The secrets of dual language design

In a nod to World Translation Day (September 30, in case you were wondering) we’ve decided to look at the challenges and opportunities designers face when they’re working with two languages in the same project.

In some parts of the world dual language is a legal requirement for official documents, signs and websites – RSK employees who reside in Wales know all about this. The costs of failure in bilingual communication can be high. In a recent case Air Canada was ordered to pay a French-speaking couple 21,000 Canadian dollars (£12,900) and write a letter of apology for violating their linguistic rights.

How does a dual language requirement influence design? When we encounter bilingual print or digital materials most of us will focus on the language we’re comfortable reading and ignore the other. This might make you think that designing these documents is easy and assume that all the designer has to do is drop text from both languages into two equal spaces. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Adding a second language to a project inevitably means that design, layout, editing and proofing tasks will take longer. How much longer will depend on language, culture and the effectiveness of the relationships between clients, translators and designers.

Bilingual design for print
Languages that use Latin script all have a similar overall appearance, and if the designer allows for slight variations in copy length, there should not be any major issues. This is the case, for example when working in Welsh and English. A Word document with copy in both languages can be handed over to the designer with a library of images and a first draft produced. One of the most familiar solutions is a ‘tilt and turn’ brochure (where the reader flips the publication to read the other language).  Welsh copy would be formatted first then the English would be added in the same template, normally with a little more whitespace as it is shorter.

The Welsh and English example is a relatively simple procedure. Things become more challenging when we introduce non-Latin languages and start to place the copy in digital formats. Other issues include font and display compatibilities, text file management and the need for more specialised language skills in the review processes.

All languages are not created equal: texts tend to expand or shrink during translation and this can be significant. Translations to and from English involving Arabic, Japanese and Polish see substantial changes in text length that will impact design. Swedish and Greek, in contrast, have text lengths much closer to their English equivalents.

Language From English Into English
Arabic +20% to +25% -20% to -25%
Japanese -10% to -55% +20% to +60%
Polish +20% to +30% -5% to -15%
Swedish -10% 10%
Greek 10% -5% to -15%

Text length variations by language

Translation quality: do it once, do it right
It might seem obvious but is worth emphasising that the quality of translation has a major impact not only on the quality and readability of the final text, but also on the scheduling and level of iteration required to complete a design project.  We urge all of our clients to minimise the volume of translation re-work by doing it once and doing it right. This means translating only when there is a stable version of text in the source language.

The best quality of text content is generally achieved when people translate into their native language. In the past, we have been approached by clients with text translated from English to French by a native English speaker. It was rejected at a late stage of the project.  Another client decided to minimise costs by employing Chinese student translators for the Mandarin to English translation of technical papers in a 600-page book. The result was barely recognisable as English.

Make an early start
Clients or designers involved in a bilingual design project should use the actual content as early in the project as possible – using traditional lorem ipsum dummy text can conceal potential design issues. Using the correct text will help produce designs that are more representative of the final product and will highlight any concerns over the translation at the outset.

For designers, the main consideration when working on bilingual designs is not to underestimate the extra work involved, especially on digital projects. The content structure and design patterns must be flexible and more consideration and constant refinement will be required. As always it is important that the designers challenge client decisions and ask for explanations to ensure the quality of the deliverables. At the same time, the designer must be sensitive to the reality of working with another culture and accept that established design ideas might not always be suitable.

In summary, both translation and dual language design can be full of pitfalls. We can help you to avoid these issues, achieve stunning designs and maintain your corporate reputation.