Top Tips for Multilingual Typesetting

Multilingual Typesetting
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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.

For example, Multilingual Desktop Publishing is trickier than it might initially seem if you’ve worked in different languages a few times. Ignoring its complexities can produce translations which are unprofessional or even unreadable.

I’ve worked in the area of graphics for over 20 years, have seen a lot of changes. When I started I was using QuarkXPress on a big lump of plastic called a G3 (we thought they were cool) now its the Adobe Suite on a very powerful Pc with 64GB of DDR4 RAM and Ryzen 9 CPU #fast. But some things stay the same, to help I’ve listed out the top 5 reasons multilingual typesetting is harder than you think. Hopefully this helps you to make your next multilingual typesetting project a massive success.

Multilingual Formatting & Graphics

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 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 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:

  • Cyrillic and Greek translations are often as much as 20% longer than the original text.
  • Spanish translations are often up to 25% longer.
  • In general, texts translated from English into other European languages can be expected to expand from 130% to as much as 300%

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 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 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. 😉

The design team at K International has the tools and processes (and experience!) 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, Its important to build international considerations into your communications project early so we’ll happily talk you through any ideas/projects you have. If you something pricing we’ll get a free quote back to you the same day.