Multilingual typesetting: why translation-friendly design matters

A stack of open colourful magazines.

You’ve crafted your copy. Your best designer has created a stunning layout. After all, it’s not just about the words you choose, but how you present them. No doubt you’ll want your translated versions to be as visually appealing as the original, too. Yet this is harder than you might think. This is where professional multilingual typesetting comes in. In this blog, we’ll outline some of the complexities of multilingual typesetting. We’ll also explain why designing translation-friendly layouts can make all the difference. Effective communication in multiple languages without compromising on aesthetics? Read on to find out more.

What is multilingual typesetting?

Multilingual typesetting involves placing and formatting translated text in a layout application. The layout can then be published in print or digital form. If you’re creating content for print, you may be using industry-standard apps like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator. If you’re creating digital content, you may be working with Microsoft PowerPoint. And if you create videos, you may also be using tools such as Adobe After Effects. The aim is to make your translated text look as good as your original version.

A worker at a post-press finishing line machine thumbing through a stack of printed magazine spreads.

Why is multilingual typesetting so complex?

Each language has its own typographic conventions, and these can trip up even the most experienced designer. That’s why it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a team with an in-depth understanding of multilingual typesetting. A specialist foreign-language typesetter knows the pitfalls to avoid. Here are a few elements to consider:

Scripts and writing systems

There are major differences in how the languages of the world appear in written form. Writing systems fall into three broad categories: alphabets, syllabaries and logographies.


Alphabets use symbols called letters. They normally have fewer than 100 symbols, and they are the most common writing system in use. Examples include the Latin alphabet, used in English, the Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russian, and the Greek alphabet.


In these systems, symbols represent syllables. The Japanese writing systems hiragana and katakana are examples of syllabaries.


Logographic systems use symbols to represent a specific word or concept. Chinese characters are a good example of a logographic system.

Top tip: It’s worth keeping in mind that there are no direct equivalents to some of the features you see in alphabets. For example, there are no capital letters in logographic systems. This means that design elements like capitalisation for headings or drop caps won’t have the same visual impact in other languages.

Historical metal letterpress letters, a vestige of printing.


Because writing systems are all so different, it’s important to choose fonts with the right language support. Have you ever come across rows of blank boxes instead of translated text in your layout? These boxes are known as “tofu”, and they indicate that your font doesn’t support that particular language. Google has designed a range of fonts to overcome this issue. Noto, short for “no tofu” and meaning “I write” in Latin, is a collection of open-source fonts. There are sans serif and serif styles to choose from, with multiple weights and widths. These fonts are a great choice for multilingual typesetting, as they support more than 1,000 languages and over 150 writing systems.

Finding fonts with the right language support is only half the battle, though. You’ll want your fonts to have a similar feel to the fonts used in your original layout. What if your corporate fonts don’t support other scripts? A multilingual typesetting team can suggest suitable alternatives.

A checklist for selecting multilingual fonts

  • Does the typeface elicit the same emotional response?
  • Is it readable?
  • Is it legible?
  • Does the font family contain a variety of weights, styles and widths?
  • Can the font family be used for print and web designs?
  • What are the licensing requirements?
A series of adjectives in a variety of different fonts in white text against a purple background to illustrate how fonts convey personal traits. The adjectives are: refined, playful, elegant, straightforward, staid, personal, cartoonish, tough, trustworthy, dreamy, futuristic, childlike, friendly, nostalgic, steadfast, strong, quirky, contemporary, approachable, intimidating and daring. Choosing suitable replacement fonts is an art when it comes to multilingual typesetting.
What’s your type?

Text expansion and contraction

Have you ever noticed how much longer your French, Spanish or German translations are compared to your original English text? This is known as text expansion, and it presents challenges in multilingual typesetting. Text expansion is caused by differences in sentence structure. Word length also has an impact. Languages like German and Dutch tend to use lots of compound nouns. These take up more space in your layout.

On the other hand, some languages take up less space in your layout. This is known as text contraction. Korean and Chinese translations typically end up shorter than your English source text.

Expansion and contraction rates vary across languages. For example, a French text can be 25% longer than the English text. German can expand by as much as 35%.

How can you create a translation-friendly design that allows for text expansion and contraction?


White space plays an important role in multilingual typesetting. It’s the breathing room around text blocks, images and other design elements. Effective use of white space can boost your document’s readability. This is especially true for multilingual layouts. Languages vary greatly in their character density and word length. A design that looks spacious in one language might appear cramped in another. Your layout should be flexible enough to accommodate a translation that’s longer or shorter than the original. White space can help with this.

Sketches of layout designs with white space and narrow columns. White space and column width are important considerations in multilingual typesetting.
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Column and text box widths

Line length can affect reading speed. Lines that are too long or too short can create an uncomfortable experience for some readers. Very narrow or very wide columns reduce readability, and you risk losing your reader’s attention. This is even truer with multilingual typesetting. Narrow text boxes and compound nouns aren’t a great match. This often results in very ragged line breaks, or worse – hyphen ladders – when more than two consecutive lines end with hyphenation.

Hyphenation and line breaks

On the subject of hyphenation, each language has its own rules about how and when to use hyphens. For example, hyphens are widely used in German, which has many compound nouns. Other languages, such as Arabic, don’t hyphenate at all. Meanwhile, Japanese has extremely complex rules that govern line breaks. Incorrect hyphenation or bad line breaks can disrupt the text flow or even alter meaning. Some dictionaries use an interpunct, a small dot, to show where to divide a word with a hyphen. Tools like Adobe InDesign also have powerful settings for composing text in different languages. Yet if you’re not familiar with the rules and don’t speak the language, it’s easy to get it wrong. That’s why it’s worth working with a specialist on multilingual typesetting projects.

Alignment and positioning

Understanding your target audience’s reading habits helps to create a more intuitive experience. Think about how you skim through a page of text. In languages that read from left to right, left alignment works well for longer text. This avoids unsightly gaps that come with justified text and helps with readability. For languages that read from right to left, right alignment is the standard. Centre alignment works well for small blocks of text, regardless of text direction. In Chinese, though, a language that reads from left to right, it’s customary to justify longer text.

Top tip: When it comes to multilingual typesetting, it’s good to think about vertical alignment, too. This takes into consideration text expansion and contraction. If your layout has a multi-column format, use top alignment to give readers a consistent visual entry point. This also helps to achieve line-to-line symmetry. Centring text vertically might be a better option in tables.

Right-to-left languages

In addition to alignment, right-to-left language typesetters have many other factors to consider. An Arabic or Hebrew speaker naturally looks to the right-hand side of the page to start reading. To align with their reading direction, your layout will need to be a mirror image of the original. This means that the spine of your printed brochures will be on the right-hand side. Directional bullet points like arrows will point left to match the reading direction. Images may be positioned on the opposite side of the page, and columns will run from right to left. Your right-to-left language layout won’t be a perfect mirror image, though. Some images simply don’t work in reverse. Maps and clock faces are good examples.

Top tip: Avoid placing text over photographs where possible. The composition of the photograph itself could present a challenge for other languages. Will longer words obscure an important part of the image? Does the photograph allow space for languages that read from right to left? Is there enough colour contrast between the text and that part of the photo? If this is a key part of your design, then make sure that the text is editable.

Bidirectional type

To make right-to-left language typesetting even more complicated, some terms stay in English. This means that some elements flow from left to right. And this is where things tend to go awry for inexperienced typesetters.

Tip: Arabic uses a cursive script, which means that most letters within a word are connected to each other. And unlike Latin script, Arabic doesn’t have capital letters. Translation-friendly design for languages that use a cursive script? Avoid headings with widely spaced text in UPPER CASE. Expanded character spacing in Latin scripts doesn’t travel well across other writing systems.

Colour and imagery

Using colour is a good way to add emphasis and interest to your layout. However, it’s important to do your research. The same colour can hold vastly different connotations across different cultures. For example, in Western cultures, red symbolises love and passion. It can also signify danger. Conversely, in many Asian countries, red is a highly auspicious colour, associated with luck and prosperity. It’s worth checking how your brand colours may influence how customers view your content. Canva is a great place to learn more about colour symbolism.

A set of Pantone colour swatches. Colour is a key consideration when it comes to translation-friendly design.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Similarly, ask yourself whether the images in your layout are suitable for your target markets. If your content is making its way to the Middle East, consider images that err on the modest side.

Finally, ensure readability by using colours with high contrast. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines recommend a contrast ratio of 7:1 for regular text and 4.5:1 for large text. Take the guesswork out of the equation with a colour contrast checker.


We’ve covered some of the complexities of multilingual typesetting for static layouts. But we’re living in a digital world. Your designers may include animation in presentations and videos to add impact to your words. What are the considerations for typesetting animated layouts in other languages?

Our advice? Don’t go overboard with text animation. Firstly, animations can be hard on people with epilepsy or vestibular disorders. Secondly, elaborate animations can distract your audience and detract from your message.

If you do animate your text, opt for subtle movements. Think “fade” rather than “bounce” or “twirl”! Upward or downward directions are suitable for left-to-right and right-to-left languages. Sequences that move from the left-hand side of the screen to the centre will need to be reversed for languages that read from right to left.

You should also consider the duration of the animation. Designs with single words that pop on and off screen every 15 frames pose significant challenges. Why? Well, a five-word slogan could be translated in more or fewer words in other languages. Longer words will need to stay on screen for longer. Pop animations tend to be less effective in Asian languages, where characters convey more complex meanings.

Be careful about using text animation to create suspense. The syntax of other languages can differ greatly from that of English, so you may not get the same result in other languages.

Translation-friendly design is inclusive design!

Ultimately, designing with translation in mind benefits everyone. With our typography tips, you’ll be able to create engaging layouts for a diverse global audience. If you’d like to learn more about our typesetting services, please feel free to ask us. We’re here to help.

About the author

Bethan Thomas has worked in the language services industry for 20 years. She is an Adobe Certified Professional with a particular interest in video design. At Planet Languages, she coordinates high-profile multilingual typesetting projects for design-led brands.

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