While the art of translation itself requires interpretation, there is something universal in typography. The way the bowls curve and the swashes reach out like vines. How the stems rise up above the crowd of lowercase shoulders and counters. The balance of weight, strokes, swelling, and slimming like old rivers. These features, no matter the language they are used to convey, are compelling on their own.
Yet, there are very few must-read treatises on typography that are widely available in multiple languages. Expertise in both translation and design is a rare combination — presenting a language services provider (LSP) with significant challenges. Perhaps the biggest impediment to translating these works is their niche. Understanding the field and the idiomatic world of the professionals in it is essential, not to mention a profound grasp of languages and the world of design more broadly.
The labor and resources necessary to do a work justice are considerable, even for the simplest works. But when you introduce multiple conceptual layers and specialist terminology, translation becomes a much riskier endeavor. And what’s worse — the tolerance for mistakes is low. A manual on typographic style that can’t be relied on? It’s not much of a manual at all.
The following three translated editions have risen to these challenges:
- Typography by Otl Aicher: This significant achievement develops views on typography that draw from a wide range of disciplines (everything from philosophy to art) to produce founding principles for the field.
- Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann: This seminal book is widely available in a hybrid German and English edition, making it perhaps the most direct example one could mention. The book has proven influential for generations, helping to shape the workflow of designers in any number of specialties.
- The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst: Often referred to as the “typographer’s bible,” this book attempted to become the Strunk and White of its field — and succeeded. It has received continual updates since its release in 1992. As a curious aside, before this success, Bringhurst himself was a known translator of poetry.
High-quality translation in the fields of art and design requires a unique set of in-house skills. To capture the material well, expertise in the field is as essential as an understanding of the source and target languages. The three editions mentioned above demonstrate that a well-translated work can rise to become one of the few great translations of typographic treatises.