Introduction to Multilingual Typesetting (DTP)

Introduction to Multilingual Typesetting (DTP)

Have you ever thought about how your beautifully designed campaign will be affected when translated into another language? How will the translated text fit into the layout, and will it compromise the design? This is what multilingual typesetting addresses — ensuring that your print or digital campaigns still look great and work effectively when translated into another language.

The following post provides an overview of the world of multilingual typesetting. If you have any questions, please let us know.


Before you start designing the document, take the target language(s) into account. For example, languages such as Korean and Arabic don’t have capital letters, so script-specific features like dropped caps in the design won’t transfer into these languages. In some languages, such as Chinese, the norm is to fully justify paragraphs (no left or right alignment) so take this into account when setting the look and feel for your publication.

Colours can also be a tricky issue. While we’re not recommending avoiding colours altogether, they must be used judiciously and with some sensitivity. Different colours can have different connotations across cultures — for instance, using the interesting and useful chart at, we can see that while gold signifies money and wealth in many countries, in Japan, it’s blue. Differences like these can make or break the success of your design.

Language expansion

Different languages use different amounts of space when translated. For example, French and Spanish translations often become 10-20% longer than English. Chinese on the other hand may be shorter than English but it takes more space vertically because characters need to be large enough to read. Then there’s German, where compound nouns could do with a page of their own – just compare a simple English term ‘speed limits’ against German equivalent of ‘Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen’, which takes almost three times as much space as the English. If that wasn’t already tricky enough, consider languages like Urdu where the text not only expands in length but also in height because you need to allow more spacing between lines (called leading) for the intricate Nastaleeq-style script.

Tip: Leave as much white space as possible to allow for language expansion and don’t make text boxes too small!


Check that the fonts you are planning to use support the language that is being typeset. There are different fonts for different languages, so you’d need to have a different font for Simplified Chinese and for Traditional Chinese as they use different character sets. Remember also that italics (cursive) and bold are sometimes frowned upon in different languages as they can create legibility problems, or are simply not used.

In most cases your typesetter would need to find a font that has a similar feel to the fonts chosen in the English source document but it may be possible to locate a different version of the font. For example, if your company font is Frutiger and you wish to use this font in a translation, you’d need to have a licence for the CE version for Central European languages (such as Polish, Czech or Slovak) or the CYR version for the Cyrillic script (for languages such as Russian or Bulgarian). There is even an Naskh version of Frutiger for Arabic.

There are free alternatives online as well, and most Microsoft Office fonts can be downloaded with the Language pack for each language free of charge.

Use Unicode fonts where possible and remember that even Unicode support doesn’t guarantee that font works perfectly on every software.

Tip: Let your translation service provider know any font preferences to avoid costly rework and always have a native speaker linguist check the work after a font change.

Layouts: Right-to-left or left-to-right

Don’t forget that some writing systems are right-to-left (RTL) – for example Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi. For these languages, care must be taken not just in handling the characters and spacing, but also how the translated text will fit into your artwork for RTL markets, as the layout and images are flipped into a mirror image of the original English document.

Text is not the only consideration. Images and graphics can’t always be flipped, especially those containing text or symbols. Look out for clocks too; we’ve seen a few examples of poor RTL typesetting with a clock showing the time back to front!

See our post on right-to-left typesetting here.

Graphics and images

Consider if the images used in the English leaflet are suitable for use in the target market. For example, an image showing a cityscape shot in the UK might not be right for a local market in the UAE – a cityscape of Dubai or Abu Dhabi might be more appropriate.

Also, consider the target culture and customs. In some Asian countries, it is rude to point with a toe or give a business card with the left hand, so avoid pictures of such actions that could cause offence. Your translation service provider should advise as part of the project.

Tip: To help your typesetter, supply them with original graphics in editable format so that they can be localized with ease — ideally, .ai or .eps format.

Language-specific rules

There are language-specific rules for typesetting in each language, so ensure your translation service provider is up to speed with the rules for each language. Anyone can copy text to InDesign but if they don’t know the typesetting rules for that language, they could leave your document looking unprofessional or incorrect.

For example, in Polish typesetting, single letters such as ‘i’ and ‘z’ cannot be left on their own at the end of a line. Similarly, in Japanese there are a few dozen characters that are never used to start a line, such as ー, ァ or ィ.

We’ll be publishing a blog entry on typesetting Asian languages later on in the year – watch this space!

Trust the experts

Experienced multilingual typesetters and expert translators will make the best team!

If you have any questions about multilingual typesetting, or have a project you need a quote or advice on, please contact our team. Call +44 (0) 1483 577 750 or email

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