Multilingual typesetting and DTP

Multilingual typesetting requires careful preparation, as well as an understanding of what can go wrong. Find out more with our top tips for successful multilingual artwork.

Wikipedia defines typesetting as the composition of text by means of arranging physical types or the digital equivalents.” Most major companies spend a great deal of time and effort to ensure great typesetting. However, when it comes to multilingual typesetting, there are many possible pitfalls.

Great translation

There is no use in having great typesetting, if you are let down by the text. This equally applies to brochures, as well as product packaging. The first rule of success with multilingual typesetting is therefore to start with clear and accurate translation.

We won’t normally typeset translations done by someone else. The reason for this, is that we have no control over the quality. Your text may look great, but if the translation is terrible, a nice typeface is hardly compensation.

Careful layout

It is very common for clients to simply start with an English artwork. They then subsequently want to translate and re-flow the text into other languages. A major problem occurs here, in that English is normally shorter than most other languages. Spanish or French, for example, are typically about 25% longer. Russian seems to go on forever! It could be as much as double the length of an equivalent English text. Therefore, if you present us with a text heavy English artwork, with little blank space, and want the same text in Russian with the same font size, and the same number of pages, something will have to give. Planning in translation when preparing your English layout, can be very helpful. Think about the fact that another language version may need to be significantly longer.

Font compatibility

Font compatibility – or rather the lack of it, used to be a major issue. These days you can write most languages using Unicode compliant fonts. There is then great compatibility across platforms and design programmes. There are a couple of things to watch here though:

  1. If you have your own special font, is it Unicode compliant, and will it handle different character sets? If the answer is “no”, you will need to substitute a standard font when applying the translations.
  2. Some languages require special fonts, for example Chinese. If you don’t own the fonts, they may be expensive to buy. That’s fine if you are a large retailer with several thousand SKUs to translate. However, it isn’t great if you just need a one off brochure, or a single product label. Major design houses will normally have the fonts. Alternatively a good translation company will be able to help.

Choosing a design programme

There are a large variety of design programmes available when producing multilingual artwork. We have the full Adobe CS suite with the latest versions of Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. Our team also works with Quark, and several other programmes. We can produce high res print ready PDFs if needed. The choice of design programme is really yours. The only issue is compatibility, if we are preparing the multilingual artwork. We need to know which version of the programme you need.

Right to left languages

All right to left languages need special treatment when typesetting. This includes languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi, as well as a number of Indian languages. The problem is that all the major design programmes corrupt right to left languages. This isn’t a font issue, the fonts are normally fine. The problem is the way the programmes work. They work from left to right. Arabic for example, has a joined up style, and of course you read and write it from right to left. The design programme will break up and invert some of the characters. this renders the text unreadable. The issue here is that only an Arabic reader will know.

So what’s the solution?

Different programmes have different solutions. In InDesign or Illustrator for example, there is a work around. What you have to do is highlight and correct each letter individually. This is not for the feint hearted. It is very tricky even for an Arabic native. So is there a better option? The short answer is “yes”.

There is a licenced Middle Eastern version of the Adobe products. This works from right to left, and therefore doesn’t corrupt right to left languages. You can then re-import the live text in the latest versions of InDesign or Illustrator. This is providing you have set it using the Middle Eastern version. This doesn’t work with earlier versions, where you need to outline the text and export it as an outlined EPS.

Checking artwork and print proofs

It is extremely important to check translations once you apply them to artwork, or prepare an article for print. There are many things that can go wrong at the artwork stage. Designers can make mistakes in any language. When they don’t speak the language, there is even higher risk. Some errors are obvious. For example, if there is a block of English text in the middle of your Simplified Chinese. Many errors however aren’t so obvious. For example, can you tell the difference between Czech and Slovak? They are both Slavic languages, and are very similar. If you cut and paste the wrong one onto your artwork, only a native speaker will be able to tell.

Language conventions applied to multilingual typesetting

Many artworkers fail to appreciate that different languages have different layout conventions. For example, did you know that French has a space before a semi colon or colon? French and Spanish use commas to denote decimals, and full stops to denote thousands and millions. So the English £1,093,783.20 would be written as    £ 1.093.783,20 in French.

Capitalisation rules vary between languages. Arabic for example, doesn’t have capitalisation, and uses bold instead. In English it is often trendy to have your titles on packaging in lower case, but this looks horrid in German, which conventionally capitalises many common nouns.

If your multilingual typesetting looks stylistically identical across 10 or 12 languages, something is probably wrong! Our usual approach is to follow the correct target language linguistic rules when translating. However, these need to be understood, and not “corrected” by the artwork team.


Multilingual typesetting and DTP needs to be carefully implemented if you want to uphold your brand image. We are happy to discuss any aspect of multilingual typesetting, so feel free to contact us to discuss your requirements.