Tower of Babel


Some days ago its been a discussion in Facebook about the correct word defining different printing techniques. It is a periodically recurrent discussion about the correct word to name a photogravure print, depending on the way it was generated. A paragraph in the discussion said: “… referred to her etchings as engravings–a much different technique.”

Being interested in printmaking and also in the correct use of language, I have performed some search. If we take the former phrase and ask Google Translate on how it translates in several languages, the answers are:

  • Original in english: …referred to her etchings as engravings–a much different technique.
    • Spanish translation: … que se refiere a sus grabados como grabados – una técnica muy diferente.
    • French translation: … appelé ses gravures comme des gravures – une technique très différente.
    • German translation: … Bezogen auf ihre Radierungen als Gravuren – eine viel andere Technik.
    • Italian translation: … cui ai suoi incisioni come incisioni – una tecnica molto diversa.

Note that the three Romanesque languages, do not establish any difference between the english etching and engraving words. Only in German there are two different words. But if we take several dictionaries, the answers are somewhat different and confusing. It is well known that translators like Google establish its answers taking data from dictionaries and also from contextual phrases and/or key words tagged in Internet contents. Then, those translations can often obey to a habitual use of language, better than a correct use of language.

Following with my exercise, I searched in my e-mail. On February 2015, I asked Jennifer Page from Cape Fear Press about how to name a technique with photo-polymer film Puretch used as a resist on copperplate. In her answer he wrote:

  • “In regards to what this etching process is you are doing with Puretch, we call that Photo Etching. I suspect when translating Photo Etching to Spanish the terminology may be somewhat similar to the translation for Photogravure. The problem is when people using photopolymer plates call it Photogravure instead of photopolymer intaglio.”
  • “… Photogravure (gelatin resists), Photo Etching (Puretch) and Polymer Intaglio (Solarplate, Imagon and Toyobo).”

Note that in the first paragraph, Jennifer uses a preventive “we call”, very wise on her part. She also refers to the possible confusion between the English etching and gravure when they are translated to Romanesque languages, as we have already seen in the earlier list of translations. In the second paragraph, she makes an statement about how to call each particular technique. Taking again those definitions in Google Translator, the results are even more confusing than in the early list.

  • English: etching, intaglio, gravure
    • Spanish translation:
      • aguafuerte, huecograbado, huecograbado.
      • ————–, calcografía, huecograbado.
    • French translation:
      • gravure, héliogravure, héliogravure.
      • ———-, en creux, gravure.
      • ———-, en taille douce, ———-.
    • German translation:
      • Ätzen, Tiefdruck, Tiefdruck (no options)
    • Italian translation:
      • incisione, intaglio, rotocalco.
      • acquaforte, calcografica, gravure.

As can be seen in the list, not only there is some difficulty to distinguish between some English words when they are translated to Romanesque languages, but there are also some options not always clear in its conceptual meaning. Even considering that Google translations are more colloquial than normative, the labyrinth is there and it is not so easy to scape.

Engraving The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865). (Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The words heliogravure and photogravure are also used in some areas to distinguish between the classic hand made technique and the industrial printing process, respectively. Also in France is usual to specify héliogravure au grain, referring to the use of a powder aquatint, while if it is not specified, it can be referred both to the use of powder aquatint or analogue and digital screens.

Even taking the classic bibliography, there is not so difficult to find some confusing definitions. Most recently, we can found two Facebook groups which respective names try to establish a distinction. The Copperplate Photogravure group states it is a space of “Discussion of Copperplate Photogravure issues and technique”. Entering the group discussion, the only technique considered is the classic Talbot-Klic , both with powder aquatint or analogue and digital screens. The other group, Photogravure, announces “This group is for sharing techniques, materials and images created using photopolymer and traditional copper plate photogravure.”

The group Photogravure entitled with this word both techniques, qualifying of photo-polymer or traditional copper plate to distinguish between them. But there is no reference separating photo-polymer film used as a resist on copperplate from photo-polymer commercial plates or Imagon thick film. A bit confusing again.

Then, my opinion is that the correct use of the language is very important, both by a simple matter of correction and also for improved communication. The problem is that with this lack in agreement, it is also difficult to say where or when it is appropriate to use each word. On the understanding that this does not excuse those who try to hide the true technique with which an impression has been made.

I’m wondering that in the past, with probably a lot of practitioners but poorly communicated, all that was not so important. Nowadays, with a lot of communication possibilities, it is likely more important than ever to establish some kind of standardization about the names of techniques, specially attending to the differences between english an Romanesque languages. Even taking into account a global view better than a particular use in each region or language. A new (old) theme to discuss.

2 Replies to “Tower of Babel”

  1. Bonjour.
    in a booklet edited for a 1982 exhibition entitled “From Niepce to Stieglitz” “la photographie en taille-douce” Musée de l’Elysée” Lausanne. We read about early photography prints from Charles Negre , HELIOGRAPHIE or GRAVURE HELIOGRAPHIQUE, another term not mentionned in text above

    1. Yes Jean-Claude, surely there are other denominations around the world. I don’t pretend to make an exhaustive compendium. It’s only a comment about the situation. I remember too in some text the word Photogliphy coming from Henry Fox Talbot. Perhaps all this knowledge of different names could be put in a virtual list to begin knowing which is the magnitude of the problem. I fail to understand what would be the better system to at least, have an idea about the complexity of a possible dictionary of terms, sub-terms and crossed links. It’s only an idea.

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