“Without imposing too much self-will”

Maxim Zhukov's picture

This often-quoted Mardersteig’s motto is quite well known. But when you try to “look it up”, it always comes up in English… Below is a clipping from The New Yorker (Vol. XLVI, No. 21; July 11, 1970, p. 47). Does any of you guys know what it sounds like in the original German? What is its actual source? That “short autobiographical sketch” referred to by Winthrop Sargeant? What was its title? When was it printed?

John Hudson's picture

It is very frustrating trying to find bibliographical information for any Stamperia Valdonega publications: almost all attention is directed to the more prestigious hand press operation of the Officina Bodoni.

There is a 1992 Grolier Club exhibition catalogue, celebrating the centenary of Mardersteig's birth, which might contain the information you seek. The exhibition included books from both presses. The full title is The Officina Bodoni & the Stamperia Valdonega : an exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Mardersteig.

eliason's picture

I wonder if it's this:
Ein Leben den Büchern gewidmet
Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. ; Stamperia Valdonega.
Mainz : Verlag der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft, Stamperia Valdonega, 1968
Kleiner Druck Nr. 84 der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft

A local library has a copy so I've ordered it; I should be able to post the original German in a few days (if I'm right that this book is the source).

nicolacaleffi's picture

Maxim,

Mardersteig's "Credo" statement from 1929 reads very different in Italian and German, if compared to that "New Yorker"'s 1970 quotation. Here it is in Italian:

"Cinque sono gli elementi del libro, ossia testo, carattere, inchiostro carta e legatura. Comporre con questi cinque elementi un tutto coerente e plausibile, non sottoposto alla moda, il cui pregio sia stabile e sciolto dal tempo; comporne delle opere affrancate, per quanto può esser dato a opere fatte da uomini, dagli influssi del capriccio e del caso, e degne dell’alto retaggio di cui siamo depositari e responsabili: questa è la nostra ambizione". (as quoted in Antonio Cavedoni's site: http://cavedoni.com/2007/02/credo)

And in German:

"Ein Buch besteht aus fünf Elementen, das sind Text, Schrift, Druckfarbe, Papier, und Einband. Aus diesen Elementen eine Einheit zu schaffen, die selbstverständlich überzeugt, die nicht einer Modeströmung dient, sondern zeitlosen Wert anstrebt, das ist unser Wunsch. Vom Zufall und Laune frei, soweit dies menschliche Bedingtheit vermag, kennen diese Werke nur das Ziel, sich würdig in das hohe Erbe einzufügen, das uns in Hand und Verantwortung gegeben wird". (from Wikipedia)

Another authoritative Italian source, by the way, is more similar to your quotation; it is taken from Il Polifilo publishing house site, who has edited a great Mardersteig book: http://www.ilpolifilo.it/storia_txt4.php, and it goes like this:

Per prima cosa servi l'autore,
cerca la soluzione migliore
per rendere comprensibile il testo.
In secondo luogo servi il lettore,
rendigli la lettura piacevole e facile.
In terzo luogo dai a tutto una veste attraente senza essere troppo eccentrico.

My translation:

First serve the author,
find the best solution
to make the text understandable.
Secondly serve the reader,
make his reading experience pleasing and easy.
Thirdly give the whole a charming look without being too eccentric.

Hope this helps.

quadibloc's picture

The German text appears to be something else that Mardersteig said, not the quotation being sought. It begins: "A book consists of five elements: the text, the typeface, the ink, the paper, and the binding".

EDIT: Ah, here we are. First, find the German word for self-will in Google Translate, then search for it together with Mardersteig -

Als erstes diene dem Autor, suche die beste Lösung für die Wirkung seines Themas. Als zweites diene dem Leser, mache ihm die Lektüre so angenehm und leicht wie möglich. Als drittes gib dem Ganzen ein anziehendes Gewand, ohne zu eigenwillig zu sein.

Maxim Zhukov's picture

Thank you for the search tip, John. Yes, this version is posted on Zeit Online Web page (»Wunderwerke der Druckkunst«). Now all there’s left to do is to find out the source (the publication title and the date) of this quote. I look forward to hearing from you, Craig.

eliason's picture

Indeed the book I mentioned appears to be the source. It ends (on p. 23) thus:

Manchmal werde ich von jungen Kollegen aufgesucht und um Rat gefragt, dann pflege ich zu antworten, daß ihr Arbeitsprinzip sein sollte: Das Alte verständnisvoll zu pflegen und das Neue liebevoll zu fördern. Und wenn die Frage lautet, wie sich ein Drucker zu einem ihm anvertrauten Buche verhalten soll, antworte ich:

Als erstes diene dem Autor, suche die beste
Lösung für die Wirkung seines Themas.

Als zweites diene dem Leser, mache ihm die
Lektüre so angenehm und leicht wie möglich.

Als drittes gib dem Ganzen ein anziehendes
Gewand, ohne zu eigenwillig zu sein.

Juni 1968 Giovanni Mardersteig

eliason's picture

Oh, and the booklet's preliminary material says this was an "Ansprache gehalten anläßlich der Verleihung des Gutenberg-Preises der Stadt Mainz und der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft in Mainz am 23. Juni 1968."

Maxim Zhukov's picture

Thank you Craig. So then, should the credit look like this?

Giovanni Mardersteig. Ein Leben den Büchern gewidmet. Ansprache gehalten anläßlich der Verleihung des Gutenberg-Preises der Stadt Mainz und der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft in Mainz am 23. Juni 1968. Kleiner Druck Nr. 84 der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Mainz: Verlag der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft, 1968, p. 23.

Are you sure the excerpt in question is on page 23? Some references say, the entire booklet is only 22-page long…

William Berkson's picture

My German is poor, but I suspect that your first translation doesn't get it quite right. My dictionary says that "eigenwillig" also means "opinionated". I suspect that the translation of the last sentence that Craig has given us is something like: "Third, to give the whole a garb that is attractive, but not too self-assertive." Perhaps some of our German speaking Typophiles can help us out.

The feeling I get is that he is warning against the temptation to create a design that draws attention to itself, rather than serving the author and the reader.

Queneau's picture

German is not my first language, but I do know it quite well. Indeed I think the passage is quite hard to translate, as the word eigenwillig is a bit ambiguous. My interpretation is that a printer should serve the the book and its reader, in both content and design, without bringing to much of himself into the equation.

"imposing to much self-will" sounds strange to me, an attempt at a faithful translation, but somehow the tone is wrong, more autoritarian than the german original. I think the original does not read like a manifesto, but rather like good advise to fellow printers. This is lost in this translation. I would say that something like "without being too idiosyncratic" or "without being too self-serving" would be a better fit.

EDIT: John, I think your term "self-assertive" is rather on the money, actually

Albert Jan Pool's picture

Hi, German is not my first language either, but I live here since 1987 and two years ago I got a real big english–german dictionary as a birthday present :–). For a translation of eigenwillig it suggests:
– stubborn, obstinate
– unconventional, original
I think Mardersteig rather thought of unconventional, original and would have chosen unconventional, it would perfectly fit William’s suggestion:

The feeling I get is that he is warning against the temptation to create a design that draws attention to itself, rather than serving the author and the reader.

Which also fits Mardersteig’s own ways of doing typography. I think the English translation is a bit unsharp, compared with the German original. That may be a nice thing to do when it comes to prose, but for a quoted statement, I think a translator should try not to obfuscate too much. Here is my version, based on Nicola’s version.

First serve the author,
seek for the best solution to effectively present his theme.

Secondly serve the reader,
make his reading experience as pleasing and easy as possible.

Thirdly give the whole an appealing appearance,
without being too unconventional.

William Berkson's picture

"Unconventional" in English suggests being not innovative. I don't think Mardersteig's problem is with originality, but with the design drawing too much attention to itself. You can have quiet solutions that are also innovative.

Not an issue of translation, but there are settings, such as some magazines and much of advertising where showy design is appropriate. Stefan Sagemeister entitled a book Made You Look, which is probably what Mardersteig is recommending against.

Albert Jan Pool's picture

"Unconventional" in English suggests being not innovative. I don't think Mardersteig's problem is with originality, but with the design drawing too much attention to itself. You can have quiet solutions that are also innovative.

Didn’t you want to say “‘Conventional’ in English suggests being not innovative?” That would be how I understand it. What would be a correct English translation then? But on the other hand: Mardersteig wrote ‘zu eigenwillig’, so one may be ‘eigenwillig’ or ‘unconventional’ or even ‘innovative’ but not too much

Stefan Sagemeister entitled a book Made You Look, which is probably what Mardersteig is recommending against.

Yes, I think ‘Mardersteig’ would not have been amused. Also he wasn’t that much into advertising, was he?

Albert Jan Pool's picture

This is strange …

My large dictionary suggests ‘self-will’ to be translated as ‘eigenwillig, eigensinnig’, but the other way round, ‘self-will’ is suggested to be translated as I wrote above:
– stubborn, obstinate
– unconventional, original
Both for ‘eigenwillig’ and ‘eigensinnig’.

My smaller dictionary has some surprises though … at first it suggests ‘eigenwillig’ to be translated as self-will, (the large one did not), obstinate (like the large one), but then also: wilful, headstrong, wayward, wring headed and even (fam.) pig-headed! So yes, he might have been aware of a particular kind of books heading in the direction of ‘Made You Look’ …

quadibloc's picture

Unconventional is different from original, but not opposed to it.

Being original means not copying from others, and that is mandatory for being considered a real type designer as opposed to a type plagiarist.

Being unconventional means not following the regular paradigms that typically govern currently popular type designs. Thus, Futura was unconventional when it came out, and Peignot even more so. Optima was very original, but less unconventional - it was so novel that it was still somewhat unconventional, but it was also a return to the conventions of serif type from sans-serif.

So if one is advising a type designer to keep his impulse towards being idiosyncratic in check, to serve his art humbly, it would be unconventionality and not originality that would be first to be deprecated. But too much striving after originality is not completely exempt.

To be at once more idiomatic and literal in the translation, I might suggest:

In the first place, serve the author by seeking the best form for the expression of his ideas.

In the second place, serve the reader by making reading as enjoyable and facile as you can.

And, thirdly, make the work a thing of beauty without being self-indulgent.

EDIT: Of course, though, this does fudge the most critical issue in the translation.

ohne means "without";

the construction zu ... zu sein means "too much";

and the main issue is how to translate "eigenwillig".

Self-will is a fine literal translation of the word. But it is very unidiomatic for English. In the context, personal idiosyncracy is clearly enough what is referenced.

If one tries to be more idiomatic, though, one runs the risk of putting one's own theories about type design in the place of those of Mardersteig. Because what would be natural, in English, to insert at this point is not a characteristic of the designer's personality, but a characteristic of the type itself.

So is it that we shouldn't make type too unconventional, or avoid too much ornamentation, or avoid striving for the obviously novel?

This is why there are limits to how good a translation can be of this text while remaining faithful.

eliason's picture

Are you sure the excerpt in question is on page 23? Some references say, the entire booklet is only 22-page long…

I've seen that in references too and I'm not sure how that discrepancy arose, but I can verify the quotation appeared on the page numbered 23 in the original edition I consulted.

kentlew's picture

So if one is advising a type designer to keep his impulse towards being idiosyncratic in check, . . .

John: Just to clarify, in this passage Mardersteig was addressing typographic design, not type design per se — i.e., overall page layout and text arrangement, and book design in particular. Obviously, his credo can be applied much more broadly; but when trying to interpret his original meaning, it may be helpful to keep the original context in mind.

quadibloc's picture

Ah. In that case, adding detail probably would be a hopeless task.

Incidentally, note that since indulgence already implies excess, the 'too much' can then be omitted from the translation.

I see, however, that I misjudged the degree of parallel construction in the original German, and so it actually should be:

First, serve the author by seeking the best form for the expression of his ideas. Second, serve the reader by making reading as enjoyable and effortless as you can. Third, make the work a thing of beauty without being self-indulgent.

Also, while "light" has limitations when literally translated, "facile" has potential negative connotations.

William Berkson's picture

I just noticed Albert Jan's mention of 'willful' as a possible translation. That seems to me exactly right, with the ambiguities of the original. The basic problem with the translation that Maxim has a scan of in his post is that "self-willed" isn't, as John notes, idiomatic or even clear English. Willful is a good English word, and has the connotation of being self-indulgent, capricious, stubborn—the kind of things that it seems Mardersteig was warning against. I also like the idea of keeping the image of 'garb' or 'garment' in the German—the metaphor that the designer is creating clothing for the ideas of the author. Another try:

"Third, to dress the whole in a look that is attractive, without being too willful."

Maxim Zhukov's picture

Love this thread.

William Berkson's picture

John's latest translation I think is great, an improvement on Mardersteig, without violating its spirit.

Mine is closer to the original, but why not strengthen the language?

quadibloc's picture

I wasn't trying to improve on Mardersteig; but it is entirely proper that since the original was written, presumably, in natural, idiomatic German, that a translation ought to be in natural, idiomatic English - expressing the same ideas the way they would have been expressed had English been the original language used.

Although I think that preserving the meaning of the original is also very important, and thus I don't agree with everything the author of Le Ton Beau de Marot writes, it's still an interesting book that discusses the issues connected with translation.

dezcom's picture

...without being too unconventional?

The trouble with translation is that language-specific intonation of the subtlety of meaning is almost impossible. Most English translations of operas are just laughable. They also have the problem of exact matching of the rhythm, phrasing, and duration of syllables.

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