In the process of business globalization, we often find that localization solutions for different markets and languages are very different from each other, with RTL languages serving as the most prominent example. Though localization difficulty and cost for RTL languages are often higher than that of most common languages, RTL localization can help open up vast markets with hundreds of millions of people. As such RTL localization is a professional challenge that most global enterprises will need to face.
What is RTL?
The term “RTL” is an acronym for “right to left”. While most languages worldwide are written and read left to right (LTR), RTL languages are written right to left. The most spoken RTL languages are:
In addition to being written from the right, RTL languages are also read from the right. This means if English was an RTL language, “Hello” would be written as “olleH”. Right-to-left reading means that icons, diagrams, and interface layouts need to be presented logically from right to left. As such, RTL languages represent a change not just at the textual level, but in terms of reading logic as well.
Challenges to RTL Language Localization
Due to the special nature of RTL languages, translation of the text is only the first step. The proper RTL language localization of any product or service must consider design at the interface level.
- Text Alignment: Proper text alignment can help readers with different reading habits identify and read the content more quickly. Therefore, if the localized program does not automatically align RTL language content to the right, this adjustment needs to be made manually. Independent segments of LTR text can often be found in RTL environments, meaning that such LTR content must be left-aligned.
If LTR content is contained within RTL text, then all content needs to be right-aligned. For example, if a list written in an RTL language contains LTR text, then this text must be right-aligned along with the other RTL texts.
- Bidirectionality: In RTL languages, foreign (LTR language) words, numbers, phone numbers, and other content still retain an LTR word order. In other words, in a complete RTL text, both right-to-left and left-to-right word orders may be present at the same time. This means the bidirectionality of RTL languages requires editing and display environments with support for bidirectional word orders, along with the correct use of control characters (left-to-right mark) in the RTL text to ensure accurate displays in the final product. The standard Unicode format supports the bidirectional word order of RTL languages, a key component of the RTL language localization process.
- Interface Mirroring: Given the right-to-left reading order of RTL languages, icons and controls related to direction need to be mirrored to reflect RTL logic. For example, in RTL environments, the back button arrow is right (>), while the forward button is left (<).
Horizontals controls in LTR environments develop from left to right, while horizontal controls in RTL environments develop from right to left.
Of course, not all icon graphics in LTR environments need to be mirrored in RTL environments. If these icons are paintings, charts, photos, logos, player controls, progress bars, or other general representations that reflect the shape of real things, no mirroring is necessary for the RTL environment.
The biggest challenge in RTL language localization is to realize an interface design that presents RTL content to the user in a way that suits local reading and usage habits for an interactive experience equivalent to those in LTR environments.
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These design references are just a glimpse of the considerations required for professional RTL language localization. To achieve truly high-quality RTL language localization, it is key to ensure the quality of the initial translation. If your company is in the process of expanding into an RTL language market, only by cooperating with a professional language service provider can you ensure that your RTL content is professional, consistent, and in line with the expectations of different target user groups.