When you take your SaaS product to a global audience, you’re likely to head into right-to-left (RTL) speaking territories, and you’ll need to do more than translating the app to make your content appealing.

RTL language Arabic is the fourth most popular language in the world It is spoken by around 300 million native speakers and 60% of Arabic speakers say they prefer to browse content in their own language.

Other widely-spoken RTL languages include Persian, Hebrew, and Urdu. Then there are languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Korean to consider, which are traditionally read in columns from top to bottom first, and then right to left.

Dealing with RTL languages is often one of the scariest aspects of localization for Westerners.

Sound like a lot to take on? It’s not necessarily as daunting as it may sound, but RTL translation is a vital part of localization. Here are five things that will help you get started.


1. It is not just a mirror image

An RTL-language app may appear to be a mirror image of its LTR counterpart. However, a lot of work will have gone into making the RTL website seamless for its native-speaking visitors.

On a fundamental level, the base direction of the language must be reformatted. For the most part, your application framework will do the heavy lifting of making text go from right to left.
For HTML, this is done using the dir="rtl" attribute. The best place for this is on the root HTML element or it can go on any other child element.
Things can get complicated with special characters, such as question marks and exclamation marks. These don’t always have an obvious direction, so you could end up with sentences that throw up glaring inaccuracies such as “?How do we fix this”.


2. Think beyond the text

Getting the language translated well is one thing, but your content is more than just words. Failing to consider elements such as icons, typography, menus, graphs, and visuals will create a poor user experience.

Let’s start with icons. Many are symmetrical and generic in their meaning – think of the bin or the download icons. But things get tricky with icons that illustrate movement or direction.

What happens to back buttons, bigger than or smaller than icons and tick-lists, for example?

New versions of the artwork and different layouts may need to be created.


3. Factor in bidirectional features

Bidirectional (or BiDi) languages – such as Hebrew, Arabic and Persian – refer to scrips that predominantly read RTL but have certain elements that are read LTR.

Numbers are the most obvious consideration here.

On an RTL website the number 500 isn’t written 005, it is still 500. The same goes for telephone numbers, which are written LTR by country code, area code and then the number. And, if you’re including times, these are also written LTR.

Words in LTR languages keep their directionality, including brand names from LTR language speaking countries.

As with special punctuation, Unicode is the best bet when formatting BiDi features like this because it determines directionality for different character types. By grouping characters into “strong”, “weak”, or “neutral” it can control how these characters are presented.


4. Dealing with the smaller details

While not exhaustive, this list will help you to identify some of the remaining priorities in RTL conversion.

  • Ratings: Online ratings are crucial to the success of many businesses. On LTR sites, the star furthest right must be clicked for the top rating; this is the opposite in RTL environments.
  • Logo and navigation: On LTR websites, we’re used to seeing the logo in the top left-hand corner, whereas RTL websites display them in the top right. The menu and navigation buttons should also be mirrored.
  • Dates: Does 02/10/20 refer to the 2nd of October or the 10th of February? This will depend on the country and whether it uses standard international date format or not.
  • Calendars: These need to be mirrored on RTL websites, and check if the calendar has other differences, such as Sunday being the first day of the week.
  • Typography: Do some research into the best fonts for each language. For example, Google recommends the Noto font for readability in Arabic, and bold and italicized fonts should not be used.

5. Consider top-to-bottom, right-to-left languages

Japanese, Chinese and Korean are traditionally read in columns, top to bottom first, and then right to left (TBRL).

Just to confuse matters, many more modern scripts (such as Japanese yokogaki), write from left to right. In modern Korea, vertical writing is now uncommon and most Chinese publications are now printed vertically, from left to right.

Before embarking on a mission to develop TBRL versions of your software, be sure that the script you’re translating to is the right one.

If you do decide on a TBRL version, this can be achieved to some extent in CSS using writing-mode: vertical-rl.


Focusing on content accuracy is more important than trying to reformat the layout

Having said that, there are tools to do this and it’s not as hard as you would think.