Selecting languages for multilingual documents

Which languages should be present in a multilingual publication? In short, it depends on the publication, its budget and target audience. But there are some foreign languages that crop up again and again that will always get used in winning multilingual publications.

How many foreign languages do you have the space (and budget) for?

For many documents, it is a case of the more languages the better. So long as the layout is clearly designed to guide readers to their native language, adding languages increases the potential audience. Of course, the downside is that this will increase translation and production costs.

Who and where is the multilingual document for?

The “best” languages to choose vary according to the purpose of a document: the type of audience and its geographic location. To talk to recent immigrants to London, you might translate into Polish or Romanian. You might add Portuguese for Brazil and French for people coming from a whole range of countries, including many in Africa. On the other hand, if you wanted to target the global super-rich, you might select Arabic, Russian, Chinese or Japanese.

What are the top ten languages to cover the globe?

The top ten languages in the world are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi-Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Punjabi. That is ranking languages by the number of native (or first language) speakers. Mandarin romps home as by far the largest language with 845 million speakers compared with second-placed Spanish with 329 million speakers. For multilingual typesetting, the gap is even bigger: Mandarin is written in Simplified Chinese script which is also used by other Chinese languages making a total of over 1,200 million.

Another interesting way of looking at languages globally is to examine internet usage. The top ten languages used on the web are English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian and Korean (source: Internet World Users by Language). Those languages would certainly make a good starting point for a high end global marketing campaign.

DIY multilingual design or professional typesetters?

Some of the languages above use the same script as English – give or take the occassional accented letter. Some, such as Polish, have additional letters. Others, such as Chinese and Russian, use their own scripts. This can mean the need for fonts that support these characters or even special software to typeset with. This can have an impact on the choice of languages. If the budget is limited, it is far easier to typeset French in-house than Arabic. (Although even then the results may not be perfect as French has very particular rules regarding space around punctuation, etc). Often professional typesetters will offer a rate to do ALL the foreign languages. So if you think you will outsource some of the languages, it’s probably worth checking before you struggle through typesetting any of the other foreign languages.

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