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A-Z of Translation – the letter R:

For the letter R, we’re taking a look at one of the more radical differences between languages:


Reading direction – While we think of reading from left to right as normal, in some cultures the opposite is true.

Arabic is one of around a dozen languages that are written from right to left. This also has implications for document design – a brochure or book will need to open differently; the binding is on the right and the reader starts from what to us is the last page and works forwards.

To add to the complexity, some languages, like Japanese and Chinese, were traditionally written vertically, although that is now less common.

Anyone working with such languages needs the appropriate tools and deep cultural understanding to avoid producing materials that clash with reader expectations.

There are also related traps for the unwary when no words are involved at all. A major pharmaceutical company allegedly decided to avoid the need for translation by running an advert consisting of three self-explanatory images. The first showed a person clearly suffering from a headache, the second showed the person taking the company’s headache remedy, while the third showed the person smiling and obviously feeling better. The only problem was, the ad was run in the Arabic-speaking world and readers looked at the third image first, so the message became: “Feel great, take our remedy, end up feeling awful”.

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