Redefining Classical Literature


In recent years, Harvard University Press launched a new book series in the spirit of its famous, red- and green-wrapped Loeb Classical Library for Greek and Latin. The Murty Classical Library is devoted to publishing literary works from India spanning two thousand years, twelve languages, and seven scripts. Given that Loeb has now published over 500 classics from just two languages over a century, the scope of what the Murty library could accomplish is staggering.

Sheldon Pollock serves as General Editor and writes that the impetus behind the project was, in part, to interrogate the ways we define the classics as well as our assumptions about how those classics speak to the present:

What makes this a library of “classical” literature? The word itself has its origins in a tradition very distant from India, namely Latin, and thinkers as diverse as C.-A. Sainte-Beuve, T. S. Eliot, and Frank Kermode who have tried to gauge the meaning of that term for our era have used the Western tradition as their touchstone. The key characteristics of their “classic,” namely “universality” and “perpetual contemporaneity,” turn out, unsurprisingly, to be Western, and hence not so universal or contemporary after all. . . . What do we think makes Indian works “classic”? It might in fact be their very resistance to contemporaneity and universality, that is, their capacity to communicate the vast variety of the human past. There will of course be many occasions for learning something about our shared humanity from these works, but they also provide access to radically different forms of human consciousness, and thereby expand the range of possibilities of what it has meant or could mean to be human.

Like the Loeb series, the Murty volumes contain facing-page translations: the original text appears on the verso, and the new English translation of that text appears on the recto. But what immediately caught my eye is the collection of libre typefaces that Harvard University Press commissioned for the seven Indic scripts used in the collection. Tiro Typeworks, the foundry they hired, has made those fonts available for noncommercial use (although the GitHub repository appears to be under active development).

Take for example the line below, written in the Telugu script, from Allasani Peddana’s The Story of Manu, translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, and typeset in Tiro Telugu. This epic was written during the sixteenth-century Vijayanagara Empire in South India, which was recently profiled in the wonderful Fall of Civilizations podcast.

కా౦చి యంతరంగంబునఁ దరంగితం ఒగు హర్షోత్కర్ష౦బున.

He saw it, and waves of joy rushed through his mind.

(See, for comparison, some of the typefaces that the Indian Type Foundry has designed for the Telugu script.) Tiro is the foundry behind Restraint, a lovely collection of decorative glyphs. And Tiro Telugu was designed by John Hudson and Fiona Ross, the latter of whom has been responsible for building out Linotype’s non-Latin designs ever since 1978.

Cover of a book with the ISBN 9780674427761, pulled from the Open Library database.
I just find that it adds an extra layer of attention to detail knowing that these brand new translations have been printed in books that were designed all the way down to the individual letterform. Even for those like me who can't read the texts in their original languages, that care for the text makes for an enjoyable reading experience as I follow the ways the lines break and stanzas flow along with the narrative. ,

—Philadelphia, January 2022