Saturday, December 31, 2011

с Новым годом

On copyediting-l (mailing list for copyeditors) a little while ago, a member inquired about an arcane typesetting matter: what is the convention for representing the Russian soft sign in transliterated Russian text?

Now this is not a question that comes up in material for a general audience (such as newspaper readers); the presence or absence of soft signs and hard signs is ignored. But in scholarly work, there is a convention that, depending on the particular style guide in use, the soft sign (ь) is represented by a prime or an apostrophe and the hard sign (ъ) is represented by a double prime or a double quotation mark. I know you don’t care, but stay with me a second (or should that be stay with me a ″?)

It seems to me that this whole system of transliteration is an artifact of the machine age. Before the introduction of linecasting machines (Merganthaler Linotype, Harris Intertype), scholarly works typically included foreign words in their original alphabets, be they Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, or whatever else was under discussion. This was a particularly cumbersome thing to do with a linecasting machine (and not all that much fun with a Monotype machine).

Fast forward 100 years (the Linotype was actually manufactured for just shy of a century, giving way to filmsetters and then to electronic typesetting machines). Then add another few decades, and here we are in the world of Unicode and OpenType.

It’s fine for non-scholarly work to use transliteration, because we can’t assume that the general reader of a novel will necessarily know that с Новым годом means Happy New Year! But if we’re talking about an audience that already knows what a soft sign and a hard sign are and knows the convention of representing them with primes and double primes, then wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to skip the transliteration altogether and just use the Cyrillic?

It is a rhetorical question in the case the list member asked about, because the author already made that decision. Perhaps next year, in ירושלים.

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