve been working on the Shrew since September 2016 when I started my first postdoc at the University of Geneva (more info in the RESEARCH part of my page). We worked on four plays by Shakespeare which had found their way onto the continent via travel troups and in the entourage of diplomats. There are plays in Dutch, German, Danish, Czech and other European languages from pretty soon after Shakespeare’s death – not of an age, and not of one place either!

There are bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s plays in German here and there (e.g. the Pyramus and Thisbe inlet translated by Alexander Gryphius); we have given attention to those four which are extant in substantial ways, that is, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew, the play I worked on. Check out the website of the project here: https://www.unige.ch/emgs/

What we did is re-translate the plays into English since they are substantially different (all of them in prose, for one!), give them annotations that explain the German and compare the Shakespearean original, a bibliographical apparatus collating German editions, and an introduction on both the play itself, and the historical background of the travelling players in German countries at the time. It’s gonna be yuge, and it’s going to be published with Arden Bloomsbury. We hope to bring attention to the very early reception of Shakespeare in Germany and the continent in general, and to spark lots of cross-linguistic cooperation.

And now, for some late-minute paper preparation. Conference reporting to be continued tomorrow…

11 April 2019: Of Faces and Fonts

I gave a paper yesterday at Geneva University where I did a postdoc on Shakespeare in seventeenth-century Germany. I spoke about the history of punctuation, how people invented signs such as the semi-colon and of course my brackets in the fifteenth century, what the prescriptions and descriptions of use were, followed by some literary explorations. That’s all stuff I had worked on before. But in the course of preparing this paper, I became interested in typography. The more I read, the more I started to doubt that I know what it is (the arrangement of words on paper? Space? Decorations, signatures, typeface, size of text, extra-linguistic signs like punctuation? All of it, I guess, and more.). But what I did realize was that it’s devicive and able to ruffle quite a few feathers. There are some people out there who get very very upset about how far up  or down a descender or ascender is allowed to go. And although I don’t count myself amongst these, I do see their point: there’s no such thing as innocent typography.

Take Comic Sans. Unfortunately, my interface won’t allow me to change the typeface, but we all know them. Those cute curly Donald Duck shapes. There’s something about Comic which makes us not really buy into what the sentence says. Maybe it’s the literal connection to comics, and the name. But maybe there’s also something about the shape of the letters themselves that our brain stumbles over and distrusts. Too curvy? Too goofy somehow? But anyway, if you still think Comic Sans is perfectly fine to carry the most world-changing news, you’re in good company. The physics nerds at CERN regularly use it for ground-breaking discoveries like the announcement of the Higgs bosun. More here.

If you want to evoke seriousness and credibility, though, you’d fare better with Baskerville, as described in this NY Times public experiment.

There’s an infinite number of stuff out there on typefaces. The famous typographer (and self-confessed obsessed madman) Erik Spiekermann, for example, has a go at poor old Helvetica, attacking its uniformity which may be good for Swiss bankers (it’s inextricably linked to the rise of corporateness), but is not, apparently, very beautiful.

Or take Futura and its clean airy capitals, how it’s been used by NASA in the 1960s when it was setting trends for, exactly, the future.

Typefaces, I guess, comes with the double bind of cultural associations and natural visual implications: does it have serifs as in Courier New, making it that bit harder to read? What’s the spacing between the letters, condensed as in Calibri, or uniform like Arial? The (unanswerable?) question is, of course, do we invent a certain typeface to fit a cultural programme, or does a new typeface arrive and gets hijacked, as it were, by uses and ideologies. Or both at the same time? Are typefaces born out of a certain zeitgeist, while feeding back into the same?

I have to say, I do like my Garamond, and I am always delighted to read a text using it, too. It’s so easy on the eye, but perhaps that’s just because it looks Renaissance-y to me, so is cosy and familiar.

In any case, the early centuries after the invention of the printing press witness a similar struggle of typeface, notably between the native blackletter and the ancient roman. As in the debates today, it was all about legibility, but also about associations to supposed medieval vernaculars printed in the former, and the new fancy urban humanist thought in the latter. Eventually, but only after a very long while of blackletter resistance, roman won. We’ve been living in new roman times, more or less, for two hundred years now. Ad fontes.

Which nicely circles back to my title: fonts and faces, faces and fonts. No, they’re not the same. A typeface is the general genera, as it were. Like Lucinda, Georgia, and Co. And fonts, they are the different kinds of the same typeface. Like children who all look different yet share the essential gene pool of parents. Such as ‘Gentium Book Basic’ of ‘Gentium’ in general. Or ‘Bahnschrift Semi Bold Semi Conden.’ Or this: ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh Allan Glen’. The longest font name to date. Apparently.

Here is a great video for the difference between typeface and font. What a cool guy. There are also lots of TED talks on typography, some of them given by bright young women. Typography is for everyone, it seems!

7 April 2019: You have a Point: Typography and Punctuation in Early Modern Texts

It’s conference time! One can never start too early. For the SRS 2020 in Norwich, I’m proposing a panel on those marks on pages which are not words (working title above!). I posted a call for papers on Twitter a couple of days ago, and would you know it, for once that thing did its networking magic, and three wonderful early career colleagues replied.

Esther Osorio Whewell from Cambridge works on curly brackets and their affect and effect on cultural practices like devotion and attention in reading. James Misson from Oxford is interested in changes in font and their socio-historical meanings, and my friend and old fellow St Andreian Jamie Cumby, special collections librarian at Perquot Library in the States, is insanely knowledgeable about anything concerning the technical sides of printing, such as type and woodcut and things. She will keep our literary critics’ heads well out of the clouds and in the actual print shop. 

I’m really excited to work with everyone, and learn about their fascinating research. Typography/punctuation (i.e. form!) in literature is quite a niche kind of interest, so it feels heartening to meet like-minded people. What we now have to do is write our individual abstracts, as well as a proposal for the panel as a whole, and find a chair. Since we’re four, the format might be a bit less traditional, and we might go with four 15 minute papers, rather than three 20 minute ones. I’m keen to break open usual presentation styles and Q&A sessions, and hope, should we be accepted, we can come up with quirky new methods. The future is ours.

Generally when it comes to conferences and academic events, I’d love for there to be more flexibility for people to attend who cannot attend. What about video-conferencing? Skype-talking? Tweeting, sending questions to the chair in real-time, this kind of stuff? Many are the times that I’d have loved to go to a conference, but simply couldn’t because travelling was too expensive, or I didn’t want to take the plane across the Atlantic. As a zero-waste vegan environmentalist, that’s not something I do. So I’m missing out, and it’s a shame. Hopefully, though, from conference to conference, we keep pushing the limits of communication so that scholars with disabilities, caring responsabilities, environmentalists, and financially disadvantaged people can participate in knowledge exchange. Which, after all, should be at the heart of what we’re doing, right? Amen.

3 April 2019: and death i think is no parenthesis

So, my fellowship starts next month, but I’m giving a paper on the project at my old uni in Geneva, and started some research. I’ve done a fair bit of that already, since the brackets were an alternative PhD project, and have been with me for many years now; but it’s alwas nice to return to something you think you know, and look at it through a different lense. So why not completely side-step Renaissance texts for now, and look at poetry that’s much younger, though in various ways quite close to Sidney, Wroth, and Co. And that’s of course the brilliant little masterpieces of e.e.cummings who takes punctuation and prizes it apart like nobody else, turning it inside out and upside down. Literally. Like this one: 

                                                                 l(a

                                                                 le

                                                                 af

                                                                 fa

                                                                 ll

                                                                 s)

                                                                 one

                                                                 l

                                                                 iness

I love how space and form express (and maybe don’t express?) each other, for instance that parallel horizontal ‘l(a/le’, followed by the crossing-over chiasms (‘af/fa’), wrapped in the overall vertical movement of the poem, our eyes as we follow the strangely cut-up letters, and of course the leaf falling. The parenthesis here inserts itself between the two words in a way which could seem violent, but is actually enabling of more and subtle sense, so its quite a gentle interruption. That’s not always the case with brackets, but cumming’s use of them often teases out their protective qualities, their way of keeping in touch with what’s before and after while also offering a safe space for what’s inside them. 

In this poem especially, you realize that you can’t just read through a bracket and pretend it’s not there. It’s so much there, particularly noticeable in the second sign, the one closing the bracket, which makes ‘one’ visible, questioning how it relates to l-one-liness, or even one-liness. 

I greatly enjoyed an article sketching some effects of cumming’s parenthesis such as the creation of intimacy between speaker and addressees within the poem, as indeed with those outside it. Lots of Renaissance uses I’ve already staked out resonate in cumming’s bracketting habits, and it’s heart-warming to realize yet again how close those writers from 400 years ago feel to those of today. It’s all in the form! 

Questions for my own research include: do brackets have general effects that transcend genre and time? What actually are they at all? Words, or signs, or what else might their status be? Can they be interpreted at all? And does it matter to the reading of the poem? Well, I guess it does, though cummings himself reminds us that, behind all his punctuation plays, sense experience is firmly first and not ‘syntax’ which ever only imitates (the title of this blog entry is the last line of the poem ‘since feeling is first’). 

Article: Roy Tartakovsky, ‘E.E.Cummings’ Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device’ in Style Vol.43 (2009), 215-47.