Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

Arabic is one of the world’s great languages.

The Arabic language has a long cultural history, with Classical Arabic stretching back to least the 4th Century. Arabic typesetting and calligraphy also has a long history, as described in this excellent ilovetypography article, “Arabic calligraphy as a typographic exercise”.

Today, it is spoken as a first language by 280 million people. Geographically it is a key language in a wide belt stretching from Morocco across north Africa via Libya and Egypt through the Middle East to the Gulf states in the East such as UAE and Oman. Arabic is an official language in 26 countries, the third most frequent behind English and French.

So it is no surprise that Arabic frequently crops up in multilingual typesetting projects. Yet, for those used to other languages, Arabic typesetting contains some stumbling blocks.

Arabic text reads right to left

A line of English text starts at the left-hand side and is read from the left to the right. Arabic runs in the other direction: the text starts on the right-hand side of the line and reads on to the left. Arabic text must be typeset to reflect this: text that is left aligned in English should generally become right aligned in Arabic.

In fact, the whole layout must reflect this directionality. In a 3 column page of Arabic text, the first column starts at the top right of the page. In a text table, the first column is the right-hand one. If you are converting an English layout to Arabic, graphics and pictures may also need to “flip” to preserve the sense and reading order.

One extra complication for the unaware is that numerals within Arabic text read from left to right even the text around them reads from right to left.

Software for Arabic typesetting

Neither Adobe InDesign nor Quark Xpress as they come “out of the box” allow you to typeset Arabic. Both require plug-ins or specialised versions.  For many years, the Quark Xtension “Arabic XT” was the standard although required some finesse. The original version was pre-Unicode but a newer version is much improved and supports Unicode. That said, InDesign now rules the roost when it comes to Arabic typesetting with a host of scripts and other options available.

For “industrial strength” Arabic typesetting, InDesign ME is probably the pick of the bunch. The program is a completely separate version of InDesign tailored to Middle Eastern languages, provides good support for Arabic, Farsi and Urdu (in CS5), and has helpful page “flipping” features. Middle Eastern versions of Illustrator, Photoshop and Dreamweaver also exist: in fact you can buy Creative Suite ME.

Avoid embarrassing Arabic typesetting

When typesetting a line or two of Arabic, there may be a temptation to just paste the text into InDesign and hope. This can lead to the embarrassment of sending your client gibberish.

Take an example of a simple layout that needs Arabic typesetting:

English typesetting for bilingual Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

Copy and paste the Arabic text into ordinary InDesign, apply an Arabic font and right align it as we know Arabic reads from the right:

English incorrect Arabic bilingual Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

Job done? Absolutely not. The text above is disastrously wrong. The letters are in the wrong order. Even if they were re-ordered, the letters are incorrect forms. Each letter in Arabic takes a different from depending on whether it is isolated, at the start of a word, in the middle of a word or at the end of a word. Any diacritics will also be incorrectly positioned.

Let’s open the setting in InDesign ME, and apply a basic font and settings:

English Arabic writing bilingual Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

That is now readable Arabic (well, it is readable lorem ipsum text in an Arabic script to be pedantic). That might be sufficient. But you could go a step further and make the Arabic match the English more closely:

English Arabic typesetting bilingual font Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

As Arabic works best justified, perhaps you would even go a step further and justify the Arabic (although some people might prefer consistency with the English typesetting):

Arabic typesetting sample Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!

If you are placing some Arabic typesetting and it looks like early graphics, you need to re-think. If your text looks like the later examples, you are on the right track!

Numbers in Arabic

Numerals in Arabic can be written in two ways. The symbols used for each number often referred to simply as “Arabic numerals” (or “Western Arabic”) are the same as English, while “Hindi numerals” (or “Eastern Arabic”) look different. Which is appropriate depends on factors such as the purpose of the document, the type and location of the audience, etc. Whichever form the numbers are written in, they always run left to right.

arabic numerals hindi numerals Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!
Arabic typesetting uses either “Arabic numerals” or “Hindi numerals”

Which Arabic typesetting font?

Both Mac and PCs provide some basic Arabic fonts, such as Geeza Pro and Traditional Arabic. (NB there have been some reports of font embedding problems with the latter). Winsoft provide a decent Naskh typeface with InDesign ME, and this is a good starting point for a body text font. Beyond that there are large number of fonts available, both purely Arabic ones and fonts built specifically to match an English typeface. Font foundries such as Lintotype are a good source of vast arrays of Arabic fonts.

If all else fails…

… get someone else to do the hard work! If all of this doesn’t fill you with excitement at exploring the unknown, you don’t want to learn about different paragraph composers, kashidas, compulsory and discretionary ligatures, Naskh and Thuluth scripts, then shame on you! Seriously though, sometimes a job just needs to get done quickly and done right. In that case, there are plenty of firms out there that will do your Arabic typesetting and send you back high resolution PDFs or outlined text in InDesign. Just google Arabic Typesetting, but don’t forget to look at our advice on getting the best rates for multilingual typesetting!

If you are doing it yourself, and run into difficultly, add a comment below and we’ll see if we can help. (Please don’t comment just to promote an Arabic typesetting service or product you are selling – your comment will not get approved).

Posted in Arabic typesetting | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

21 Responses to “Arabic typesetting: get it right (to left)!”

  1. Leslie says:

    My company created a javascript that sets Arabic correctly, including the appropriate forms based on their position in the word. I typeset a book with many Arabic extracts and the publisher was very happy with the results. I wanted to purchase Indesign ME but was told I could not run it on the same computer with the regular version of Indesign. FYI: I am using Indesign CS4 currently.

  2. admin says:

    You’re not the first person to hit the problem of not being able to have both the “normal” and ME versions of InDesign installed. I’ve even known people set up two partitions with separate system installs to get round this.

    Writing your own javascript is impressive though. I know you can get at the necessary in CS4 and above so presumably you can access the correct composer through javascript, allowing numbers, etc to be composed correctly within the sentence. How much control did it give you over ligatures and diacritic positioning, or did you just use the opentype defaults? Also, did it mean doing without kashidas in justified text? I guess this wouldn’t be such a problem with extracts of Arabic interspersed with English body text.

    But, I take my hat off to you for taking the bull by horns and coming up with this solution!

  3. MatsT says:

    In InDesign CS5 you can actually typeset arabic text in the normal version, but only via the scripting interface and not via the UI.

  4. Arabic is very nice language, and the script can make nice layout

  5. [...] If you want to know more, feel free to ask. For a more general overview, read my earlier post on Arabic typesetting. Posted in Arabic typesetting | Tagged Arabic numerals, Arabic typesetting, Hindi numerals, [...]

  6. Jenny says:

    What is the setting in InDesign ME CS5 to apply to basic fonts and settings? We have imported Arabic from an XML file into InDesign and now we are having trouble formatting it. Any help would be appreciated.

  7. admin says:

    Hi Jenny,

    In paragraph palette, make paragraph Right-to-Left
    In paragraph palette drop down menu, choose Justification and remove any character spacing or glyph scaling

    In Character palette:
    Apply a font containing Arabic characters, preferably in Naskh style if in doubt (eg Winsoft Naskh, Adobe Arabic)
    Change Language to Arabic
    Set Kerning to Metrics, and Tracking to 0
    For most fonts, set the diacritics (in Character palette drop down menu) to Opentype

    If you are justifying the text, turn on kashidas in the Character palette drop down menu and set the justication to “Naskh” in the paragraph paletter

    That should get you under way. There are various other nuances (which digits to use, ligatures on or off, etc) which can be controlled from these same two palettes, but the “correct” settings of these depend on your project.

    Don’t forget that, as Arabic reads right to left, you will need to reverse your page layout from its English layout.

    If you want to discuss a specific problem (or show me a screengrab to see if it looks right), comment again and I’ll email you.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Hi Guys,

    I’m having trouble when pasting arabic text from word into indesign, numbers are displayed reversed, as well as english words withing the text. In design is reading them from right to left like the rest of the arabic text. Is there any way i can fix this instead of doing it manually word by word?


  9. admin says:

    Hi Stephanie. Are you using InDesign ME or one of the plugins? I am assuming you must be, and your Arabic itself is appearing correctly – from right to left, with the letters joined up – as in the later examples in the blog article.

    If so, you should be able to fix this by changing the character direction from “Right to Left” (or “RTL”) to “Default”. This latter setting allows Arabic characters to run right to left while English and numbers runs left to right. In InDesign ME, you will find this setting in the character palette’s drop down menu under “Character Direction”.

    If that doesn’t fix your problem, could you let us know more details about your InDesign set up so we can try to help further?

  10. Daniel says:

    I just downloaded Scribedoor from Winsoft which is an Indesign plugin for the Western version rather than the full Middle Eastern program (Winsoft told me it’s not a good idea to have both installed on the same computer).

    This seems to be working fine so far, just wondering if anyone has any experience of “right justify” Arabic text? Meaning that the last line isn’t forced to take up the full width of the column. Native Indesign can of course only left justify text.


  11. Daniel says:

    sorry please ignore – of course there is a right justify option in indesign!

    • admin says:

      Ah, yes! I was just about to say that, so hopefully you won’t have any more problems. Now working with tabs to different alignments in Scribedoor – that I’ve found more tricky.

      It’s a good point about the InDesign ME install though. I’ve heard it’s never a good idea to install “English” InDesign and InDesign ME on the same system. Instead, it’s best to set up two partitions with a separate install of the OS and then the appropriate InDesign on each…

  12. cats says:

    Very energetic article, I liked that bit. Will there be a part 2?

  13. arabic_newbie says:


    I’m having trouble with the direction of digits in combination with text (my client wants me to use Arabic digits).
    For example:
    in the wordfile: 100/1 <
    in InDesign: 1/100 <

    Another example:
    wordfile: %1<
    InDesign: <1%

    I can change all this manually. Any idea if I can get this text imported correctly, so I don't have to make changes?


  14. Akhter says:


    Great article, we had similar issue…. found the below article most helpful

    Hope it proves the same for you.

    • admin says:

      Yes, that can be a useful script so long as you check the results and don’t mind not being able to alter settings “on the fly” through a panel.

      As Andrew points out, “This is definitely not a full replacement for Winsoft’s CS5 InDesign ME, since it doesn’t give you any graphical control over kashidas, digits, diacritic positions, or any of the other more detailed options available in the world ready composer. ”

      Something that remains unclear to me is just how much Winsoft have tweaked the underlying composer in the InDesign ME release. On occasion, I have seen differences in the results obtained between using this kind of workaround in InDesign and using InDesign ME to set.

  15. Chris Dean says:

    Pleasant Write-up, Thanks a bunch

  16. Tarik says:

    I have translated a book into Arabic and the publisher wants it set according to a ready layout he has. The layout is of course “left-to-right” including drawings.
    Is there a way I could reverse/mirror the existing book layout from LTR to RTL so I can then just insert the Arabic text instead of the Western one?


    • admin says:

      @Tarik: This should be possible. However doing it well may require the publisher to engage a typesetter with some knowledge of Arabic and the correct software. It rather depends on what budget (if any) is available, and what software the publisher uses. If the “Western” layout or template is set using Quark Xpress or InDesign, it would be a relatively straightforward job to use InDesign ME (Middle East) to “flip” the layout so the pages and drawings appear in the correct order. Try googling something like “arabic typesetting services”.

      I’d be happy to help if you need more advice on how to go about this. Feel free to leave another comment or email via the contact form.

  17. Manuel says:

    Hi there,

    This page is very interesting, thank you!

    You might be able to help with a problem that I have. After being translated in a CAT tool from English into Arabic, the target file shows the text in the wrong order. Words are correctly typed, with ligatures and correct order of characters, but the order of words is inverted.

    For example, first line in the letter should show زميلنا العزيز (our-client the-dear) but it shows زميلنا العزيز instead.

    Does any possible reason come to mind? Are there any measures that can be taken so that this problem doesn’t happen?

    I can see the language of the document is English. When I change it to Arabic in Proofing tools (Word 2010), it stays the same.

    Cheers, Manuel

    • admin says:

      @Manuel. Thanks for your comment. In Word, it sounds as if perhaps right-to-left languages are not enabled, or the right to left paragraph button is not clicked? Word will order Arabic incorrectly if it thinks it’s composing a left to right paragraph. Try the steps outlined in this Microsoft article: Right-to-left language features.

      This should get Word behaving correctly, and may get the CAT software to order words correctly too. I have had problems with some CAT software with word order, and ended up reviewing text in Word or directly in the InDesign layout.

      By the way, as you mention a CAT, I’m assuming you’re working on a PC rather than a Mac. Arabic support in Word is in experience far better on the PC than the Mac (sadly).

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