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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Designing in a Multitude of Languages

Two associates of mine are a husband and wife print book production team. They do a lot of work for the World Bank and NATO, which means their publications go around the world and are printed in a multitude of languages, from English to Spanish to French to languages I’ve never head of.

This is exciting. But as I listened to one of my associates go through the process of changing a print book from one language to another, I realized just how complex a job this is.

Background on the Print Books

Periodically my associates ask me to critique and hopefully improve their layout or cover design, color usage, fonts, etc. So I have a grasp of the overall kind of work they do.

Most of the books are perfect-bound texts upwards of two hundred pages in length, with an 8.5” x 11” format (or the closest international page size). The book interiors are text-heavy, but they do include numerous charts and graphs as well as some photos.

When I was speaking to the husband (of the husband and wife team) this week, he told me how he had to remake the charts, graphs, and tables when recreating books he had initially designed and laid out in another language. He described the following steps:

    1. He had created InDesign style sheets and “tags” for the word processing document such that importing text into an empty duplicate of the initial book design (lets say in French) would yield a “mostly-accurate” version of the new text flow, with the headlines and body copy in the appropriate fonts and type sizes.


    1. His replacing and reflowing the text copy (let’s say in Spanish) did not include automatic, accurate formatting of “bullets” in lists. Therefore, he had to manually correct all of these in the new InDesign file.


    1. He had to replace all of the text blocks in charts and graphs. (Keep in mind that all but one of the languages are not his native tongue.) He had to do the same for the tables. Obviously, all replacement text had to be accurately placed, which was no simple task. Keeping track of which text blocks from the original word processing file (in any number of languages not his own) had to be placed in the charts and graphs (and in which order) was challenging.


    1. InDesign allows a designer to anchor photos and graphs to certain paragraphs. Clearly this is a benefit, since text in World Bank and United Nations print books often references graphics, making the proximity of the graphics to certain paragraphs of high importance.


    1. That said, it often takes either more or fewer words to say the same thing in one language than in another, so (in simplest terms) my associate’s print book text will often reflow (in the InDesign file) in rather dramatic ways when he replaces text of one language with that of another. This might mean that a table or chart that was on one page spread might migrate to another, either causing a disruption in the overall page design (balance of text and graphics) or separating a graphic from its associated explanation in the text of the book.


    1. Other languages often use other alphabets. For instance, the Cyrillic (used for such Slavic languages as Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Ukrainian) or Kanji alphabets (for Chinese and Japanese) don’t even vaguely resemble Engligh, and even French has certain diacritical marks or accents absent from English. All of this requires buying new software that totally remaps the computer keyboard. It also requires careful attention in reformatting print books from one language to another.


  1. Then there are the country-specific conventions and taboos. These might be as simple as a color choice. In some countries, the color white has certain connotations, whereas in other countries the cultural meaning of the color white could be the exact opposite. Moreover, something that might be harmless in one country (even on a merely visual or graphic level) might be an insult in another country.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study?

The first thing I would learn would be to avoid this work. However, my two colleagues have been doing this happily for a long time, and they find it quite lucrative.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, consider the following:

    1. Proofreading is essential. It wouldn’t hurt to do it the traditional way, with one person reading the text out loud to another. After all, you can easily get hypnotized by the work and make an error without realizing it.


    1. Make sure your client has submitted a clean word processing document. In all cases, highlight and then copy and place text. Avoid retyping text. This is where errors occur.


    1. Expect to buy additional software to support your client’s work.


    1. Assume that extra characters, from accents to typographic ligatures (two characters that are smooshed together) may not come across correctly in translation from the word processing document to the InDesign document (i.e., when you “place” the copy). (This means you should look for errors in places they will be most likely to occur.)


    1. Initially, place or reflow all the copy in the book or in a chapter to see where any “anchored” graphics will fall (that is, those graphic elements that are tied to a particular paragraph). Expect to massage the design a little, making some photos larger or smaller to ensure a pleasing balance of text and graphics on the page (when compared to an edition of the same book in another language). Expect the work to be in flux for a while. Expect to make changes. However, don’t be tempted to change spacing between paragraphs and sections just to make everything fit.


    1. Always use “style sheets” available in InDesign. This will ensure consistency and accuracy, but it will also make it easier for you to fix any errors.


    1. Find someone who understands the cultural norms and taboos of the country of origin. If you’re transferring the overall book design and text from a French to Spanish treatment (for instance), it will help to have a colleague who understands the culture check your work (graphic treatment, cover design, color usage, and so forth).


    1. Expect this to be really, really tedious work (as my associates have noted). They make sure they take breaks, go outside, walk around, and listen to music. Beyond their own comfort and sanity, this avoids their falling into a hypnotic state (like the highway hypnosis you slip into when driving long distances on the Interstate late at night), and hence it minimizes errors.


  1. Expect to get paid a lot for this kind of work. Consider it hazard pay. Unless of course you like it. Then, more power to you. It is necessary and highly valued work.

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