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For this post I want clarify why I think typesetting should be done by someone who can read the language they are setting rather than someone who can’t. This may sound like a very obvious statement but in my experience there are some LSPs and many clients who use typesetters who can only read their mother tongue (English) and although they might be highly skilled at working with text in design packages they cannot actually follow what they are setting. For me this can equate to additional checks (costs) and delays in the project delivery.

First off, and just for clarification here is how I define the difference between translation and typesetting. As stated in an earlier blog post translation is the process of translating text – typesetting is the process of making sure the translated text looks the same as the original. Translation is undertaken by a professional mother tongue linguist (who should be an expert in their subject field), typesetting is undertaken by a trained and professional typesetting operative (ok so some translators can translate directly into InDesign, Quark, etc., – but they are the exceptions) who by using specific design and layout skills is able to ensure the end product (the completed translation) will replicate the look and feel of the original. Any formatting specifications that are relevant to the target language (such as speech quotations, currency layout etc.) will be created by the translator whilst they are translating the text.

More than simply ‘copy’ and ‘paste’, the typesetter will need to be able to manipulate the translated text so it follows the same layout as the original. Text may need to be adjusted to fit the layout. What appears to fit in English may be very different when translated into German for example. A typesetter will manipulate the translated text within the layout to ensure that all the page elements (headers, titles, splash text) etc., match the original. My feeling is it can only aid the overall quality of the project if the person who is responsible for typesetting can actually understand what the person who has created the translation has written.

A typesetter will also manage the vast array of fonts that will be needed to ensure consistency and readability of the translated document. Typesetters should have a good knowledge of typefaces and should know, for example, what the Arabic equivalent is of a specific Western based script.

Having worked with many marketing organisations over the years I have found it is quite common to want to utilise their own in-house studio and typeset the work themselves once we have provided the translation. This makes sense – why pay someone else when you already have the skills in house, and to a certain degree I agree with the notion that if you are able to set English text you have the right core skills to set a foreign text.

However, an understanding of what the text is saying can greatly help the process of typesetting the document and wherever possible I would recommend using a mother tongue to set the text. They don’t need to be a qualified translator (their typesetting skills are more important here) but they should be able to follow the text and understand the flow of the text. Typesetting certain foreign languages if you do no read or speak that language can be extremely difficult. On many occasions we have been asked to proof typeset work that has been set by someone who does not read that language only to find that none of the text is set in the correct direction or that the letters are not joining up correctly to display the words as they should appear.

As a minimum, if you are using a non-mother tongue typesetter I recommend getting the completed document proof-checked by a mother tongue to ensure that nothing has been missed and the text makes sense to a native reader.

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Posted by Tom Wilson-Copp

Tom Wilson-Copp is a document design and production consultant who specialises in the project management and delivery of B2B services including design, localisation, off-line production and digital marketing.
With over 12 years experience working within the business services industry, Tom has worked for both large multinationals as well as bespoke service agencies.