It Works Both Ways: Translating Bidirectional Languages

Category: Language, Translation Services

Translating and localizing to a bidirectional (BiDi) language like Arabic or Hebrew can be challenging, mainly due to technical, rather than linguistic, considerations. With BiDi languages, the text primarily flows from right to left, the opposite of English. However, most elements like numbers and Latin-based words are written from left to right. Since numbers and foreign words can show up quite often in content, directional switches can occur frequently, making BiDi languages “work both ways.”

In our Q4 newsletter article on BiDi languages, we explored the issues that may arise with a BiDi translation and localization project. Some examples include:

Digits: BiDi text is written from right to left but digits go the opposite way, with the most important digit on the far left. While most Middle Eastern countries use Arabic digits, Hebrew uses primarily European numbers — unless it’s referring to biblical or religious content. Urdu and Farsi digits, though very similar to their Arabic counterparts, vary slightly in appearance.

Punctuation and accent marks: Just as text reads from right to left, punctuation marks like question marks, commas and semicolons may need to display reversed or “backwards,” as will other common characters that depend on direction for their meaning, like greater-than and less-than symbols, arrow keys, parentheses and brackets…and yes, that goes for emoticons too! Any “vowel-pointing” diacritics (used to indicate vowel sounds for Arabic and Hebrew letters, which are mostly consonants) and accents must also display clearly and correctly onscreen to be understood.

Fonts: Fonts present a number of issues. They must be able to display both BiDi and Latin-based writing systems, since both may appear in the same sentence. Arabic and other BiDi languages don’t always display well at small sizes, so you may need to increase your font sizes. Font attributes like italics and bold might distort onscreen BiDi text at low resolutions.

Expansion and contraction: English text translated into written Arabic can expand more than 25% from the original text. Hebrew, on the other hand, can contract considerably from the original text. This, alongside the bidirectional nature of the text, may present some unique challenges, especially in localization testing scenarios when a mesh of form and function is of the utmost importance. 

These are just a few of the issues to think about when undertaking a BiDi translation project. For a fuller picture, as well as tips for making your project a success, read the full newsletter article for more detail.