Judging a book by its cover – the book as art and artefact

I have always been fascinated by old books and their tooled and gilded bindings.  Years ago, when I worked at an academic library in Cambridge, a favourite part of my job was to carefully rub a special kind of polish into the leather covers to keep them fed and supple.  I would fetch the key to the climate-controlled, fireproof strong room in which the ‘special’ books were stored, select a volume which looked in need of attention, and get to work with a soft cloth.  As I worked, I would marvel at the intricate designs, and above all at the antiquity of these objects – we held books dating back to less than a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of printing with moveable type, most of them in their original bindings.  Whose hands had touched these covers and turned these pages before me?

Recently I was able to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Entitled Beautiful Books, the exhibition consists of twenty-two books and an accompanying film which show the bookbinding process.  Perhaps counterintuitively for a library, the emphasis is not on the content of the books, but on their bindings.  Created between 1849 and 1993, the books showcase the talents of remarkable bookbinders whose work goes far beyond simply making covers to protect the words within.

Colour photograph of the binding of Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales.
Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim. Binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

For a few years, I subscribed to the Folio Society, and a number of attractively-bound limited edition volumes were added to my bookshelves.  Apart from that, I have had little exposure to modern binding, and this exhibition was therefore quite an eye-opener for me.  As I worked my way around the glass cabinets, a number of themes emerged.

These bindings are works of art, and not just in the way one says of something impressive, ‘wow, that’s a work of art!’  These fine bindings create pictures, images, in way that is reminiscent of textile art.  They use of blocks and lines of colour, gilding, texture, and motifs which respond to the subject of the book, combine to make artworks which stand in their own right.

Stylistically, they are very much of their time.  For example, the binding by Elizabeth Greenhill for Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (1963) put me in mind of a tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and would not have looked out of place scaled up on the wall of a brutalist concrete building on the South Bank in London. 

In many cases, it really is possible to judge the book by its cover, as the binding gives a hint or preview of the contents.  For example, the cover created by Julian Thomas for Houses of Leaves, a translation of the work of fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwylim by Rachel Bromwich, published in 1993, takes its inspiration from the book’s title, and features lines based on the outlines of leaves and the tendrils of foliage which ornament medieval manuscripts.  And with the binding for Across the Straights by Kyffin Williams, Thomas’ collaboration with arguably Wales’ most famous artist results in Williams’ essential simplification of landscape being transferred to the book’s cover.

Colour photograph of the binding of Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales
Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

As a writer, it is a strange experience for me to be looking at books as artefacts as well as texts (or indeed as artefacts instead of texts – with the exhibits contained within glass cases, it is of course not possible to interact with the printed words within).  This has made me muse about the books I own.  Are some of these, too, artefacts rather than just texts?  Do I choose to have them because they symbolise my aspirations to be knowledgeable, cultured, or well-read (whether or not I’ve actually read them)?  Do some of them earn their place on the shelves because of the tactile quality of their bindings, or their attractive cover designs?  There are certainly some books I have bought because I was entranced by their covers, and others where I have been pleasantly surprised when their plain, worthy covers prove, on actually reading the book, to belie the fascinating content.  Book covers matter.

The exhibition Beautiful Books continues at the National Library of Wales until 9 December 2022- more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/exhibitions/beautiful-books

Just upstairs from this exhibition is another, which also caused me to think about the significance of books.  Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of the publication, in 1620, of the translation that became the standard text of the bible in Welsh until the 1980s.  The significance of the Welsh bible goes far beyond religion – as with many languages, the standard translation defined the language, providing a benchmark for written Welsh and a foundation for cultural and literary life to the present day.

Colour photograph of Mary Jones' bible.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society
Mary Jones’ bible. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society

Here, too, I am brought face to face with the book as artefact.  In this case, it is the bible owned by Mary Jones.  Her barefoot journey across North Wales in 1800 to buy her own copy of the bible in her own language has become a story that is told across the world.  This object – dark with use and age – is more than a book.  It connects us to an individual, a real person who held it and turned its pages, and also to a whole history of a language and the people who speak it.  And it tells the story of reading – at that time, Wales had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world thanks to the ‘circulating schools’ pioneered by Griffith Jones and his successors, which would come to a district for a while and teach people of all ages and genders to read, the aim being that they would be able to read the bible for themselves.  Literacy was perceived as what we still know it to be today – the gateway to knowledge and independent learning that can change lives.  Mary Jones’ bible is symbolic of the world of words and ideas that was opened up to her when she learned to read.  There can be few greater gifts than the ability to read.

The exhibition Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) is on until 2 April 2022 – more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/beibl-i-bawb

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In other words – writing, reading and literary translation

I have recently been working on a translation into English of a short story in Dutch.  It’s part of an ongoing project, and I am finding the process fascinating.  As a writer who is also a translator, there are a number of things going on at the same time when I undertake literary translation, and although the temptation is to say that much of it is instinctive, in fact there are layers of practice at work which I find it helpful to analyse and articulate.

Any translation has elements of decoding meaning from the source language (which in my case is Dutch) and encoding it in the target language (in my case, English).  Sound straightforward enough?  Well, not really, because the differences between how languages work, the building blocks that make up meaning – things like word order – mean that it’s not simply a case of grabbing a dictionary and swapping one word for another.  Also, you can’t just translate expressions and idioms literally, because the same idea may be expressed completely differently in the two languages.  For example, iets kennen als zijn broekzak literally translates as ‘knowing something like his trouser pocket’ – which makes no sense whatsoever in English.  The equivalent idiom in English would be ‘knowing something like the back of his hand’.

But what if the meaning of the text is made up, not only of dictionary words, or even idioms and colloquial phrases, but of subtle nuances of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on.  This is most obvious in translating poetry, of course, but any literary text is more than the sum of its words, and my challenge is to extract a sense of those extra layers of meaning and to convey that into English.  It is my job to write the short story in English which the original author would have written if they had been a native speaker of English.

This is, of course, impossible, but the best translations get so close to this ideal that the reader forgets that they are reading a translation.  This is what I am aiming for.  I need to identify and isolate the quirks, style and individual voice of the author and find a way of distilling that into an equivalent voice in English.  If the story reads as if I wrote it, then I’ve failed.

Ironically, I believe that it is the fact that I am a writer which equips me to do literary translation.  Finding my own voice, using all those tools of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on in my own writing, enables me to put that toolbox at the disposal of the author whose words I am translating.  Because I am a writer, I am well-placed to see the workings behind the scenes of the original text, to recognise what the author is doing, and to do what is necessary to create the corresponding effect in English.

It can be a slow process.  This is not like translating an online article about a new archaeological discovery, or even like translating a piece of academic writing.  Those kinds of texts are mainly about conveying the content.  The voice of the original author is rarely the main feature of the translation, and the task is to convey the information in appropriate, equivalent English.  It may take time to do the necessary research to find that appropriate equivalence – especially where there is specialised vocabulary involved – but it is not an especially lengthy process.  With literary translation, by contrast, I need to live with the text for a while before attempting to start translating it.  In the case of this short story, I first read it more than six months ago, and have gone back to it many times since.  I have it read straight through; read it for structure; for style; for vocabulary; for geographically-specific references (the author is Flemish, and the story is set in Antwerp).  I have marked up ‘problems’, passages where it is not immediately apparent how I should translate the text.  One particular phrase occupied me for a long time – in the end I decided to take a risk and move quite a long way from the literal meaning of the original Dutch word in order to create the same shock-value and controversy in English.  Re-reading my translation now, I am really pleased with the ‘solution’ to that particular ‘problem’.

There is a campaign ongoing in the translation and publishing industries at the moment to put ‘translators on the cover’ – in the vast majority of cases, literary translators are not named on the covers of the books they translate, even when these translations go on to win major book  prizes.  Often – in Anglophone markets, anyway – it is hard to know that the book you are reading is a translation.  At best, you might find the translator mentioned on the title page, but usually they will merely get a credit tucked away on the copyright page, which only the most nerdy amongst readers ever actually reads (I do – but I’m an ex-librarian and back in the day, when cataloguing was done manually, this was where you found the information you needed in order to catalogue a book).  If you live in an English-speaking country, you have probably read the work of literary translators without even realising it.  It is my hope that, having read this post, you may seek out the work of literary translators and enjoy the results of the process that I have described.  There is a whole world of books out there, and literary translators are the people who make it possible for you to read them in your own language.

Photograph of part of a page from a Dutch/English dictionary, showing the entries for 'vertalen' (to translate), 'vertaler' (translator) and 'vertaling' (translation).

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com