Simple steps to great multilingual dtp outcomes

This highly practical guide is a must-read for anyone involved, or even just interested, in multilingual desktop publishing projects.

Business clients and design professionals will find it invaluable for avoiding key mistakes and ensuring their multilingual materials are top quality.

Business project managers will find Parts A and B most useful.

Part A covers the basics – what multilingual dtp is, who does it, how it’s done.

Part B delves into the practicalities of managing multilingual projects:

  • choosing your providers
  • smart steps to take before starting a project
  • the work processes to follow.
Designers and print industry experts will find Part C invaluable.

Here we identify the problem areas multilingual typesetters encounter when working in an existing design, and how to adapt your designs to avoid these issues.

We then identify the areas to watch when typesetting languages yourself – and which languages you really shouldn’t be tackling.

Click the tabs at the top of the page to move from section to section.

Part A: Multilingual dtp basics – the what, who and how


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1. What is multilingual desktop publishing?

In its broadest sense multilingual dtp simply refers to using software to produce documents and publications in multiple languages.

That can be anything from a simple Word document, PowerPoint presentations, brochures and posters, through to high quality digital or print publications.

More commonly, the term is used in a narrower sense to refer to converting and adapting existing graphic design documents or publications into corresponding materials in other languages.

In this scenario multilingual dtp involves the steps of translation, typesetting and output, and is what is described here.

2. Who does it?

Typically, a translation and typesetting services company (such as us!), working in conjunction with the graphic designers who produced the original document.

The graphic designers will generally start and finish a project – they will prepare and forward the files to the translation company, and produce the final output.

In between, the translation house will translate the text(s) into the required languages, then typeset (arrange and correctly format) those translations in the designers' file(s).

Occasionally clients will make other arrangements for the translations, so the translation house will do the typesetting only.

And sometimes clients will want an independent review of the translation added to the process.

3. What programs are used?

These days Adobe products rule the roost - typically InDesign for multi page publications, and Illustrator for more graphic-dominated, generally single page materials.

Photoshop is also sometimes used, and QuarkXPress, which once dominated the market, is still preferred by some designers.

4. What does multilingual dtp involve?

Converting an existing graphic design file into other languages typically involves three steps:

  1. translation of the text into each of the required languages
  2. typesetting the other language texts in the design file(s)
  3. output (digital and/or print)

It is best to use specialists for each task.

Why? Because:

  • Professional translators will ensure your foreign language texts are fit for purpose
  • Experienced multilingual typesetters will ensure all foreign text displays correctly and page layout is appropriate for the target cultures
  • Design, print or pre-press professionals will ensure the output is exactly right


Whilst many translation companies also provide multilingual typesetting services, they generally don’t have in-house designers or pre-press experts.

Thus, for most projects it’s best to leave the output processes to the original designer or print specialist.

5. What does the typesetting process involve?

The typesetter's job is to correctly arrange the foreign language texts in the design files, and ensure the resultant language publications are appealing to the target readers.

They’ll first import the translation into the design file, then adjust and re-format the text so it:

  • displays correctly
  • fits the available space
  • follows the rules and conventions for that language
  • looks good and can be easily read

They’ll also make sure:

  • overall page layout is appropriate and attractive
  • there is consistency of style across the publication

The final step is to print out the new language versions and proof them thoroughly. This is a vital part of the process and generally involves more than one person.

Often the translator will be required to sign off the typesetting before delivery.

5 things a multilingual typesetter will typically need to adjust:
  • fonts – especially for languages written in other scripts
  • text box sizes – because translations are invariably of different length to the original text
  • text point sizes – so it fits optimally into the available space
  • line spacing (called “leading”) – for visual appeal, neither cluttered nor overly spaced out
  • text styles – existing ones re-defined or new styles created for each language

6. The five requisites for multilingual typesetting

To correctly typeset foreign language text as part of a multilingual dtp project, requires the following:

1. Software
  • standard English design and word processing software
  • specific programs or plugins for certain languages

For example, the Middle Eastern version of InDesign is needed to handle right to left languages such as Arabic.

2. Design program expertise

Multilingual dtp requires a range of different font styles and weightings in each language to be typeset

  • familiarity with industry-standard layout and output techniques and processes
  • particular expertise with formatting text - multilingual dtp often requires significant adjustment of the original text settings to fit translated texts into the available space
  • how to use the World-Ready Composer
3. Knowledge of the language(s)
  • to confirm all text is displaying correctly
4. Knowledge of language-specific text conventions
  • which fonts are appropriate and when
  • the dos and don’ts for layout and design that need to be followed
5. Language-specific layout techniques and workarounds
  • The unorthodox typesetting techniques and solutions needed for the tricky scripts and languages

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Part B: Managing multilingual dtp projects - practicalities for business clients


1. Choosing your providers

a. Your design/print professionals

If you have existing materials, it is best to involve the designers of those materials in the project.

They will have all the required files and be familiar with the design, so are best placed to work with the multilingual typesetters to produce the other language versions.

If that isn’t possible, all the files will need to be obtained from them.

Failing that, the materials will need to be recreated.


If starting with a new design, make sure your designers are aware the materials are to be produced in multiple languages.

As we explain in Part C, this may affect aspects of their design.

b. Your translators & typesetters

There are several advantages to using a single company for both translation and typesetting:

  • it reduces project complexity,
  • it simplifies your project management requirements,
  • it should result in a faster turnaround,
  • it may well be cheaper.

However not all translation companies provide multilingual dtp/typesetting services, and you will need to confirm they have expertise in the languages you need.

And of course you need to be happy they will produce the standard of translation you require.

If you opt for separate providers for the translation and typesetting components, it’s important the translators provide their texts how the typesetters want them.

They may have preferences for certain file types, layout, even fonts in certain languages.

Supplying something different could result in additional typesetting time, and therefore cost. In a worst case scenario the translation files may not be usable.

And of course if you decide to work with individual translators, you need to make sure they have the skills needed to translate to professional standard.

2 FAQs:

Can’t the designers just typeset the languages themselves?

For some simple projects in European languages, maybe. But it generally isn’t advisable, as typesetting can be quite complex and laying out a language you’re not familiar with is decidedly risky - see Part C.

Can’t the translation company also provide the output files?

For anything beyond pdfs, not really. The pre-press process requires specialised knowledge, so it’s best left to the experts.

2. Three key steps before starting a multilingual dtp project

(i) Make sure your text/document is (really) ready for translation

A partial list of things to consider:

  • Are there sections or references that won’t apply to foreign clients/markets? Eg contact details, regulations, other services/products

  • Any culturally specific text or wording? This may be lost on foreign language readers, or elicit a different response than intended.
  • Any jokes/puns/play on words? These seldom translate easily or well, so rewording is recommended
  • Any product names? The translators will need to know what name these are sold/marketed under in the target market

Some clients will “internationalise” their text before sending it for translation.

(ii) Confirm your project time frames are realistic

Clients sometimes underestimate the time needed for a multilingual desktop publishing project.

Your translation company can quickly tell you how long they’ll need, and should state this in their quote. Or see our guide to realistic translation project times.

It’s wise not to try to squeeze their time frames – doing so means the project will have to be rushed, which greatly increases the chances of mistakes being made, and can affect translation quality.

(iii) Ensure the typesetters see the layout early on

Texts typically expand in translation (see Part C), often significantly, and occasionally it can be difficult for typesetters to fit translated texts into the available space.

Early discovery of any issues gives time for layout adjustments to be made. This can make a big difference to the quality of, and reader response to, the other language versions.

It will also avoid a potential delay to the project.

It’s just a matter of the designer sending the typesetters a pdf of the artwork so they can assess the layout.

3. How to manage a multilingual dtp project

Your precise workflow will depend on who you use for each of the three stages of the multilingual desktop publishing process – translation, typesetting and output.

Here are the most common scenarios:

A. Our recommended work process - a single provider

The simplest and most efficient process is for your translation house to do both the translations and typesetting.

Translation services companies are used to coordinating with designers, so this will reduce to a minimum your work in managing the project and should produce the fastest turnaround.

Step 1. Client gives go ahead to Designer and Translation House
Step 2. Designer forwards files to Translation House
Step 3. Translation
Step 4. Typesetting
Step 5. Translation House sends typeset files to Designer
Step 6. Designer checks files, produces output
Step 7. Designer delivers final artwork to Client


B. Alternative Process – separate translation and typesetting providers

This is the process if you use separate companies for translation and typesetting, or your own translators.

Step 1. Client gives go ahead to Designer, Translators, Typesetters
Step 2. Designer forwards files to Translators and Typesetters
Step 3. Translation
Step 4. Translators deliver translations to Client; Client forwards these to Typesetters
Step 5. Typesetting
Step 6. Typesetters send typeset files to Designer
Step 7. Designer checks files, produces output
Step 8. Designer delivers final artwork to Client


This scenario adds some complexity to the project, will generally take longer, and increases your project management time (especially if you are dealing with several translators).

It makes sense when you see clear advantages in using your own translators, or if your preferred translation company does not provide typesetting services.

C. Alternative Process – adding an independent translation review

This is where you use a translation house to do the translations, have these reviewed by third party reviewers, then the translation house completes the typesetting.

Step 1. Client gives go ahead to Designer and Translation House
Step 2. Designer forwards files to Translation House
Step 3. Translation
Step 4. Translation House sends translations to Client; Client forwards these to Reviewers
Step 5. Translation Review
Step 6. Reviewers deliver finalised translations to Client and Client forwards these to Translation House. (Alternatively, Reviewers provide suggested changes for Translation House to consider and finalise the translations)
Step 7. Typesetting
Step 8. Translation House sends typeset files to Designer
Step 9. Designer checks files, produces output
Step 10. Designer delivers final artwork to Client


This is likely to be the most complex of the three options, involve you in the most work, and take the longest.

It is recommended only if you see clear advantages to an independent review. Bear in mind that a Translation House following best practice will already have carried out a second translator review of the translations – what we call our “quality-assured translation” service.

And take care that too many cooks don’t spoil the broth!

2 key tips when getting a translation review:

1. Do the reviews before, not after, the typesetting
Any changes to text after it has been typeset will involve double handling, delay the project and likely incur additional charges.

2. Avoid the common pitfalls in getting a translation review
It’s amazing how easily a review process can come unstuck!

Make sure:

  • you clearly define what your reviewers are to do (and not do)
  • they have the required skillset to do the job
  • everyone is clear who has final responsibility for the texts

See this article for more information.

It is also possible of course to engage your own translator and independent reviewer in each language, and use a translation house just for the typesetting.

As this will involve you in much more work, you’ll want to have clear reasons for opting for this process over the simpler and faster options.

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Part C: What designers need to know for multilingual dtp


1. Designing to accommodate foreign languages

There are four areas designers should think about when designing materials for multilingual treatment. In descending order of importance these are:

A. Space

This is the biggie. In fact, it’s HUGE!

Here’s why:

1. Translations almost always expand from the original text

A 10-20% increase in word count going from English into European languages is normal.

30% or more is not unusual, and some languages expand even more – the Polynesian languages, Vietnamese, and sometimes Indonesian/Malay for example.

In the example to the right (click to enlarge), see how the 19 lines of English body text has expanded to 25 in Samoan, even after significantly reducing the point size!

Further, a single succinct caption, heading or title may require several more and/or longer words in translation.

That may mean needing more horizontal space, or running it over an additional line or lines.

2. Many languages need greater leading than European languages

The Latin script we’re familiar with is vertically compact, but most other scripts aren’t.

Almost all Indian languages take up more vertical line space, for example. So too do Thai, Lao and Khmer.

Then there are Burmese, Amharic, Armenian…

And even Arabic which looks like it should occupy similar vertical space to English often needs greater leading to avoid lower diacritics on one line overlapping with upper diacritics on a following line.


Check out this Khmer example.

In the heading, the yellow line marks the bottom of the top row of text, the red line marks the top of the second row.

Replacing the English text without increasing the leading has produced significantly overlapping lines.

This is jarring to a Khmer reader and looks unprofessional - much greater separation between the lines is needed.

In contrast, the body text below the heading has appropriate leading and looks fine.

3. Some languages need bigger point sizes
You might get away with 6 or 7 point in an English font, but try that in an equivalent Chinese or Japanese font and the multiple stroke characters will “fill in” and be difficult to read.

In the image below, at actual size (not enlarged) the text on the left is hard to read, the middle is reasonable, and the right is comfortable.Generally, the more complex the script (the more lines or strokes it has) the larger your minimum point sizes must be.

4. Many languages use longer words than English
Classic European language examples are Finnish, German and Russian, but also the Romance languages - French, Spanish, Italian etc.

- rattlesnake
- kalkkarokäärme
- Klapperschlange
- гремучая змея
- serpent à sonnettes

This can make typesetting captions and headings in tight spaces difficult.

It can also be a problem in narrow text boxes where hyphenation becomes necessary.

Lots of hyphenation looks harsh and is more difficult to read, but too little can create a ragged look with varying line lengths and inter-word spacing – it can be difficult to get the text looking good.

This comparison of Burmese and English artwork (click to enlarge) epitomises the “space” issues in multilingual dtp. See how in the Burmese the main heading expands from 10 to 19 letters, the bottom headings and text need more lines, and the difficulty of fitting the text into the tight spaces of the circle image. The typesetter has managed to get all the text in with some clever juggling, but the result is much less appealing in Burmese than in English.

So what does all this mean for your design?
Multilingual typesetters are adept at manipulating text to fit the available space.

But if a particular language text simply won’t fit without things looking cluttered, they’ll need to alter the design elements to create more space.

That’s something best avoided if possible – designers don’t want their work changed, typesetters know they’re not designers, and clients typically want consistency across the different language versions.

If you can design to accommodate greater text volume everywhere, you’ll make the multilingual typesetters' job easier and help produce a better overall result in the other languages.

We recommend:
  • ensuring there is space for text boxes to be enlarged if needed
  • avoiding very small point sizes and tight leading – we may need to increase both for the foreign language text
  • ensuring titles, headings and captions can expand horizontally, and potentially run to an extra line
  • expecting text in graphics to need more space in translation
  • avoiding narrow text boxes and columns

B. Fonts

Multilingual typesetters will typically have to change a document’s fonts for languages in other scripts – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, the Indian languages, several South East Asian languages, for example.

But if possible, they’ll want to keep your original fonts for all languages that use the Latin (Roman) script.

This provides consistency across language versions and avoids any difficulty matching the style of fonts you’ve used in the original.

However, not all fonts have the extended character sets needed to handle the accented and unique letters found in many languages.

Letters like the ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ś, ź, ż in Polish, the glottal stop and stress mark diacritics in Polynesian languages, or Cyrillic and Greek letters, for example.

And bear in mind that if you use particularly stylish or quirky fonts, these are unlikely to support some languages, so the effect you’ve created may be difficult to replicate in other language versions.

Fortunately, Unicode and the more standard Mac and PC fonts typically cover a wide range of languages, so using these in your documents should avoid any issues and make the typesetters’ job easier.

4 ways to confirm a font supports numerous languages (so is good for multilingual dtp):

1. the Details tab for a font in Adode Typekit
2. the font description in FontShop

Both of these give a list of supported languages.
Our tip: any font that supports Polish, Russian and Greek is likely to be ideal for multilingual dtp.

Another measure is the number of languages supported – a hundred odd is good for multilingual dtp, only 50 will mean many important languages won’t be.

3. a Google search for ‘[font name] font languages’

4. Character Viewer (Mac) or Character Map (Windows) to see what characters a font supports.
Our tip: look for the letter ‘ą’ (small ‘a’ with ogonek), if it’s there that font is highly likely to support a wide range of languages and be great for multilingual dtp.

C. Graphics

The challenge here is ensuring your graphic elements will have the effect and appeal you’re after in other cultures.

The ideal is to use images with “universal” appeal and impact, but that can be easier said than done.

It means avoiding any culturally specific subject matter – customs, food, pastimes, sports, etc.

But it also extends to landscapes, fauna and flora - a typical scene in one country may be far from typical in another, and many animals have different connotations across cultures.

And then there are the people in the photos you use – will other cultures relate to those faces in the way you want?

These are all things to bear in mind and potentially discuss with your client. And of course, clients will sometimes be happy to change out photos or images for different language versions.

D. Complex design elements

Multilingual typesetters will seldom mess with your design – that’s the last thing they’d want to do!

However, there is one case where they will need to:

When working with right to left languages – Arabic, Farsi/Dari, Hebrew, etc.

These languages read from the right edge of the page to the left edge – the opposite to English.

This means some elements will need to be flipped, others moved from one side to the other, and most text will become right rather than left justified. 

For example:

Note: the Middle Eastern version of InDesign has built in functionality for reversing the layout, so leave this to the multilingual typesetters rather than do it yourself.

So how does this affect your design?

Generally it won’t, but if you’re working with complex design elements it may help to know these may have to be ungrouped and individually moved or flipped later by the typesetter.

2. Typesetting languages yourself

It can be tempting to want to typeset foreign language texts yourself.

That’s fine if you’re familiar with the language but if you’re not, there are some inherent risks.

These are the three most common mistakes we see:

  • certain letters/characters displaying incorrectly
  • using fonts that aren’t suitable or lack impact
  • not following layout conventions for that language

These things have an obvious impact on the target audience and will reduce the effectiveness of the publication.

And unless you know the language, you will be blissfully unaware of the mistakes you’ve made…


That said, not all languages are equal for multilingual desktop publishing. Some are relatively straightforward, whereas others require specialised knowledge.

Here is our breakdown of the areas to watch for different groups of languages we commonly work with.

Straightforward languages for multilingual dtp

Languages that use the Latin (Roman) script

Typesetting these languages generally isn’t problematic. That’s because their design aesthetics, layout conventions and font usage will likely be much the same as for English.

However there are 4 issues to watch:

  1. Some English fonts won’t have all the characters needed for all languages, as discussed above.
  2. Some individual letters may display incorrectly when all other letters are correct - French œ and German ß, or Polynesian language glottal stops and stress marks for example.
  3. Numbers may need editing. For example, English 1,234.56 is 1.234,56 in many other languages.
  4. Hyphenation must follow the rules for that language, as words cannot be broken in any position.

The same four issues as above.
In addition, be aware of the following Greek punctuation marks that differ from English:

  • ; is a question mark (an English semicolon)
  • a point above the line (·) is the equivalent of an English semicolon
  • quotation marks are « »
Cyrillic languages

Cyrillic script is used for Russian of course, but also for some 20 odd other languages.

Many of these use additional characters not found in Russian, and some fonts will support Russian but lack the glyphs needed for other languages.

So you need to take particular care that all letters are displaying correctly.

It also pays to know how letters change shape when italicised in Cyrillic languages. For example, compare the standard and italicised forms of the letters ‘и’, ‘д’, ‘т’ and lower case ‘в’ in this Russian text:

Key tip:
If you’re not familiar with the language yourself, get someone who is to check and sign off your typesetting – ideally the translator responsible for that language text.
For an extensive list of languages that use the Latin script, see:
Languages needing specific expertise for multilingual desktop publishing

Typesetting any other script or character-based language is more complicated. You’ll need to:

  • have a range of fonts
  • know which fonts are appropriate for your publication
  • understand text layout conventions in that language

and you may well also need:

  • specific techniques or workarounds to overcome known issues in the language
  • additional software

It certainly isn’t just a matter of pasting in the text, changing the font, and tweaking the layout – that could be disastrous!

Even if you avoid text errors, you could end up creating artwork that is unappealing, and even off-putting, to the target audience.

We strongly recommend leaving the typesetting of any language that uses a different script to the experts.

Here are the key issues for some of the main languages

A superb example of Chinese typesetting - clean, bold sans serif fonts; large point sizes; contrast through different text sizes, colour, vertical vs horizontal text; appealing page layout.

Chinese, Japanese & Korean

  • Font usage – having the right style of font is very important in these cultures.
  • Using different font weightings for effect.
  • Alternatives to italicising – these languages generally don’t italicise, so different strategies for creating contrast are needed.
  • General text and page aesthetics – what looks good on a page. For example, Chinese favours neatly aligning text and the effect of white space on the page is important.
  • Line start/end conventions – certain characters shouldn’t start or end a line.
Thai, Lao, Khmer

  • Correct display of text, and especially diacritics – there is a known issue with “floating diacritics” in Thai, for example.
  • Appropriate fonts.
  • Where to break lines – these languages generally don’t have spaces between words, but lines must wrap at the end of a word, not mid-word.
  • Point sizes and leading – lines take up more vertical space than European languages so need greater leading. But point sizes cannot be too small or the text will be hard to read.
Arabic, Hebrew and other right to left languages

  • Reversal of page layout due to text direction
  • Software to handle R – L text direction
  • Justification – mostly right, sometimes centre, virtually never left.
  • Correct display of numbersshould it be Arabic or Hindi numerals?
  • Correct word order of English words included within R – L text
  • Adequate leading – so lower diacritics on one line don’t overlap with upper diacritics on the next line

See our Arabic translation and typesetting page for further information.

Indian languages

  • Getting text to display correctly – through World-Ready Composer settings, additional software and specific workarounds for incorrect rendering of certain glyph combinations
  • Appropriate fonts
  • Correct display of numbers
  • Adequate leading – greater vertical space per line is needed in many Indian languages

Our Hindi translation and typesetting page gives further details.


Nothing about Burmese is straightforward!

These are the main problem areas:

  • Correct text display – there are major issues with individual letters and letter combinations rendering incorrectly in graphic design programs.
  • Fonts are not interchangeable (due to different underlying encoding).
  • Bolding – few fonts have alternative weightings.
  • Fitting text into the available space – significantly greater leading than English is needed.
  • Word wrap and hyphenation.

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