When typesetting gets lost in translation


It’s a rare week in the Bloodybigspider office that one of us isn’t typesetting a translated version of a design. Since I’m the language and typography geek, it’s often me – sometimes working in as many as nine languages at once.

Now, I’m a graphic designer, not a linguist (though I know enough French and Spanish to get by, and can at least recognise a date in Japanese). We don’t do translations ourselves at BBS, but clients regularly supply text in other languages that needs to be dropped into their designs. It might sound like just another paragraph of copy, but when it comes to typography every language has its own set of rules!

Needless to say, our designs for translated texts need to look just as good as they do for the English versions – which means avoiding the mistakes that would make a native speaker frown.

You might already know that French uses commas instead of decimal places, but did you know they have their own version of «speech marks»? Or that Spanish doubles the letters in its plural acronyms, so the Juegos Olimpicos – or Olympic Games – would be abbreviated to JJ.OO to signify its plural form? And that’s not even considering languages like Chinese and Japanese, which can be written horizontally or vertically. Making that work in a design we’ve based entirely on left-to-right English can definitely be interesting.

Yep. It’s complicated. But I have a soft spot for languages, and I think it’s important to understand exactly what you’re doing and why if you’re going to get it right. So let’s explore the complicated world of typesetting in multiple alphabets and languages.

The number’s up

Let’s start with numbers. Our agency works on a lot of infographics, and naturally numbers crop up in these quite a bit. Most English-speaking countries use commas in large numbers to break up the thousands (e.g. 10,000,000), but 10 000 000 appears most often in other languages.

Chinese and Japanese, though, use powers of 10,000 to express large numbers. (Chinese and Japanese numbering systems are not for the faint of heart: look them up only if you’re very brave.) So what looks like a very long number in English – say 17.3 million or 17,300,000 – is expressed as 1730万 in both Chinese and Japanese. That’s obviously a lot shorter than both English ways of writing it, so it means we might need to rearrange things in our designs.

Another kind of number that turns up a lot in infographics is the percentage. All the languages I’ve worked with at BBS so far use the same punctuation to represent a percentage (%), but Turkish puts the mark before the number instead of after it: %25. As percentage marks are often tucked into corners, it’s something we need to bear in mind when putting the original design together.

Making a mark

Speaking of punctuation marks, you’d think that they’d be the same for every language wouldn’t you? I was surprised when I first started looking at typesetting to find that many languages have their own punctuation variations. I won’t go into detail because we’d be here all day, but there are a few things I run into quite a lot.

Firstly, there’s the infamous upside down question mark in Spanish. In its native language, it has the spectacular name “signo de apertura de interrogacion invertido”. Imagine that murmured to you over a glass of Rioja. Sadly, though, it just means “inverted question mark”. It goes at the beginning of questions, and yes, you still have to use an upright question mark at the end. ¡There’s an inverted exclamation mark, too!

¿Whilst we’re ending sentences, what about the full stop? Unlike the inverted question mark, this is used in every European language. But be careful when looking at Japanese and Chinese text – full stops in these languages are outlined circles, not the little dots you’re used to!

In fact, all punctuation in these writing systems has its own non-Roman character, which comes with its own white space. (Roman, you say? Yes, the alphabet you’re reading now is called the Roman alphabet. The numerals, on the other hand, are Arabic, and are widely used even where the Roman alphabet isn’t.)

Connecting the dots

Even more elusive than the full stop is the ellipsis, that much-mistyped collection of dots. In English, an ellipsis is three dots… not two, not four and certainly not ten! Japanese uses a solid dot rather than the outlined circle, so their ellipsis looks like our full stop – which can make for an awkward mix-up when trying to sound decisive. Actually, any number of dots works for a Japanese ellipsis, but most typographers settle on a row of three or six dots, often halfway up the line.

Last in our collection of dots is the colon, which in English is used to present whatever comes after it. In Swedish, however, it can be used to indicate possession after an acronym where we’d use an apostrophe: “ABC’s strategy” becomes “ABC:s strategi”. It can also be used to show where a word has been shortened; where English uses “St.” as a short version of Saint, Swedish uses “S:t”. Get that one wrong and it may stand out to a native speaker, which will detract from the message of the piece. That’s not what we want!

Shape and space

The chances are that our translator has provided all of the punctuation we need in its correct place when they supply text, but typesetting that text into the design can often be a challenge.

For one thing, the English design had better have plenty of room. Other languages tend to use more words than we do, especially French and Italian, so they take up more space on a page. Japanese and Chinese, on the other hand, take up less space because they don’t group their characters together in words – but the individual characters need to be bigger so that the complex characters are legible, since small details can change the meaning of a word. This can often result in a lot of shuffling things around.

Cyrillic, with its very regular characters that look like small capitals, will need a larger font to be readable – but their sentences tend to use fewer words than the average English sentence, so it often doesn’t make much difference. All non-Roman writing systems need more space between the lines of text – what we call “leading” – than their Roman counterparts, otherwise they’ll be difficult to read.

That concludes our quick tour of the big things to keep an eye on when you’re typesetting another language! Have you spotted anything in other languages that’s had an impact on designs you’ve created or commissioned?

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