Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thoughts on translation, Part 2: What IS the original language?

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.  
Scripture in Greek.  

Turning a translation--of poem, prose, or scripture--into calligraphic art gives you the opportunity to fine-tune the words in English. Despite all precautions, text is a man-made approximation, in a human language, of what God said and did.  Scripture is about the God we worship, not an object to be worshipped itself.*  The language is not as important as the thought.   

Much of the Bible has passed through half a dozen other languages on its way to English—Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic to ancient Greek to Latin… 
Scribes also modified the text with contractions, abbreviations, ligatures, and, inevitably, mistakes. Some of these got passed along to the next generation.   

Calligraphy is no longer the only way the Bible gets transmitted, so word variations are now no threat to its continuity.  The scribe is freed up from copying, to focus on creating.  When you design a work of modern letter art using ancient text, you are also entitled to choose which translation you use in the service of clarity and unity.  
* The KJV scholars declared that they "never thought from the beginning that [they] should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, ... but to make a good one better."  They also give their opinion of previous English Bible translations, stating, “…[even] the very meanest translation of the Bible in English containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Thoughts on translation, Part 1: Choosing words for "My Beloved Spoke"

Chapter II: 10 - 13

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.
Over the years, I have enjoyed lettering "My beloved spoke" from Song of Solomon, to give as a wedding gift.  It was my introduction to the depth of Song of Solomon.  Each one came out different, as I reread the poetry, thought about its meaning, and rethought its design.  

But gradually it dawned on me that the words themselves, from the King James translation of 1611, needed redesign too.  For instance, the verse actually started with "My beloved spake."  Readers seemed to stub their toe against that antiquated verb "spake," the 16th-century way to say "spoke."  I crossed my fingers that lightening would not strike me for changing holy words, then updated "spake" along with several other words.  For instance, the voice of the turtle has actually been acknowledged to be the voice of the turtle dove.  More words in Song of Solomon are up for debate, in fact, than in any other book.    

This gave me a new perspective on the whole book of Song of Solomon.  I had given up on trying more of the text from the King James version, because almost every passage seemed to hold an awkward word or phrase that I was sure would make it hard for the reader.  My calligraphy style is strongly modern, not historical, making some of the language  seem even more antiquated; but on the other hand, some of the newer translations seemed to lack eloquence.  I needed both.  The design shown above is my current version, though I intend to find more ways, eventually, to make the meaning clearer through the calligraphy.    

* A note to people whose religion confines them to one particular translation: it's surprising how much of the meaning shines through in any English translation, starting with the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 CE, and continuing right up to last year.  The Song of Solomon is in fact harder to translate accurately than any other book of the Bible, because it has the most hapax legomenon.  We will learn about them later on, but you can begin to look for them.  Meanwhile, please enjoy these translations as art and literature while you remain faithful to your own text.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Helping the reader read

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.
The calligrapher is responsible for helping the reader read.  That includes providing “Start here” directions.  While this passage did not need to be read strictly in order, I did follow common graphic practice by starting with the largest letters, and working from top to bottom.  
Border in Bookhand: a little too easy to read.

PROBLEM When I got to what I thought was the final draft for this design, there was still just too much text to read; equally easy to read in Bookhand, all of it competed for the reader’s attention like a three-ring circus.  It wasn't clear what to look at first.  

Border in Legende; it feels decorative at first.  
I could help my readers by at least making one verse harder to read and setting it partly at 90°, making it more likely to be read last. 

Written in Legende, a 20th-century style evocative of middle Eastern calligraphy, its swashes and flowing ligatures help it look like a decorative border. These letters and the connections between them can be stretched horizontally, letting me lengthen the the lines of text without making the letters bigger.  The blue ink and flowing lines allude to the water, fountains, wells, streams, and springs in the text.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

A letter knows what it wants to do

Finished art, 14" x 17"

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy. 

Original thumbnail
sketch, 2" x 3"
Sometimes the letters themselves tell you how to lay them out.  After a few drafts with these four rose stems, it became clear that I should just arrange the lines of letters to enable the greatest number of ascenders and descenders express themselves as leaves and thorns. 
By letting the ascender of d opt to follow the 
Celtic style, I introduced a natural curve that
 looked more like the way a leaf grows from a stem. 

Two different Y swashes.  
Even the citation can resemble a leaf.  
The details shown here differ a little because I rendered this whole design twice.  It's almost impossible for calligraphers to copy a design slavishly--the pen just has too many ideas to try out.   

Monday, July 31, 2017

Colors paints the scene

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.

Modern calligraphers can choose from a rainbow of vivid, permanent, reliable, and inexpensive ink for their designs. 
It's tempting to indulge in color as simple eye candy, to catch and please the reader with a bright blue greeting, red curlicues around a capital, or multicolor swashes around a black stroke.  But color can say so much more.  Color can set the scene, evoke a voice, tell a story.  While you work on the layout of any quotation, try out colors that enhance its meaning.  

Detail from post above.  Plan carefully, masking 
off areas with a post-it note, to place the color changes 
where you intend them. For exact boundaries, change 
color between separate letter strokes.  It's simpler to 
just fill two pens with different inks and alternate them.   

The blocks of text in the previous post, from Song of Solomon IV: 12 - 15, are meant to look like hedges that wall off an enclosed garden, making it almost a labyrinth.  The outer letters are written in the brown tone of sticks and dry sand.  The inner letters are the blue of the scripture's "living water" and the green of growing leaves. Each letter o of the top paragraph is filled in with orange to suggest a pomegranate.  

Medieval scribes had only a few colors that would flow through their pen and endure on the page, and different expectations to meet.  They marked saints' days in red, for example, by long-established custom, not for artistic effect.  You have a wide palette available to help you intensify, with colored ink, any ideas that your text suggests.  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Include it out

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy. 
Too many words dilute the effect.
In scripture, as in all great literature, every word counts.  But some words count more than others.  While I was drafting and redrafting this design, I tried to read it through the eyes of the readers, to determine what they would see first.  A work of art has to first answer, what is this about?  This text is about being enclosed.  So I repeated the verse's first words, "A GARDEN ENCLOSED...IS MY BELOVED" in medium-large letters as a headline, and used them to bracket the blocks of text that surround the inmost roundel, itself an inward-curving leafy enclosure.  
Fewer words strengthen the meaning.

But a day later, I knew my design had not quite arrived. Nothing was missing; quite the opposite; I actually needed only half of the headline. By trimming it to read "A GARDEN ... ENCLOSED," I let it pique the readers' curiosity, motivating them to continue reading and complete the thought. Plus it allowed me to make those headline letters larger, so they could be read from further away.  

As a design evolves, often the key step is to subtract something, not add something. Robert Louis Stevenson said it; "There is but one art, to omit! ...[one] who knows how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper."  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thou art

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.

Detail from "O my Dove"
This design, shown below, plays a visual pun on the headline.  I've always thought that a furled lily looked like a sleeping dove, and here was the chance to use it in both roles.  

About translation:        Many people consider the 1612 King James Version their authority for poetic scripture.  Others enjoy reading more contemporary interpretations such as the Revised Standard Version from 1948.   The texts that I have consulted for my calligraphy series actually range from as long ago as the 1382 Wycliffe Bible and as recent as the 1996 Bloch translation. 

This passage started out so eloquently-- "O my dove, that art in the cleft of the rock"--that changing the verb to either "are" or "is" seemed clunky.  To sustain this lyrical mood, I chose to keep the archaic "thy" rather than use the more prosaic "your."  When you can't decide such questions, read the words aloud; then listen to what your inner ear tells you.