Robert Bringhurst and Arabic Typography
Robert Bringhurst is a celebrated typographer, author and poet. He is
the author of one of the fundamental works on typography, The Elements
of Typographic Style, and recently typeset, using Tasmeem, a bilingual
Arabic and English edition of Ibn Ajiba's تقييدان في وحدة الوجود Two
Treatises on the Oneness of Human Existence.
We at WinSoft International are delighted that he was able to take
the time to answer our questions on Arabic typography, design and other
elements of his work.
|1. Why did you choose Tasmeem for your work on this project?
There is nothing else in existence that would do the job. It’s as simple as that.
2. What are the main skills involved in the creation of a well-laid-out text in Arabic?
In many respects, the requirements for good typography in Arabic are the same as in Latin or English or French. The type must be neither too big nor too small; the lines must be neither too long nor too short; the space between the lines must be adequate; the margins mustn’t cramp the text; the style of the letterforms mustn’t contradict the style of the sentences – and so on. In other words, the written or printed text has to have some civil grace; it has to show respect for the writer, the text, and the reader. This is true in every script, in every language.
But there is a word you have surely heard occidentals use when they speak
about the Orient. The word is flowery. By modern occidental standards, many
things in the Orient seem unusually elaborate and ornate. Those same
occidentals would find a lot of their own past equally flowery if they paid it any
attention, but often they don’t; they notice the oriental past instead.
By modern standards – modern oriental as well as occidental standards – all the classical Arabic scripts have a very high aptitude for variation and ornamentation. That’s a quintessential difference between ruq‘, a modern script, and naskh or other classical scripts.
The really elaborate European scripts – chancery Greek, for example – have mostly fallen out of use, but in Arabic and Persian, and even in Turkish, the classical scripts are still an essential part of civilized life.
So a difficult question arises. That question is, How much ornamentation shall we have? How much flower, and how much seedpod, leaf, and stem?
There’s a great movement underway now to make Arabic script as simple as modern Latin and Greek script. That’s quite fine for many purposes, but it leaves the classical literature out in the cold.
The same problem would arise in
Western European languages if we had no type except Univers and Helvetica.
Are you going to set the poems of Michelangelo or Ronsard, or the essays of
Montaigne, or Shakespeare’s plays, in Univers or Helvetica? Not a good idea.
The past is a foreign country – a very important one. We need very good diplomatic relations with the past. How do we manage that? Through the usual diplomatic means: that is, through attention and compromise. The typography used for old texts, if it’s successful, is almost always a compromise between the needs of the present and those of the past, but it isn’t just any old compromise. It’s based on paying close attention to both.
When we edit and typeset works of the European Renaissance or Baroque, we meet them part way. When we edit and typeset works of classical Arabic, Persian, or Turkish literature, we need to do the same. We need to pay real attention to both the present and the past, and keep them talking to each other.
Tasmeem is a wonderful tool for this kind of work. It’s based on a very close and careful study of classical script. At the same time, it’s a modern tool – an extremely sophisticated piece of applied analysis. It’s a wonderful object lesson, in fact, in humane, intelligent digital engineering. And it’s not made for dummies. It leaves the typesetter free to decide just how much or little ornamentation there will be in each line of text, and where the ornamentation will go.
So for people who like to think while they work, it can be very satisfying to use.
3. Where does your passion for Arabic typographic works come from?
|I began the study of Arabic almost 50 years ago, when I was 16 – and the
script was one of the things that attracted me to the language.
The script is complex, but not nearly so complex as the language, so I learned the script quite well in a short time – long before I could read a normal text or carry on a conversation.
In their first language, almost everybody does this the other way around: they learn to speak and understand before they learn to write and read. Many people learn a second or third language that way too. But I had a curious experience as a child. My mother taught me to write almost as soon as I learned to talk. I learned to write before I learned to read.
Scripts have fascinated me ever since, but I’m not a great calligrapher. So whatever the script, for me typography is usually the answer.
4. How do you see the introduction of computer assistance in the creation of Arabic typography?
Foundry type was always a problem in Arabic. It took a long time to develop. In its better forms, it was so complex that very few people ever learned to handle it well. In most forms, it was simply a failure.
Machine-set Arabic (Linotype Arabic, for example) came at the price of radical simplification and westernization. For some modern texts, this was quite alright, but it placed a typographic wall between the present and the past. This made the present rather small and cramped. Most digital Arabics, like most digital faces in the Latin alphabet, come straight from the hot-metal machines, and they have the same limitations.
Tasmeem takes a different approach. It doesn’t try to tame Arabic script to fit the limitations of Western European machines. It approaches typography as digital calligraphy – and with Arabic, that is a very productive approach. It restores diplomatic relations between the present and the past – something we need if we are going to have a future.