Verbum pro Verbo

Calligraphy, Graphic Design


An ongoing experimental project that explores the concept of translation between Chinese and English, both linguistically and visually.

Chengyu (成语), literally meaning “set phrases,” is a distinctive feature in Chinese, and some other eastern Aisan languages. They are a group of idiomatic expressions, usually four-character, that mostly are derived from or refer to classical literature, historical events, folk stories, or natural phenomena. Therefore, a lot of context and figurative significance lie behind the literal meaning of the four characters, and some phrases have even acquired totally new meanings over the development of the language.

In this project, however, a very literal, word-for-word approach (in Latin: verbum pro verbo, first discussed by Cicero) is taken in the translation. Each phrase is translated character-by-character into English, disregarding any grammar rules, as chengyu themselves are highly compact and do not follow the modern Chinese grammar. This takes the phrases completely out of context and creates abstraction in language for both English and Chinese speakers.

The English words are then calligraphed with brushes in the styles of Chinese calligraphy, to unite the two languages visually. For each phrase, Chinese characters from various manuscripts are selected and studied, in order to experiment different methods to translate Chinese strokes and calligraphic elements into the Latin alphabet. 


calligraphyMark Zhu