Bring back footnotes

As languagehat notes, the Murty Classical Library of India has published its first five books. The MCLI has a whole page about design and typography, and indeed the pages are clean and beautiful. But I am writing this post to argue that some of that beauty comes at the expense of function. Specifically, I think they should use footnotes instead of endnotes.

Check out the sample page spread for Charles Hallisey's translation of the Therīgāthā. It's beautiful, and I can confirm that it looks even better in person. So crisp! So clean! And yet...

Look at the Pali text on the left. Note 1 observes that verse 19 is the same as verse 82 later in the book. Note 2 reports that the Pali Text Society edition of the text has the variant reading "jentī" for "jentā". And so on. This is useful information — but is it really best hidden away on page 243 at the end of the book? Wouldn't it be easier to grasp the import of notes about the text if they were on the same page as the text? Putting these notes in a footer would actually make the text itself cleaner, since you could just refer to line numbers instead of marking affected words.

In the translation on the right, notice is that both "Your" and "I" are endnoted. In fact, the first word of every poem-group is endnoted to a summary of what Dhammapāla's commentary on the Therīgāthā says about the author of that group. I appreciate the inclusion of these mini-biographies, but what a kludgy way to do it! Footnoting the first word is tolerable when that word is "Your" and "I", but when a poem-group starts with "After" or "Furrowing", the arbitrariness of the system is painfully apparent. This is endnoting gone horribly wrong.

In fact, let's go further: Why not put this information right there on the page, instead of hiding it at the end? There's already some information from the commentarial tradition rather than the text there ("Spoken by the Buddha to her as instruction" and so on); it wouldn't hurt to add more in a suitably humble point size. And again, in that case you would need actual notes hanging off other words at all. The page would be cleaner.

Footnotes also give translators options. I don't want to criticize Hallisey's inclusion of etymological information about names in extra lines prepended to the relevant poems ("Your name means..."). He explicitly mentions the system in his introduction and sets the line off from the rest of the text; no harm done, and on the same page as the poem itself is a better place for the information than at the back of the book. But if footnotes were also allowed, that would open up a third way, a compromise that allows extra information on the page but not in the poems, and that might be just what some projects need.

Clean and simple is beautiful. A clear eye-path from A to B is pleasant. But these are facing-page translations. Their use case is slow, meandering consumption, with the attention drifting back and forth from source to target. Adding a few extra stops in the form of same-page footnotes isn't going to do any harm, and could do a lot of good. Let's stop the madness.

(All this goes for the MCLI's two footnote-free sister series, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library and the I Tatti Renaissance Library, too, by the way. Some of the volumes in the DOML don't even signal that there are endnotes — no numbers, no symbols, nothing. You just have to flip to the back and try your luck. I find this more distracting, myself, since it means I'm constantly flipping back and forth to make sure I haven't missed anything.)

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I basically agree; substantive footnotes should be on the page (as should biographical information), and endnotes should be reserved for source information and similar boring stuff nobody wants to see. And the "flip to the back and try your luck" thing drives me mad, mad I tell you.


It's all been downhill since James Legge.


I'm afraid I'm even more radical: footnotes—or glosses—at all times! Down with clumsy, unworkable æsthetic standards! One can change one’s æsthetic preferences; but when a book has endnotes, one cannot escape the need to flip pages back-and-forth like a God-damned madperson.

There are more approaches to book design than the designer-trend of "so much white, it's almost racist". If you can't typeset beautiful pages in some dense, intriguing, information-rich layout, then go read Tufte repeatedly until you can.

Footnotes always; and while we're at it, all scholarly periodicals should always print the table of contents on the cover, and the spine should always include title, volume, number, year etc.


My personal taste tends that way too. Those early modern editions of the East Asian classics with the page divided into three or four sections, every one crammed with text and images... that's what I call a book. (Robin D. Gill does a pretty good approximation of this in English.) But I decided to keep my extremism in check in order to build a broader coalition.

Tim May:

I had an alternative idea the other day—print the notes in an entirely separate volume! Then you can have them both open in front of you together, while the notes can get as long as you like without having to worry about them fitting on the page with the original. (The books need to be hardbacks that'll lie open, ideally. & come in a slipcase together.)


I have one thin paperback reading copy of Venedikt Erofeev's 'Moskva-Petushki' and another annotated copy in hardback (the annotations take up virtually the entire book, since it's a short novel) so that I can keep the latter open to the relevant notes as I read the former. (I also have a big, expensive, beautifully illustrated edition. I really like that novel.)

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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