Grand design or major mistake?

Do not assume that your graphic design will be a work of art to everyone

People who lack knowledge of languages or cultures can innocently commit serious design or typographical offences.

Arabic calligraphy and brushwork for Japanese and Chinese are distinct art forms. If the graphic designer has little understanding of the cultural and aesthetic value of such components, the opportunity for a successful design can be lost.

The Japanese are sensitive to subtle features that have no counterpart in Western design. Many Japanese-language publications produced in the West fail to take account of this. Some Westerners use typefaces that are unpopular or obsolete in Japan.

Written Arabic contains a great number of small dots that appear above and below the letters. If the artist decides to change a two-line Arabic heading into a one-liner, without knowing which dots belong to the bottom of the top line and which belong to the top of the bottom line, dramatic errors can result.

Some other important points to bear in mind:

  • The use of symbols – especially quotation marks – differs between languages. Ordinary quotation marks may be adequate for simple word-processed documents, but once they are typeset for publications, changes will be needed depending on the language: for example, “English” quotation marks differ from „German“ and « French »
  • Spanish questions and exclamations begin with an inverted question or exclamation mark: “¿Qué tal?” or “¡Feliz cumpleahos!”
  • When the letter i is accented, the accent should sit over a dotless ?, for example í
  • Turkish has a dotted i and a dotless ?. The temptation to remove the dot from a capital i or to insert it over a dotless one may be too strong to resist for someone unfamiliar with the language
  • Careless omission of accents can cause embarrassment. The Spanish equivalent of 150 years is 150 años. Without a tilde (~) over the n, the Spanish sentence would mean 150 anuses
  • English is one of the few languages using the full stop as a decimal point and the comma as a thousands marker. Most Europeans write $30,000.00 as $30.000,00 and 12.5 kg as 12,5 kg
  • It is highly dangerous to hyphenate foreign words using an English-language word processor
  • German words can be exceptionally long by English standards. For example:
    “Einkommensteuerdurchfuhrungsverordnung” (Income Tax Regulations). This can lead to unsightly gaps (or cramped letters) when full justification is used. A translator should be consulted for division into the correct syllables.

Word processing software and desktop publishing have helped to reduce errors in foreign language typesetting. However, spell-checkers cannot handle grammatical endings, singulars versus plurals and so on – so final proofreading by a human being is vital.

Many other things can go wrong if foreign language typesetting is done without the help of translators. Typesetters and desktop publishers who usually work in English may not be familiar with the typesetting conventions of other languages. Colons in French, for example, are usually preceded by a space, whereas in English they are not:

  • Production Date:
  • Date de production :

When capitalising titles, Italian generally follows the English style, while in German, all nouns are capitalised, whether or not they are in a proper name:

  • Farm and orchard accessories and equipment
  • Zubehor und Cerate fur Landwirtschaft und Obstbau

Abbreviations may differ in upper and lower case and punctuation:

From English to French:

  • UHT becomes U.H.T and
  • WHO becomes O.M.S

When a design decision is made to change headings from upper to lower case, mistakes often occur. For example, French and Spanish accents, usually deleted over capitals, must now be re-inserted:

  • When the French ‘CABLES TELEPHONIQUES’ is changed to lower case, it becomes ‘cables téléphoniques’.

Hyphenation problems

When planning publications in languages other than English, choosing to avoid justified text at the design stage of the project can help to avoid hair-raising trouble later on.

Web Arabic_by_shoair

The Arabic word horoof, meaning letters, elegantly rendered in free-style by Shoair

English-speaking graphic artists are unlikely to have French (let alone Polish or Hungarian) hyphenation programs installed in their DTP software. When automatic hyphenation is imposed, the default English hyphenation program will break foreign words according to English rules – often with an effect that pleases no one, apart from lawyers.

Sometimes, though, hyphenation is essential in unjustified text, to break up long words that would otherwise spoil the layout. Only competent native speakers of the language concerned can be relied upon to do this properly. Where manual hyphenation is required, the text must be proofread after the hyphens have been inserted, because it is likely that there will now be new hyphenation problems further down in the text. Several frustrating rounds of corrections and re-proofreading may be required to get the hyphenation absolutely correct.

 Cost Estimator

Language combination
Word count
in original document?
Estimated final word count
Estimated cost
(approximate conversion)