Designing for multilingual print: starting points for foreign language versions

When a document is to be produced in several foreign languages,* it is all too common for the English to be produced first and this document translated. If you are starting a multilingual design project, what are the simple considerations to help your design work?

To some extent, what will work and what will cause a problem depends on your range of target languages. For instance, German text tends to run longer than English, Chinese runs shorter. Some languages, such as Arabic, read from right to left as opposed to English’s left to right. Specific languages have specific issues, and you should ask your translators to highlight these as early as possible. As a side note, for these languages, you could also read our articles on German typesetting and Arabic typesetting to see some of issues.

Multilingual text length

In many languages a given piece of text will be longer than English. That is, they tend to require more characters than English to express the same idea. This can take the shape of more words or longer words. Even worse, from a design point of view, you can not rely on this growth being consistent for each paragraph of text. One might get 30% longer, another stay the same length.

Conversely, some languages run shorter than English. A good example of this is Chinese which can a lot shorter. This is because Chinese is not written with an alphabet. Instead each character may be a word in its own right or a whole syllable of a polysyllabic word. So there are a lot of characters (over 20,000 in Traditional Chinese) but each one conveys a lot of information.

Therefore, designs that allow a flexibility of text length are advantageous. Of course, there are many ways of doing this using white space, pictures that can grow and shrink as appropriate, graphical fillers, etc.

Another approach to this problem is to allow for a variation in the size of text. It may well be acceptable for an English document to have body text of 10 point on 12 point leading, while the French has body text of 9.5 point on 11 point leading. This needs to be considered from early on in the design process and may well influence other decisions, such as aligning document elements to a baseline grid.

And it’s not just body text: this all applies to headlines too of course. That headline that fits so neatly next to a picture in English will most likely need a re-think in a foreign language. For example, the headline issue crops up in Welsh-English bilingual publications, where it is often a requirement that the two languages have “equal prominence”.

More book-like designs may adapt to the problem of text length by adding or subtracting whole pages from the document. This may incur extra printing costs or require additional photos or other imagery.

Other languages are not English

That much is obvious. But think through what that means to any text formatting you have utilised in your design. Some languages use a different word order to English. For instance, the verb will usually be at the end of a Hindi sentence rather than in the middle as in English.

Drop caps have a long history in Latin scripts, such as English, but they won’t work in Bengali or Arabic as the letters of a word are written joined up.

In some languages, nouns change depending on the role they play in the sentence. For instance, the ending of a Russian noun changes according to whether it is nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental or prepositional. Turkish adds suffixes to nouns in lieu of prepositions (words such as in, on, of). Emboldening the word “Home” in “Click on the Home button” just got that much more complicated (but not impossible: you just embolden the main part of the word and not the suffix).

Languages such as Arabic and Thai need more vertical space between text baselines than English; otherwise some characters and diacritics will collide. Find out if any of your target languages fall into this category before making very tight leading the defining feature of your design! Similarly even some European languages need their accents above letters to make sense. Block caps bleeding off the top of a page might work well in English, but cause problems elsewhere.

Fonts and foreign languages

Not every language works in every font. West European languages are written in Latin (or Roman) script, and most designers are familiar with the fonts that work for these. That said, some non-commercial or older fonts may not support the full range of accented characters needed for languages such as French, German or Spanish. Some modern professional fonts include not only these but the additional characters needed for some East European languages. Some may even support Cyrillic, Icelandic, Greek or Turkish. It is often worth experimenting with this at an early stage of the design process.

Some languages are written in totally different scripts, for instance Arabic, Korean or Bengali. A font specific to the language may well be required in this case. A massive range of fonts exist and it should be possible to get a good match to the look and feel of your English font. It’s worth noting though that not all these languages compose correctly in run-of-the-mill InDesign or Quark. You may need special software or a specialised multilingual typesetting provider.

It’s also worth noting that concepts such as tracking only apply to some languages.

Keeping it consistent

So, translating your design to another language might involve font changes, size changes, leading changes and so on. This makes using well set up style sheets in your English master design more important than ever. Set up and use style sheets consistently, making full use of paragraph and character styles. Even better, cascade the style sheets so one is based on another. For instance, don’t define a “body bullet” style from scratch, base it on your “body text” style sheet. That way, your foreign language style changes will cascade through and keep your text styling consistent.

Colours and imagery vary too

Most designs will make use of imagery as well as text. This may need some cultural consideration. Different parts of the world (and different cultures in the same place) can have very different ideas of what is acceptable. The acceptance of degrees of nakedness or the portrayal of alcohol for instance might need to be considered. Some Muslims may consider drawings of humans or animals haram, and some third sector bodies produce “text only” designs for use in mosques and so on. The display of the Taiwanese flag continues to be problematic in mainland China.

Even apparently inoffensive imagery can suggest very different concepts. Many Western audiences would implicitly understand the use of an owl to convey wisdom. In Cameroon, owls are the bringers of bad news or death. In some of the Middle East, they are associated with pessimism. Owls are also considered bad omens in much of India, where calling a person an owl means they are foolish. That said, many Bengalis believe a white owl entering your home presages wealth. Delving into history, the Romans saw owls as omens of impending disaster.

An upward turned thumb is widely interepted as a positive gesture, meaning ok or good. It has even entered the English language as the phrase to “give the thumbs up”. But in Greece, parts of the Middle East, and beyond, a thumbs up was traditionally a rude gesture meaning “Up yours”, an ambiguity highlighted in Slate magazine’s “What Does a ‘Thumbs Up’ Mean in Iraq?”

Colours can suggest different meanings in different cultures. It can be argued that some commentators go too far on this, saying a particular colour has a firm meaning. However different colours are certainly suggestive of different concepts according to culture. Green might symbolise environmentalism in one context, Islam in another. Purple might suggest royalty or luxury in Western Europe but a widow in mourning in Thailand, while yellow might suggest royalty in Thailand. Orange might suggest Autumn (Fall) to a north American but Protestantism to someone from the north of Ireland. Red might suggest danger or passion to someone in western Europe but good luck to someone in China. For one take on the range of meanings of colours around the world, see this beautiful chart “Colours in Culture”.

* We use the term foreign language to mean a language other than English. Obviously this anglocentric approach is purely subjective, but as this blog is written in English predominately for other English speakers, we feel this sleight of hand avoids linguistic knots!

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