What is a right to left language?

If you read this article in its original language of English, your eyes will move from the left side of the screen to the right side as you scan the text. That’s because English is one of the many languages that has a left to right orientation. If the definition of a language’s orientation is simply the direction in which it reads, then you might have already guessed that a right to left language is a language that is read from the right side of the page to the left. This description of which way a language reads is known as the language’s directionality.

Fun vocabulary fact:

Dictionary.com notes that the word that refers to a left to right language, such as English, is “sinistrodextral.” Amusingly, to achieve the opposite definition of a right to left language, the word itself is simply reversed to “dextrosinistral.” That’s because “sinister” and “dexter” are the words for “left” and “right” in Latin.

But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:

This post was updated in June 2021

Why does a language’s orientation matter for the localization of websites, apps, programs, and games?

Switching a website or a piece of software from its original language’s orientation of left-to-right into its new language’s orientation of right to left might not sound like a huge deal. If you have localized any of your content for broader distribution in the past, you might have encountered languages that used different scripts or character sets. If, for example, you have published your content in Russia before, you may be well-acquainted with the challenges of converting the modern Latin alphabet that we use in America to the Cyrillic characters they use across Eurasia.

So, if you have already overcome that obstacle, surely it’s no big deal to follow the same steps when converting your content into a right to left language that also uses a different alphabet. Right?

Unfortunately, the truth is that this conversion process can be a little more tricky than you may be anticipating.

When you switch from one language to another on a formatted print page or a dynamic digital screen, even if those languages use similar alphabets and read in the same direction, you will have to deal with certain formatting issues:

  • How much space on a page or screen the new language will occupy in comparison to the original language
  • Whether image locations are in reasonable proximity to their applicable text
  • Image size, which may become an issue if the text takes up much more or less space than the original
  • Margins that make sense for the amount of text space filled on the page
  • Paragraph spacing that looks appropriate given the differently spaced text
  • Font options that make sense for the destination language

how to translate right to left languages

However, when you add in the fact that the new destination language is not only in another alphabet but also reads in an entirely new direction, you suddenly have the following to contend with:

  • What formatting will make the most intuitive sense to a reader in the destination region?
  • Do menus, images, or other media need to be moved to the opposite edge of the page in order to make sense?
  • Can you format the text alignment to match the preferences of readers in your destination regions?

All of these new questions you must answer occur in addition to the myriad other questions you must resolve when you’re localizing content for any region besides your original location. Even if the origin and the destination languages are similar in verbiage and use the same alphabet, it’s likely that the two regions will have cultural differences that should not be overlooked.

Remember to be careful with things such as:

  • Hand gestures, which may mean completely different things (many of which can be extremely insulting, if you’re not careful!) in different places around the world
  • Images that may or may not be welcome or permitted in some cultures
  • Color schemes that might have entirely different connotations based on their cultural associations

How do you know if you need to localize your content for use with right to left languages?

If you are working toward truly worldwide distribution, you might be surprised at the places your content could make an impact. If you plan to distribute to any countries that speak the following languages, you will need to incorporate their right to left language directionality into your formatting and localization strategy:

1. Arabic

Spoken by roughly 1.7 billion people throughout the Arab world and across the globe, Arabic will likely be the most important right to left language in your localization strategy. Because Arabic is so widespread and popular, you might find it easier to discover tutorials and detailed instructions on localization and formatting principles than with some of the lesser-spoken right to left languages. Thankfully, if your goal is simply to hit the big languages on this list, Arabic will give you a solid place to start.

Interestingly, Arabic is also sometimes considered a bi-directional language. It can be written and read right to left or left to right, in some cases within a single sentence.

If you’re confused, it’s okay. With some research, you will be able to make sense of the context and application of localization with the Arab language.

2. Hebrew

Though Hebrew is often considered an extinct or dead language, about 9 million people still speak it. It is also still the official language of Israel. If your content concerns Israeli culture or history, Hebrew will be an important part of your localization process.

3. Aramaic

About 3 million people speak this language, across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

4. Azeri

The Azeri language is spoken by approximately 27 million people in Azerbaijan and some places in Russia.

5. Fula

A language many westerners may not recognize is Fula, though it is spoken by roughly 24 million people in Africa.

6. Kurdish

20.2 million people in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran speak some form of Kurdish, whether it is the northern, central, or Southern dialect.

7. Divehi

Although only an estimated 350,000 people speak Divehi, it is the official language of the Maldives.

8. N’ko

More than 50 million people speak N’ko across nine different African countries.

9. Persian

110 million people in Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan speak Persian, also sometimes known as Farsi.

10. Rohingya

1.8 million speakers in Burma / Myanmar and some parts of Bangladesh speak Rohingya.

11. Urdu

Across Pakistan and western India, 100 million people speak Urdu.

how to localize right to left languages

If you localize your content for one right to left language, will it work for all of them?

This is a common question, but it is based on a misconception.

Beginners to content localization often assume that once their web page or application is redesigned to accommodate a language of a specific orientation, it would be a simple matter of running their text through a translation app and then squeezing the results into place on their reformatted page.

Unfortunately, content localization best practices are much more complicated than this baseline method.

True localization involves much more than simple surface translations. In order to make your content readable, intuitive, and useful to audiences around the world, you have to consider the idiosyncrasies of each region’s destination.

Things like local idioms, imagery and even color choices can have a huge impact on an audience’s experience with your content.

In practice, this often means that content producers localize for one region at a time. Instead of making a template for left to right languages and another template for right to left languages, for example, good localization involves a customized and detailed approach for each destination location.

Yes, it is time consuming. But, keep in mind, the content you send out into the world is a reflection of yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of using poor, hasty translations and one-size-fits-all formatting. Just as you would turn up your nose at badly translated, clunky content, so will your foreign audience.

Are there other language orientations, too?

The short answer is yes!

As languages have evolved over the broad course of human history; a huge number of variations and permutations on language have occurred.

Ancient pictograph languages used pictorials and symbols to represent words and concepts. And, ancient Greek alternated line by line from right to left and then left to right and back.

It might seem silly to point these ancient languages out in the context of localizing modern content. But, if you are a historian publishing a piece on ancient writings and you’re including samples of that among your work, you will absolutely need to format accordingly. Many game developers will also need to understand ancient language formatting if they plan to include any samples of writing in their games. Just think of a game that features hieroglyphics in an ancient Egyptian tomb-raiding scenario, and you will begin to see the necessary formatting and localization design principles that might be needed.

If your content is based in the modern world, you’re still not off the hook. Some Asian languages are written vertically instead of horizontally. If you plan to localize your content for any regions where languages are written from top to bottom. You will need an entirely new formatting strategy to accommodate that directionality.

If you need more help…

Regardless of the regions to which you will distribute your content, you’ll need plenty of localization to get it right. Remember, if huge brands like KFC need to put in their due diligence before marketing around the world, so do you!

Check out these recommendations for further reading to brush up on your content localization skills:

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