Part 2: Multilingual Desktop Publishing: Tools for RTL Desktop Publishing

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Welcome back to our deep-dive series on Right-to-Left (RTL) Desktop Publishing (DTP). In our first installment, we explored the fundamental challenges and considerations when working with RTL languages. We highlighted the importance of meticulous attention to detail, cultural sensitivity, and the invaluable role of expert partners such as Bromberg & Associates in ensuring the quality and readability of your final printed documents.

As we continue this journey, we’ll pivot our focus to the essential tools and technologies that make RTL DTP possible and dissect how these tools are leveraged in real-world scenarios. By understanding the digital toolkits of RTL specialists and seeing them in action through fascinating case studies, you’ll gain insights into the intricate process of RTL DTP. This practical, hands-on exploration will illuminate the complexities of this field and provide you with actionable knowledge that you can apply in your own DTP projects. So, buckle up as we delve into the dynamic world of RTL desktop publishing tools and case studies!


Tools for RTL Desktop Publishing

There are several software tools that support RTL desktop publishing, such as Adobe InDesign, Adobe Illustrator, and QuarkXPress. These tools offer features to handle RTL text flow, alignment, and font selection, among other things. However, these days, Adobe products rule the roost:

1. Adobe InDesign

Adobe InDesign, a leading software in desktop publishing, includes comprehensive features for working with right-to-left (RTL) languages. The application supports the unique characteristics of RTL languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, and by extension, Persian. When working on multi-page publications, there are several features and tools that are particularly useful.

RTL and LTR Text Frames: Adobe InDesign allows users to specify text direction in the text frame options. This allows you to create documents where the text flows in RTL direction. In a multi-page publication, you can link text frames so that text flows seamlessly from one page to the next in the correct RTL order.

Paragraph Direction: InDesign allows you to specify paragraph direction, which is essential for typesetting RTL languages. In the paragraph panel, you can select “Right-to-Left Direction” to ensure that your paragraphs are oriented correctly.

Story Editor: Adobe InDesign’s Story Editor can be a useful tool when working with RTL languages. It displays text in a word-processing view without any distracting layout elements, making it easier to review and correct language flow and structure.

Bulleted and Numbered Lists: InDesign allows you to create RTL bulleted and numbered lists, ensuring correct placement and alignment of these elements for RTL languages.

Style Panels: Paragraph styles and character styles in InDesign can be set to default to RTL, ensuring consistency throughout your multi-page document.

Tables: InDesign provides the option to align tables in RTL direction, with column order correctly placed for RTL languages.

Import and Export: Adobe InDesign supports the import and export of text in RTL languages. This means you can work with translators or editors who are using other software or platforms.

Master Pages: For multi-page documents, master pages are a lifesaver. You can design a template page with the correct RTL layout, including margins, columns, headers, footers, and page numbers, and apply it to all pages in your document.

Find/Change Feature: This can be set to respect text direction, which simplifies the process of finding and replacing text in RTL languages.

To make the most of these features, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the RTL language you’re working with, as well as the specific design and layout needs of your project. With Adobe InDesign, you can effectively create professional-quality, multi-page publications for RTL languages.


2. Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is an excellent tool for creating graphics-heavy, single-page designs in right-to-left (RTL) languages like Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew. While it doesn’t have as robust RTL text handling as Adobe InDesign, Illustrator does offer a number of features that can be helpful for designing with RTL languages.

Text Orientation: When working with text in Illustrator, you can switch between right-to-left and left-to-right orientations in the Paragraph panel. This ensures that your text is correctly aligned for RTL languages.

Character Language Options: Illustrator allows you to specify the language of individual characters in your text. This helps with correct display of special characters and ligatures, as well as correct line-breaking behavior.

Flexible Artboards: Illustrator’s artboards can be arranged and reordered according to RTL reading order, which can be helpful for creating multi-page or multi-panel designs in an RTL context.

Mirroring and Transforming: Illustrator’s powerful graphics tools can be leveraged when designing for RTL languages. For example, graphics can be mirrored to suit RTL orientation, and transformations can be applied relative to a specified origin point to ensure that graphics behave predictably in an RTL context.

Glyphs Panel: Illustrator’s Glyphs panel allows you to select and insert specific characters from an RTL font, which can be very useful given the complex character sets and ligatures in many RTL languages.

Linking and Embedding: Illustrator allows you to link or embed RTL text from external files. This is especially helpful if your text is being written or translated by someone else, or if you’re using a text editing tool that has more robust RTL support.

Remember that it’s important to proof your work carefully when using Illustrator for RTL languages. Because Illustrator’s text tools are not as sophisticated as those in dedicated publishing software like InDesign, it’s possible for errors to creep in, especially with complex scripts and ligatures. Always work with a professional language service company to have your work reviewed and to ensure accuracy.


3. QuarkXPress:

QuarkXPress is a widely recognized tool for RTL (right-to-left) desktop publishing (DTP), catering to languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Urdu, among others. Its RTL text handling feature enables users to create high-quality, print-ready documents in RTL languages. With intuitive typesetting controls and text-box configuration, it simplifies RTL text management, including alignment, character shaping, and ligature settings. Moreover, QuarkXPress allows simultaneous use of RTL and LTR (left-to-right) text, facilitating multilingual document design.

Adobe Creative Suite and Adobe Photoshop also have their uses in the creative process and  QuarkXpress (mentioned above) which once dominated the market, is still preferred by some designers.

Case Study 1: How Mirella Zeidan, Bromberg & Associates Multimedia Graphic Designer tackles RTL language table formatting.

“During a desktop publishing (DTP) project, I was tasked with the complex process of converting numerous forms, initially designed in English, into an RTL (Right-to-Left) language. These forms, laden with checkboxes and fillable spaces, were meant to gather personal information from locals. The conversion of these forms into an RTL language added an extra layer of complexity, particularly maintaining the layout and formatting consistency.

The primary challenge lay in maintaining the formatting and arrangement of the forms in the RTL format, ensuring checkboxes, fillable spaces, and text align perfectly. Manual row-by-row translation was not only time-consuming but also posed risks of inconsistencies and errors in the final output. Recreating the tables for the RTL language was also impractical due to the time constraints and potential for formatting discrepancies.

To address this, I leveraged InDesign’s powerful Table Options. This built-in feature enabled me to make sweeping changes to all entries in the table with just a single click, maintaining the format across all forms regardless of the language change. The tool preserved the integrity of checkboxes and fillable spaces, and its compatibility with RTL scripts ensured a seamless transition and uniform layout.

InDesign’s Table Options streamlined the RTL conversion process significantly, making it efficient, error-free, and maintaining uniformity in design across all translated forms. Instead of adjusting each row manually or recreating each table, the “one-click” change capability saved a significant amount of time and resources. This facilitated a quicker turnaround for the project, increased productivity, and ensured the locals had an easier time filling out the forms in their native RTL language, thereby enhancing data collection efforts.”


Case Study 2: Successful RTL Desktop Publishing

Consider the Arabic version of the National Geographic Magazine. They’ve successfully adopted an RTL design while maintaining their global brand identity. The challenge was handling the mixed content of English and Arabic text and numbers, which they managed by utilizing InDesign’s RTL features effectively. They also selected fonts that accurately represented the Arabic script while being easily readable.

From National Geographic Arabia

Case Study 3: The Persian Culinary Traditions Cookbook

The Desktop Publishing Team was tasked with producing a print and digital edition of a highly visual, full-color, 200-page cookbook titled “Persian Culinary Traditions” for an internationally renowned chef. The book was to be published in both English and Persian.

Challenges and Solutions

Right-to-Left Orientation: Persian, like many Semitic languages, is written from right-to-left (RTL), which is the reverse of the left-to-right (LTR) orientation used in English and many other languages. This orientation affects all aspects of layout and design, including text, images, and the overall flow of the book. The team used Adobe InDesign, which has robust support for RTL languages. They selected the appropriate text direction in the Paragraph panel and made sure to set up the document from the beginning with RTL reading order.

Persian Fonts: Not all fonts support Persian characters, which can severely limit typography choices. In addition, poor font choice can lead to illegible text, incorrect character display, or a disconnect between the visual style and the content. The team researched and selected fonts that were designed to support Persian characters, ensuring that the typography suited the aesthetic of the cookbook while remaining legible and correctly displaying all characters.

Alignment and Justification: Aligning and justifying text can be tricky with RTL languages, especially when combined with LTR languages, as was the case in this bilingual cookbook. The team used InDesign’s advanced typesetting features to ensure correct alignment and justification. For instance, they carefully controlled hyphenation and justification settings to improve the aesthetics of the typeset Persian text.

Image Placement: Image placement becomes challenging in RTL layouts because it’s contrary to LTR design principles. Images that ‘point’ or ‘lead’ into the text in LTR languages can end up ‘pointing’ away from the text in RTL languages. The team reevaluated all images, captions, and text wrap settings, ensuring they were adapted for the RTL context. For instance, if an image of a chef stirring a pot worked better on the right side of the page (leading into the text) in the English version, they would place it on the left side of the page for the Persian version.

Numbering and Bullets: In RTL languages, the placement of page numbers, list bullets, and other directional markers can be a challenge as they might end up in unexpected locations. The team paid particular attention to these elements, adjusting their position manually, if necessary, to make sure that everything lined up correctly in the RTL layout.

Proofreading: Proofreading Persian text was a challenge as it required linguistic expertise not just in Persian, but also in DTP standards for Persian text. The team employed a native Persian speaker who was also an experienced proofreader in the DTP field. This ensured that all errors were caught and corrected before the book went to print and digital formats.

Best Practices for RTL Desktop Publishing

Here are a few best practices when dealing with RTL languages:

  1. Ensure your design tool supports RTL scripts.
  2. Always test your design with actual RTL text.
  3. Use fonts specifically designed for RTL languages.
  4. Keep line-height and letter-spacing consistent for better readability.
  5. For mixed-language content, carefully handle RTL and LTR directionality.



Multilingual Desktop publishing for RTL languages presents unique challenges but also an opportunity to reach a vast, diverse audience. By understanding the distinct characteristics of RTL scripts and employing the right tools and practices, these challenges can be successfully overcome. When working with RTL languages, stick with the experts at Bromberg & Associates for an accurate and polished professional product that is both online and print-ready.

In the words of Paty Ghneim, Bromberg’s Multilingual Graphic Designer,

Working with RTL languages definitely has its challenges with figuring out how to flip the design and incorporate the text while respecting the original product. However, when I figure out the tricky parts and finalize a project, I feel empowered to be able to deliver a product that is on point, reads well, looks professional, and makes sense to its reader.”

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