Thursday, December 10, 2015

Graphics arrangement for posters in Arabic & N'Ko

Localization primarily concerns language - translation from a source language to a target language - but also requires attention to cultural dimensions of communication and presentation of images. One aspect that apparently has been overlooked on more than one occasion is the arrangement of graphics when the target language is written - and read - right-to-left (RTL).

An often cited example is advertising translated into Arabic, where "before" (on the left) and "after" (on the right) pictures were not switched in the Arabic version, unintentionally implying the opposite of the visual message the advertisers hoped to convey (one site mentions this happening for a medicine and for laundry detergent).

RTL in ebola materials

International SOS to its credit has various ebola education materials in several languages, including Arabic and N'Ko, which are both written RTL. However these products - whatever the quality of their translations (which I'm not in a position to judge) - have run afoul of the same issue described above: The graphic layouts have not been inverted to correspond with the text direction.

First, ebola awareness posters in Arabic and N'Ko:

Ebola awareness posters in N'Ko (Manding) and Arabic, from International SOS

The graphics in these posters are arranged in exactly the same way as they are for left-to-right languages (like English), which means that the text reads one way, while the images are ordered in the opposite direction. Not ideal - readers can probably figure it out (assuming a certain level of literacy and familiarity with a visual clue like the arrow point, which we take for granted), but why make them work at it? Imagine following instructions or a comic in English with illustrations in panels organized from your right to your left.

But it's easy to fix. Here's the middle section of the N'Ko poster with graphics inverted:

This was quick and dirty, done with MS Paint on a laptop (can anyone who reads N'Ko evaluate it?). A professional effort would use a more sophisticated graphics program (Gimp or Adobe Photoshop) to get the spacings and alignments right and maybe flip some of the individual images. But the text and the illustrated story line here do at least go in the same direction.
Handwashing poster in Arabic from ISOS

And there's more. A handwashing poster in Arabic, again from International SOS (translation by Translators Without Borders), has the images of steps ordered in the direction contrary to how the language is read. It could be redone with the image sequence reversed to RTL and the digits changed to Arabic form (١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩٠).

Again, I'm not trying to be critical, but these are errors that stand out, and don't require any particular knowledge of the languages or scripts involved to set right.

A lot of good effort and resources went into producing such materials, and for good reasons, but all that gets unnecessarily discounted if such a basic mistake - one well known in advertising, localization, and development communication - is not corrected before dissemination.

But starting from where we are, with the urgency of the epidemic that prompted these efforts behind us, we have the opportunity to more carefully review and revise such materials to prepare them for re-use/re-purposing (per the 2Ds+4Rs). And in the case of layout, to think about establishing a best-practice of producing alternate graphics templates with inverted image order for RTL languages. How can this be done?

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