Out of print in France

There was a sepia tinted article in Le Monde this weekend on the grim fortunes of the French Imprimerie nationale , founded by Richlieu in 1640 and thought to be the oldest traditional printing house in the world with functioning pre digital printing machinery for Western and ‘Oriental’ languages. Now forced to compete for jobs on an open market, maintaining the old machines as well as working to contemporary digital tech standards is becoming far too costly. Will they be able to preserve this national treasure?

Printing along with gunpowder and the compass, was classed by Francis Bacon in the 16th century as what we would call a ‘disruptive’ technology, a word that doesn’t even occur in Shakespeare. Add to that the steam engine and microprocessor, both of which have incidentally been used to drive printing practices in the last century or so. Today, though, printing has become just another display media, and its association with hot and cold type, and the nobility of craft work at the service of communication, will soon need an explanation in a dictionary.


Oddly enough, multilingual printing which we might spontaneously associate in Europe with the Dutch, has long been a minor French specialty. I live a few blocks from one of the shortest streets in Paris – about 5 or 6 meters long with only one doorway and no real number – but named ironically after the Abbé Migne who ran the largest printing house in Europe back in the 1850s during the Catholic renewal, and was responsible for some of the longest published series in Christendom – especially the Patrologia Graeca and Latina. Read about him in Howard R. Bloch’s very critical bio.

His Greek patristic series, for example, contains 168 volumes of dense double columned text, using Latin for the introductions and notes and the Latin translations of Greek texts, and is still found on library shelves, though the full-text database version is handier. The Latin series runs to 217 volumes. He developed a unique printing process whereby each text was proof-read 5 times, including a special ‘accent’ analysis for the non-Latin languages. He was a great believer in access tools and had 49 editors spending 500 man years making the indexes. By 1850s, his work represented 10% of France’s industrial output, with a staff of 300 printers, typesetters, editors and binders working in a Paris suburb. Someone had it in for Migne, though: The whole shebang eventually burnt down.

While we’re at it, Migne was succeeded a generation later by another unsung hero of multilingual technology. In 1910 Abbé René Graffin invented the first photostat machine. It consisted of a camera with a lens fitted with a prism, which would make copies on a role of light-sensitive bromide paper. In fact Graffin was director of the Revue de l’Orient Chrétien and founder of the Patrologia orientalis (in 25 volumes) and the Patrologia syriaca (featuring Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian and Georgian). Hard to find out much about Graffin, but he certainly pioneered the use of photo-copying of documents in his efforts to publish the content of the Levantine manuscript tradition, and even designed the type faces for the printers.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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