CEO and founder of Lingohub. Envisioning a multilingual digital world. Email me if you have questions about how Lingohub can help you take your products global.

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Right-To-Left vs Left-To-Right

In this current globalized world, nothing is more important in ensuring wide markets for software than correct understanding of the various aspects of localization. The planet has currently 7 billion potential customers but this number is cut to a fraction without proper translation of the services. This article will focus on the different text reading and writing patterns found in different cultures, in other words, the right-to-left and the left-to-right systems and how this internationalization directly affects developers in an ultimately beneficial way. Both ‘internationalization’ and ‘localization’ are often abbreviated as ‘i18n‘ and ‘l10n’ but for clarity, I will use the full terms in this article. One last term that tends to get mentioned when localization is discussed is ‘MT‘ which stands for ‘machine translation, ‘ meaning translations done automatically without human input. Beyond certain specific domains, however, machine translation is currently inferior compared to a human doing the translation.

Example Hebrew

Different Characters And Letters

Of course the first barrier is the actual system of characters the target language uses. It’s a fact that Arabic takes more horizontal space than English when in written form, and this is something to consider when thinking of how the application will look on the mobile screen. This of course only applies to the size of the characters themselves and the length of the translated words is again a new hurdle. And that is just how the characters of the language affect localization.
For example, if you have a mobile application written in Arabic (or Hebrew for that matter) and you wish to translate it into English, you must pay attention to the fact that both Arabic and Hebrew are written right-to-left and still, numbers are written in left-to-right system thus compounding the issues. Languages like these are called bidirectional. Others like the ones I already mentioned are Urdu and Persian.

Beyond Text

The direction issue isn’t just limited to text. It also applies to series of pictures. If the application or website or a piece of software has anywhere on it any series of images that are meant to illustrate its function or are otherwise necessary, they too must be both mirrored (by flipping them horizontally) and their order reversed to match the target language’s specifications. Otherwise the message of the images is distorted and the product doesn’t feel accessible.

Conforming to either left-to-right or right-to-left system also affects the overall layout. Should the application have a menu or some sort of action bar in some edge of the screen, like in iOS, this also must be mirrored for the application to be truly professionally localized. Think about the buttons on a TV-controller or the buttons in an application – the ordering of the forward and backward buttons is again something that this localization touches upon.

The Benefits

But after all these issues have been tackled, the profit margins of an Android or iPhone application or the potential number of visitors of a website can expect a substantial growth. As globalization rapidly dissolves the differences between cultures and continents, good localization is one of the ways a company can truly stand out on the web. Despite the hegemony of certain languages in the world, the extra effort is always appreciated, and even more so now due to this generalization of cultural trends.

Well carried out localization also extends the lifespan of a product since the quality of the original will be higher than usual and will need less work in the future. This is especially important for those who offer software as a service. Localization and these directions of text and images might seem like trouble at first but in the end, they do pay off.

List of RTL languages

Country/Region Character Set Direction Language
Afghanistan Arabic RTL Pashto
Armenia Armenian LTR Armenian
Austria Latin LTR German
Belgium Latin LTR Dutch, French
Brazil Latin LTR Portuguese (Brazilian)
Bulgaria Cyrillic LTR Bulgarian
China, except Hong Kong Simplified Chinese LTR or TTB Mandarin
Croatia Latin LTR Croatian
Czech Republic Latin LTR Czech
Denmark Latin LTR Danish
Estonia Latin LTR Estonian
Finland Latin LTR Finnish
France Latin LTR French
Georgia Georgian LTR Georgian
German Latin LTR German
Greece Greek LTR Greek
Hong Kong Traditional Chinese LTR or TTB Cantonese
Hungary Latin LTR Hungarian
India Devanagari LTR Hindi3
Israel Hebrew RTL Hebrew
Italy Latin LTR Italian
Japan Kanji + Hiragana + Katakana LTR or TTB Japanese
Korea Hangul, Hanja LTR or TTB Korean
Latin America, except Brazil Latin LTR Spanish
Latvia Latin LTR Latvian
Lithuania Latin LTR Lithuanian
Middle East Arabic RTL Arabic
Netherlands Latin LTR Dutch
North America Latin LTR English, French, Spanish
Norway Latin LTR Norwegian
Pakistan Urdu RTL Urdu
Poland Latin LTR Polish
Portugal Latin LTR Portuguese (Portugal)
Romania Latin LTR Romanian
Russia Cyrillic LTR Russian
Serbia and Montenegro Cyrillic LTR Serbian
Slovakia Latin LTR Slovak
Slovenia Latin LTR Slovenian
Spain Latin LTR Catalan, Spanish
Sweden Latin LTR Swedish
Switzerland Latin LTR French, German, Italian
Taiwan Traditional Chinese LTR or TTB Mandarin
Thailand Thai LTR Thai
Turkey Latin LTR Turkish
United Kingdom Latin LTR English
LTR
left-to-right
RTL
right-to-left
TTB
top-to-bottom

References for further reading:

  • http://www.i18nguy.com/MiddleEastUI.html
  • http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms788718.aspx
  • http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/goglobal/bb688119.aspx