Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Font imperialism

Anyone who can read Arabic but lives in the Anglophone world rapidly becomes used to seeing Arabic text turned into gibberish by Western word processing and layout software. For some reason which a techie could no doubt explain to me, humanity can send people into space and produce every form of communications gadget with which to render ourselves more and more harassed and miserable. But having more than one alphabet on the same document. No way. You can hear the cogs grinding… I’m told that there is a ‘Middle Eastern’ version of the layout software InDesign, but it costs extra. FFS.

This (stolen from Raph Cormack) is a good example, from the recent BBC series The Night Manager. The Arabic letters spell the words Port of Alexandria, but the words are the wrong way round and they have been de-linked, which makes them senseless since Arabic is a fully cursive language:

The Night Manager - fucked up Arabic

Raph tells me that there was an even more egregious example in the BBC drama series The Honourable Woman, which I believe featured an entire stained glass window – which, one assumes, cost a fair bit to commission – on which the Arabic was meaningless.

Other examples from organisations with budgets which might not match that of the Beeb but who should still at least be able to find a native speaker of Arabic to wave their copy past include the programme of a Palestinian production of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theatre, part of the World Shakespeare Festival. The entire Arabic section was, again, inverted, and the letters delinked.

I hadn’t really considered until today that this litany of font/layout imperialism extended to languages other than Arabic, but of course Hebrew (and, one assumes, many other Asian and African languages) also falls victim to it. As do not-very-bright designers for clothes companies such as DimePieceLA. I noticed a screenshot on Twitter depicting a hoodie with Hebrew text and a comment alerting viewers to the fact that the Hebrew was the wrong way round. Visiting the DimePiece website, I discovered that it’s not just that one hoodie – it appears to be almost all of the company’s new season range:

dimepiece backwards hebrew

Surely, surely getting a Hebrew translator to glance over this would have been a lot cheaper than the possible costs in pulped stock, annoyed customers (when someone pisses themselves laughing at them in the street) and lost face. Or perhaps the linguistic hegemony of English is such that no-one (who matters) will care?

8 comments on “Font imperialism

  1. Maya
    April 1, 2016

    the linguistic hegemony of English is such that no-one (who matters) will care? brilliant

  2. manchesterclimatemonthly
    April 1, 2016

    e n o d y l e c i n

  3. shunra
    April 1, 2016

    Indeed – you’d think that getting a professional to (at least) proofread the text on a product would be the first step. But apparently, based on howlers I’ve seen in movies, on clothing, and most conerningly as tattoos, that’s just not done. ::shakes head::

  4. jonafras
    April 1, 2016

    There’s even an edition of a well-known Arabic-as-a-foreign-language textbook (*the* textbook) that features this same error. I’d rather diagnose the problem as coming primarily from word processing software (though of course that still doesn’t make it any better…).

    • Sarah Irving
      April 2, 2016

      For sure the problem comes from word processing software – but why is it still acceptable, in this day and age, for such software not to be able to handle other alphabets…?

  5. khulud khamis
    April 1, 2016

    While typesetting my novel, Haifa Fragments, we had the same problem. Every time the publisher sent me the PDF document, something with the Arabic was wrong (although my novel is in English, there are scattered Arabic sentences throughout the novel). Once the letters were disconnected, once they got them backwards. Ultimately, they got it right.
    However, and sadly, the Italian translation of the book came out, and I wasn’t involved in the process of the typesetting, and when I received my author’s copies, I was disappointed and sad to find out that the Arabic got mixed up in the process.
    Here, in Israel, although Arabic is one of the official languages of the state, we see mostly mistranslations of official signs. You would think that with one fifth of the population being Palestinian, they’d find someone to go over the signs.

  6. trusteeoccupant
    April 6, 2016

    I’m attaching another one here: Burger King say they speak your language, unless it’s Arabic, of course…

  7. You’d think with that big budget they’d figure it out. I’ve seen this “font imperialism” as you call it in so many productions. A few films however get it right every now and then. Also Freddie’s dialect in the first episode of The Night Manager is nowhere near Egyptian. No idea what that was.

    On the bright side I’ve seen a few hipsters here in Canada with Arabic letter tattoos that ranged from disconnected but kinda made sense to completely gibberish/misspelled/grammatically incorrect. Kinda makes your day when you see botched tattoos on those cunts.

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