Screen Shot, Mongolian Style

Carving endangered alphabets is a strange combination of old and new, high and low tech, and rarely has this been so apparent as it has during my latest whim–to carve John 1:i in Mongolian.

This particular verse of the Bible must be one of the most profound and challenging statements ever made about language. “In the beginning was the Word.” What does that mean? I’ve been thinking about it for months, and even gave a lecture/homily on the spiritual nature of writing, and I’m still no closer to grasping its full range of potential import.

On the other hand, what a wonderful icon it would make, especially in the lobby or atrium of a major college or university gathering on linguistics! Especially in Mongolian, I thought, always attracted to vertical scripts. It would almost look like the battle-flags in Kurosawa movies–though as I work in wood rather than canvas, it would be sturdier, more resolute, more challenging. I liked that. And as I’m still waiting for as couple of scripts to trickle in so I can start the next face of the Endangered Poem Sculpture, I thought I’d while (or possibly whittle) away the time with a little Mongolian.

Turns out that John has already been translated into Mongolian, but the website wouldn’t display the vertical script for me. It said I had to update my Internet Explorer, but after some wrestling I realized this was Gates-code for “You Mac users are cast into the outer darkness, where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Undaunted, I cycled over to Kinko’s. I could call up the site on their PC’s, print out the first verse of John and blow it up to carvable dimensions all in one visit.

The first workstation was out of order. The second was working, but the black and white printer was out of order. I’d have to use the color printer. Then the color printer wouldn’t work. The first assistant scratched her head and called for help. The second scratched his head and guessed that the printer wasn’t recognizing the Classic Mongolian vertical font (which I have to say was a small surprise, as their computers have fonts that include East Syrian and other such nifty alphabets).

I tried saving the web page as a pdf. No good. I tried copying the first few verses and pasting them into a Word file. No good, as the Word font book didn’t include Mongolian.

By now all the assistants had taken to hiding in other corners of the building.

I tried saving a screenshot and running a Print Screen command, but both functions were apparently so terrified by the script of Genghis Khan that they froze in horror.

Eventually I thought, dammit, it’s only half a dozen words: I’ll zoom in and copy the text by hand and compare it afterwards with the online Mongolian dictionary to make sure I’ve got the lettering right.

I sat down with blank paper and a pen, emptied my pockets to get comfortable, and saw that I had put on the desktop, right next to the keyboard, my iPhone.

IPhone. I could do a screenshot the old-fashioned way. And then, in an equally clunky and roundabout fashion, I could email the photos to myself, open them in Photoshop and reconstruct the whole text.

The Kinko’s staff were vastly relieved. They even deducted some of the charge from my credit card.

And here, ladies and gents, are the constituent elements of the most gnomic, or possibly gnostic, statement about language ever uttered–in Classic Mongolian. Soon (with a bit of luck) to appear on a flag, or at least a beautiful vertical board, at a conference near you.