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August Is Almost Over

Which means that we’ll be back to posting on a regular basis in the very near future . . . Like maybe Tuesday. Or September 1st. Soon.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share this fun piece by Sam Kean about “translating” covers into other countries:

I’ve been lucky enough to have my book [_The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Element] published in a few countries now, and despite the universal subject matter—the periodic table—each country has had a different take on it. [. . .]

Still, all this national variety didn’t prepare me for a Chinese edition of Spoon from Taiwan. From an overstuffed envelope I pulled out a book with a sleek, silver-and-black cover. Quite striking. And appropriately, an X-rayed hand was grasping a metallic spoon near the top. But just below that, spilling down from the spoon, there appeared a scattering of incongruous icons. There was a spade labeled “oxygen”; a diamond labeled “europium”; a fried egg and frying pan labeled “sodium”; and a raincloud raining upside-down labeled “carbon.” None of these motifs appear in my book, and these icons didn’t seem to fit the elements they’re paired with.

I also hadn’t written about toys or movies, so I couldn’t make sense of what looked like Transformers logos for “gold” and “plutonium.” But most baffling were the smutty icons: a smiling anime sperm (“hydrogen”), two naked women thrust into suggestive poses (“barium” and “iodine”), and a slightly drooping dildo named “zinc.” (Why not silicon?) The envelope also contained a note from my American publisher: “Who knew iodine was so sexy?”

This is pretty awesome in and of itself, but what’s even funnier/more illuminating is when Kean got in touch with the cover designer:

I finally got in touch with the jacket designer for the translation, Bianco Tsai. (Aside from tidying up some informal email punctuation for print, all quotes that follow are sic. English is not Tsai’s first language. I hasten to add, though, that her English is approximately infinity times better than my Chinese.). It turns out that her inspiration for the cover actually paralleled my own motivation in writing the book:

“We usually have many technology books, [which] are serious, serious, serious, and bored!!” she wrote via email. “So, this one, we want to make it more fun and interesting, to catch people’s eyes, and make them curious about it.”
She succeeded there. The one element emblem of hers I’d grasped immediately was the cartoon bomb with a lit fuse, for cesium, since cesium can be explosively reactive. Tsai confirmed my guess: “Cesium is dangerous, so I use a bomb.” As for oxygen, she offered, “Oxygen is really important, we can’t live without it. So I use ‘ace spade,’” the ace of spades being a trump in various card games. Even the zinc schlong started to make sense, sort of: “When a men was weak in sex, his wife might give him some seafood, [and] the seafood have many zinc. That is why I draw that icon for zinc.”

In the end, Tsai said, “I have to built a bridge to connect our culture to your book!” I still think her cover looks sharp, and if Tsai says that it bridges my book to Chinese culture, I believe her. If so, though, it’s a one-way bridge.



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