Editing Typography (Faulkner)

Further to last week’s post on translating punctuation, here are some thoughts on respecting an author’s punctuation, from a typographer’s point of view — this time via Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, an extraordinary work, of interest to many more than just typographers.

Under a section titled Treat the punctuation as notation, not expression, most of the time, we read :

Now and again the typographer finds on his desk a manuscript in which the exclamation marks and question marks stand six or nine together. Certain words may be written in bold capitals and others may be underlined five times. If the page has been written by hand, the dashes may get longer, and the screamers (exclamations) may get taller as they go. With sufficient equipment and time, the typographer can actually come close to reproducing what he sees; he can even increase its dramatic intensity in any of several ways. Theatrical typography is a genre that flourished throughout most of the twentieth century, yet whose limits are still largely unexplored.

Most writing and typography nevertheless remain contentedly abstract, like a theater script or a musical score. The script of Macbeth does not need to be bloodstained and spattered with tears; it needs to be legible. And the score of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata does not need bolder notes to mark fortissimos nor fractured notes to mark the broken chords. The score is abstract code and not raw gesture. The typeset script or musical score is also a performance in its way — but only of the text. The score is silent so the pianist can play. The script can whisper while the actors roar.

William Faulkner, like most American novelists of his generation, typed his final drafts. Noel Polk, a literary scholar and specialist on Faulkner, has prepared new editions of these novels in recent years. He found that Faulkner usually typed three hyphens for a long dash and four or five dots for an ellipsis, but that once in a while he hammered away at the key, typing hyphens or dots a dozen or more in a row. Polk decided not to try to replicate Faulkner’s keyboard jigs exactly, but he did not want to edit them entirely away. He evolved the rule of converting two, three or four hyphens to an em dash, and five or more hyphens to a two-em dash. Anything up to six dots, he replaced with a standard ellipsis, and he called for seven dots wherever Faulkner had typed seven dots or more.

These are typographic decisions that other editors or typographers might have made in other ways. But the principle underlying them is sound. That principle is: punctuation is cold notation; it is not frustrated speech; it is typographic code.

Faulkner, we can presume, did not resort to bouts of extravagant punctuation because he was unable to express himself in words. He may, however, have been looking for some of the keys that the typewriter just doesn’t have. The typographer’s task is to know the vocabulary and grammar of typography, and to put them to meaningful use on Faulkner’s behalf.

– Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.1, pp. 83-84 (Hartley & Marks, 2005)

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