marcel barang

Digital(ien) days

In English on 01/11/2010 at 9:58 pm


These days, I’m learning a fourth language, the new Esperanto: digital – and feeling alien.

No, I’m joking: in order to singlehandedly widen the reach of Thai fiction in the universe, given that the powers that be don’t seem much motivated to do so, I’ve decided to master the manufacturing of epub (short for electronic publication) formatted text legible on screens of all sizes from Managua and Tamamraset to outer space because the future, alas, is there.
Turning my doc-formatted translations into impeccable pdf e-books is done at the touch of a button (plus plus), but pdf-formatted texts don’t stretch; epub-formatted texts do. As do html documents that only require a couple of clicks to be made out of Word doc documents. But, surprisingly, epub formatting is a different ballgame altogether. The science is in its infancy.
To begin with, epub formatting looks passably good in this here blog, would do for a 1950s draft but doesn’t for a book.
The crude version consists of crowded lines of different lengths, no first line indent, huge spaces between paragraphs, pictures either left or right when they don’t come out all stuck together instead of where you put them: mayhem. To turn that rough version into a sophisticated one is when birth pains start.
Epubs can be generated from just about anything, from txt or doc to pdf, html or even epub material, depending on the software you use. There are several free programs available on the net and, in my experience, either they produce lousy results (Calibre) or they turn out to be wonderful but proprietary (Issuu and the like) or they are faulty (ePub Maker) or damn unwieldy (Sigil).

I first tried Calibre.
It’s easy. Click on ‘Add books’ and feed the fellow a written document, such as a formatted book’s worth of Word doc text, say, Behind the picture by Seeboorapha; click on ‘Edit metadata’ and fill in the form; click on ‘Convert books’ and choose among a few options (one nice one is no extra space between paragraphs, another, first line indent); the ‘Jobs’ wheel runs for a few seconds and presto, here is your book as one line on the Library screen: ‘1 – Behind the picture, SEEBOORAPHA, 25 Oct 2010, etc’. Highlight that line, then click on ‘View’. A reader screen comes up and that’s when you have to give a forced laugh: if that’s an e-book, better stick to paper or pdf.
The program gives you two options: ‘Save to disk’ (you can thus use the book elsewhere) or ‘Connect/share’ it, in which case everybody can read it on screen or print it out, free of charge.
No thanks, although I must say I’ve been tempted to use bits of Four Reigns and Thutiyawiseit as raw material and, by deliberate mistake, press ‘Connect’ – but that would be bad form, would it not?

Next I tried ePub Maker 1.2.
Once you’ve mastered the half dozen do’s and don’ts, production of an epub is lightning fast: all options have been taken care of for you, or so it seems, whether you feed it with a Word doc or a Web Page document, but there are glitches, marring an otherwise acceptable end-product. The Word doc feed mode produces epubs without a table of contents. This is fine for short, one-piece texts, but for even a 10 000 words short story with chapter headings, such as ‘A tale without a name’ by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, it would prevent readers from jumping from chapter to chapter. Also, the presence of footnotes has been overlooked: they not only appear wherever they happened to be at the foot of doc pages but garble the relevant paragraph. The poor man’s solution is to place them, in the doc text, at the bottom of said paragraph… Endnotes then? Forget it; the links don’t work. I have yet to figure out how they fare in Web Page mode.
And then there’s a catch: to publish ePub Maker’s epubs, you have to buy the program.

The latest wonder, out last month in its present form, is the quaintly named Sigil freeware.
It produces reasonably good-looking e-books, from html stock, on the basis of ‘what you see is what you get’ also used by Dreamweaver: a mixture of actual text view and underlying code. This is where I’ve tiptoed into the digital world, trying to learn the basics of xhtml code tweaking, but when the instructions provided are wrong … I haven’t the basic knowledge to know where to find the right answer in the various tuitions available on the net.
What this has meant has been entire days wasted formatting and reformatting entire books in this or that mode to feed the various systems – turning a single package into as many folders as there as chapters does take some time and its toll on the man – only to empty the trashcan every night, except for two or three ‘almost’ good epub booklets.
Oh yes, I know about <p> and </p>, and <span> and </span> too, or that #666633 is a colour I like, and by observation how to modify some code bits from one paragraph to the next, but these rudiments of music theory won’t allow me to write symphonies any time soon, and I’d rather spend the rest of my days doing what I do best: translating literary Thai.

But I’m loath to give up just yet. I’ve got a clever-monkey idea: what if I sent a code-proficient wizard a Sigil formatted book of mine and he or she would return it corrected? I could then compare the codes of the two versions, know where I erred and use the ‘perfect’ version as a model: after all, a <p> is a <p>, however many there are, and however packaged…
Any takers out there?

  1. The idea of communication is precisely that it must be universal and thereby include all of us. There are a large number of e-book file formats. They look good when they look good. However, they don’t look any better than PDF which simply everyone can read and use.

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