5 Reasons Multilingual Typesetting Is Harder Than You Think

You’ve no doubt heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But how does that apply to translation? To put it simply, words aren’t the only thing that can get lost in translation. Without special precautions, the visual impact of your content can easily get lost in the shuffle.

For example, international typesetting is trickier than it might initially seem to the uninitiated. However, ignoring its complexities can make your translations look unprofessional or even unreadable.  Here are 5 reasons multilingual typesetting is harder than you think:

Multilingual Typesetting Pitfall #1: Formatting

Text formatting conventions can vary between languages, even languages that are closely related. Here are some of the most common pitfalls:

  • Hyphenation and line breaks: Different languages have different rules about if, when and where you can use hyphens. For example, there are no hyphens in Arabic.  English allows them in a variety of circumstances, although grammar experts and organisations disagree on the particulars. German, on the other hand, allows hyphens, but only in certain locations. And then there are languages like Thai, which don’t have spaces in between words but do have rules about where the next line can begin.
  • Text Direction: In English, of course, we read from left to right. But that’s not true for all languages. In Arabic, Hebrew and Persian, text is written (and read) from right to left. This might mean you need to reverse the entire layout of your document. And what if there is some Latin text embedded in the document and left untranslated? That can get really interesting!
  • Numbers: Different countries write numbers in different ways, too. For example, some countries use a comma where we would use a decimal point, and vice versa.
  • Alignment: Standards for how to align text also vary from language to language. For example, in Chinese, it’s important that text is aligned precisely and justified on both sides, if possible. Meanwhile, Arabic is almost never aligned to the left.

Multilingual Typesetting Pitfall #2: Fonts and Scripts

Fonts are another important consideration. Even in other languages that use the Roman alphabet, your target language might require different letters, characters and accent marks. Not all fonts will have extended character sets to accommodate these differences.

And of course, many languages don’t use the Roman alphabet at all. Can your original font handle Cyrillic characters? What about Greek? Fonts take on added importance in Asian cultures, as well.

Multilingual Typesetting Pitfall #3: Design Elements

Sometimes,  the translation process results in a domino effect, and various non-text elements must be changed to accommodate the newly translated content. For example, did you know:

Meanwhile, when translating into Asian languages, the complexity of the characters means that translations often require more horizontal space to be readable.

So, depending on what languages you’re working with, it’s not unusual to have to resize text boxes and adjust other elements on the page to achieve the desired aesthetic effect.

Multilingual Typesetting Pitfall #4: Text Size and Spacing

Want clear, easily readable text? Of course you do! But when you translate, that may require changing the font size and adjusting the spacing to accommodate the new language. This is especially true of scripts like Arabic, Thai, Khmer, and Devanagari, which require extra vertical space. They have taller, more complicated characters than Latin text and typically have more space in between lines as well.

Making sure the text stays within bounds while the font stays readable can take some finesse.

Multilingual Typesetting Pitfall #5: Software Issues

Multilingual typesetting often requires special software or plugins, especially for non-Western scripts and right-to-left languages.

For example, Arabic and Devanagari scripts will not display properly in most standard design programs. You’ll either need a localized version of the software or a special plugin.

So what’s the bottom line? If you want your content to have the same impact on foreign audiences as it does at home, you have to pay attention to both the words AND the visual impact of the design. And that means avoiding the numerous potential pitfalls of multilingual desktop publishing.

Or, you could call in some expert help.

At K International, our knowledgeable design team has the tools and processes to make sure your documents look just as good in the target languages as they do in the original.  Learn more about our multilingual typesetting and design studio, and get a free quote on your project today!

1 reply
  1. Mario Chávez
    Mario Chávez says:

    It is nice to find a translation company interested in the beauties and pitfalls of multilingual or foreign-language typesetting. As a translator and typesetter myself, I stay away from calling it “international” because it’s imprecise.

    Add to Devanagari, Khmer and Thai the beautiful Burmese language, which requires a special leading (vertical space). For example, an 8 pt text in Burmese will require 13 to 18 pt in leading, adding not just to the space but adjusting for readability.

    An often neglected aspect: some language scripts do not have boldface or italics. For example, Burmese doesn’t.

    Let’s not forget one circumstance that often gets in the way of producing readable, beautiful and useful (sells products or services) document, website or colateral in a foreign language (or exotic language): the client who has an in-house graphic designer who knows nothing about foreign language scripts or how they should look on a page. Many times, the client will brush aside suggestions from the experts and just say: “Just send us the Word or Excel file in Chinese/Thai or Hebrew and we’ll take care of it in house.”

    We are on the same page. Pun intended.

    Reply

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