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From Nonsense to Nonsense: Translating Graphic Design

By Paulina Duda

Paulina Duda’s translation of Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnowerówna’s “Printing: On Layout” appears in the November 2016 feature of Words without Borders: “Interwar Avant-Garde Poetry.”

Translating a text whose objective is to show the advantage of using one printing layout over another sounds like translating excerpts from a “Graphic Design 101” textbook. Yet Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnowerówna’s piece “Printing: On Layout” is more than just pedagogical advice for aspiring designers and publishers; instead of utilizing forms of “traditional” written communication, the authors have created a constructivist text which communicates its points through a carefully arranged nonsensical stream of letters and visuals. However, since the very core of the text is built around a non-logical chain of letters, how does one translate it into English? Is not the cluster of characters “MEYWHĄHD,” for example, the same nonsense in Polish as it is in English? Shouldn’t I, as a translator, simply copy and paste the identical letters into my English version of the text?

This was my dilemma. What complicated the situation even more was the fact that, for Szczuka and Żarnowerówna, both artists-designers, letters mattered so long as their shape, font, size, and style accurately reflected their point. They too used “traditional” sentences to clarify their points, but these sentences functioned more as commentary on a graphic representation of their message rather than the point itself—quite similar to illustrations or pictures, which for translators often function as side commentaries on the actual language-based communication. In other words, from a designer’s perspective, the meaning that letters may carry is conveyed through means other than words, phrases, or language in general; it is conveyed rather through its physical appearance and arrangement.

From the translator’s point of view, however, usually it is the words and sentences, and not their shape and style, that are the core components of communication. Consequently, each letter (in logical or nonsensical configurations) in itself must carry meaning. But then again, does “MEYWHĄHD” (Fig. 1, below) signify something different in Polish than it does in English? Is this simply not the nonsensical lingua franca? How do I know that what to me seems nonsensical was the same nonsense for the two designers, Szczuka and Żarnowerówna?

Fig. 1. Polish original: On the left side we see the graphic visualization of the boring, old-style, monotonous layout. The three lines at the bottom form a chain of nonsensical letters.

Fig. 2. English translation: The last three lines on the left form a seemingly nonsensical string of letters. However, they consist of a list of words that all mean “boring” in different languages. 

There was only one solution: to upgrade the nonsensical stream of letters from the Polish original into a stream of letters that would look equally nonsensical in English—but to do so in a way that would stay in line with the intention of the authors-designers, i.e., in the way that privileges the graphic message of their text. Thus, “MEYWHĄHD” became “ELCSÉPELT,” (Fig. 2, above) something that seems like yet another senseless cluster of words. But that was my trick as, in fact, “ELCSÉPELT” means “banal,” but . . . in Hungarian! I decided to arrange the streams of letters from the Polish version into streams of letters that form words in other languages. Importantly, these lists of foreign words corresponded with the visual message of the text. For example, in the section where the authors visually criticized the old-fashioned and dull layout, I used a list of foreign words that translate into English as “boring.” 

The idea behind my decision was that words we do not recognize in other languages, especially those containing signs foreign to English—such as “ś,” “ä,” and “ý”—are the same nonsense as “MEYWHĄHD.” Also, I thought it would be a nice Where’s Waldo? kind of game for those who speak many languages and will eagerly skim the text in search of familiar words.    

View the full version of “Printing: On Layout”

Published Dec 2, 2016   Copyright 2016 Paulina Duda

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