Language and Alphabets

Recently, I had a project to work on that incorporated a phrase repeated in about 12 different languages. The client sent over an email with the text in each language. Some were recognizable to me, some I could take an educated guess about and others… no clue.

I set up this project in InDesign. Any phrase in a Latin alphabet, even though I might not be able to read or say the word, it was viewable in the font chosen by the client – Calibri. Cyrillic phrases were also readable in Calibri. The issue came from pictograph type of alphabets.

I have to admit, I never knew how many different alphabets were out there. There must be hundreds if not thousands. Searching for fonts that would display the text (even if I wasn’t happy about the styling), wasn’t easy. Typical ones like: Chinese, Korean, Arabic, etc, have fonts that are part of either Adobe software package or Mac OS X. Others aren’t as lucky.

Through trial and error, I narrowed down the missing translations to 3. Those last few were stubborn ones. On the suggestion of a co-worker, I copied the text and pasted straight into a Google search. That helped to identify one more. Then I stumbled on a site that helps with such things. Surprisingly it is created by Xerox and is called Language Identifier. This little gem identified the remaining languages.

Language Identifier

Lessons Learned

I learned a handful of things through this process. Some will be useful moving forward when I encounter similar projects. The Language Identifier is definitely worth bookmarking.


There are some fonts that support many different languages. By trying some standard system fonts, I was able to narrow down the list of missing translations dramatically. Calibri was able to provide characters for many of the different alphabets. This helped many of the words to have a consistent look. Another good choice is Arial. With Arial, I was able to make a number of the pictograph style fonts viewable. I know Helvetica (my default) has support for many different alphabets, but apparently what I have installed on my computer doesn’t provide this support.

Open Source

Open source projects are fantastic. While searching for font solutions I stumbled across Noto. Noto is a collection of open source fonts in many different character sets that all have a consistent look. Surprisingly, there are both serif and sans-serif options available for most alphabets.

Noto a font for all the world's languages

Having all the fonts look coherent was my biggest stumbling block once I had identified all the languages. Since the client wanted to make use of Calibri, having a consistent look just plain didn’t happen on this project. I got close on most of the phrases, but there are a handful that look totally unincorporated into the design.

Right to Left

Some languages are written right to left as opposed to how most languages based on the Latin alphabet are written left to right. In my particular project, I was dealing with Arabic. When I copied and pasted from the Word document I had and into InDesign, The Arabic looked “off” even though it was rendering. I tried several different fonts that supported Arabic characters and got the same results. Finally, it dawned on me that the text was backwards. I wasn’t at all sure how to change the direction of one line of text and not all the others. Just on a whim, I thought maybe I could just mirror the text box. Voila. My Arabic now looked correct. Do I know it is correct? Nope. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but to my untrained eye the shapes looked right.

The biggest lesson I learned is keep plugging away and never fear the unknown.

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