When Does “Back” Mean “Go”?

Category: Culture, Language

If you saw an arrow on upper left side of your browser, you’d think
it means “go back,” right?arabic browser

Not if you were looking at it from the viewpoint of a speaker of a language that reads from right to left, such as Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Urdu, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

These languages are often referred to as “bi-directional” languages, or “bidi” for short — even though they really only run in one direction. Writing begins on the right-hand side of the page and concludes at the left. However, numbers are generally written left to right, and text written in other languages (English, French) maintain their left-to-right status, so the final text really is bi-directional.

So what does this mean for your localization efforts?

Below are some takeaways on bi-directional language markets from today’s webinar on The Basics of Software Localization. (In case you missed it!)

  • When “translating,” or localizing, your software for foreign markets, remember that icon and UI placements that make japanese stop signsense in left-to-right placements, such as the “Back” and “Go” buttons in a browser, will have a different (often exactly opposite) meaning in bidi languages.
  • On that note, also be aware of the differences in symbols. Say, for instance, that you use a red hexagon to mean “stop” in the original version of your software. In Japan, that won’t fly; the symbol for “stop” is an upside-down triangle.
  • Ever look at those eyetracking studies, where you can see which part of the screen web users’ eyes are most drawn to? In LTR countries, it looks like this:


Can you guess what this heat map might look like in Iran? You guessed it. The exact mirror image, with the “hot spots” being the upper right corner of the screen.

  • “Mirror” is the key word here. From a presentation, or visual point of view, the general rule would be to mirror the content. The same is true on the back end. You can’t just translate your software in the same way as you would for LTR languages; you have to physically “flip” the dialogue so that everything is reversed. Backing up a step further… this means that in your code (html, jsp) you need to add in commands for every item that gives you the option of flipping it.
  • The good news is that if you successfully “internationalize” your software, you can then regionalize to not only a specific market (e.g., Arabic) but you can use the same rules for other RTL languages. And there are more RTL readers than you might think: bidirectional scripts are used in languages spoken by more than half a billion people in the Middle East, Central and South Asia and in Africa.

Fun Fact: There is one “true” bi-directional language, where signs have a distinct “head” that faces the beginning of a line and a “tail” that faces the end. Confusing, huh. But luckily, you probably won’t be translating your software into Egyptian hieroglyphics anytime soon.