Summer 1993

Konnishi wa to multilingual type

Software: Brett Wickens on non-Roman typesetting on the Macintosh

Increased globalisation of business means English-speaking designers are working more and more frequently on foreign language or multilingual projects. As apple Computer points out, ‘people everywhere are conducting business in multiple languages – and they want their computers to help them’. In the past, foreign-language typesetting required the skills of a specialist typesetter – usually a translator with a crude typesetting system with only one or two font choices – who would produce galleys to be pasted up on the drawing board. If the language was Roman, for example, French or German, then typing the copy would be relatively easy, as long as you didn’t mind using the single-quote key for both acute and grave accents; if it was not Roman, for example, Bengali, the process was much more difficult.

Today, as more and more designers use Macintosh equipment and are more integrated in the typesetting and layout loop, using outside suppliers for the foreign-language components of a multilingual project can seem both inefficient and frustrating. Apple’s solution is WorldScript, a set of software technologies released as part of System 7.1. Initially provided to help software developers to create multiple-language software programs, it is intended ultimately to facilitate working in multiple languages for the end-user.

WorldScript is not a translation program. If you need to understand the foreign language you are working in, WorldScript will not help. But for designers who need to integrate two or more languages with different character sets and conventions in the same document, WorldScript is an important development.

Apple’s reasoning for putting considerable resources into foreign language development is clear: nearly half of all Macintosh sales are outside the US, with the European market projected to triple by 1995, the Pacific market to increase by an even larger amount and the Asian markets among the fastest growing areas. Creating software for these markets’ different languages presents several challenges: in addition to the characters required, different languages also have different writing directions (left / right) or (right / left), structures, rules for hyphenation and alphabetical sorting orders, while elements such as the calendar, date and time display and currency formats can vary too.

From a computing standpoint, there are only one-byte and two-byte languages. Since one byte of computer memory can have only one of 256 possible values, one-byte languages contain fewer than 256 characters (English, French and Spanish, in which the standard characters are A-Z and 0-9, are examples of one-byte Roman languages; include Hebrew and Arabic). Two bytes of computer memory can have one of 65,536 possible values, necessary for many non-Roman languages such as Japanese, which uses both the 300 phonetic Kana characters and some 40,000 ideographic Kanji characters.

Problems that multilingual or language-localised software has to deal with include different text entry methods (two-byte languages have more characters than can be typed from a conventional key board); multidirectional text; contextual form (in Arabic and Hebrew, the appearance of a character is determined by the adjacent characters); and attributes (some languages require different forms for currency and calendars, such as the Arabic Lunar calendar). WorldScript gives system-level support, such as is already in existence for Roman languages, for non-Roman languages including Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Arabic, providing two-byte support, contextual formatting and multidirectional text capabilities in a single-system software version. Apple now believes that it can release ‘world-ready operating systems that will be able to support most of the world’s languages.’

In practice, this means that program developers such as Quark and Adobe will no longer have to spend time (and money) localising their programs because the support will be built into the system. By dropping the relevant WorldScript extensions and control panels into your system folder and installing language-specific fonts, you will have access to the characters and conventions of the languages installed. According to Apple, users will be able to install different languages as easily as fonts are installed today. Macintosh users have long appreciated the ease of inputting non-English Roman text – characters such as é, ü and å – by using simple key combinations. In the near future, non-Roman languages will become just as easy to work with.

WorldScript brings obvious benefits to the businessperson and the academic. For example, a businessperson working in Tokyo would be able to create a document in Japanese and email it to a colleague in Los Angeles, who could open it, read it and edit it on a Macintosh with a Japanese module installed. Or a student writing a paper could conduct an online search for an article in Chinese and then cut and paste the relevant parts of it – in Chinese – into an essay written in English.

For the designer, the creation of dual-language books or global corporate identities will be much simplified. One of the reasons for the success of the Macintosh with designers is that it gives them direct control. With WorldScript, creating the stationary for the Korean subsidiary of a multinational becomes a more controllable process. Translation companies will be able to provide disks with the required translations in a form that can easily be cut and pasted into design layouts in the studio.

Software companies who develop products for the Macintosh have been dealing with the problems of localisation since the system’s inception. Apple designed the data structure of the Macintosh in such a way that language-reliant components (such as the user interface) are separate from the code that runs in the program. This means that a program developer can customise its program for the French market simply by inserting French text strings in place of the English ones. Many companies are now producing localised non-Roman versions of their programs, especially as Apple is beginning to support these languages at system level.

Adobe, not a company to miss out on global developments, has developed a Japanese-specific version of Adobe Type Manager called ATM-J for smooth on-screen rendering of Japanese fonts. As with all multilingual computing, it requires robust hardware (ATM-J comes on 40 floppy disks to accommodate the large amount of font information required for the two-byte Japanese character set). Whereas a typical Roman font may occupy 40-60 KB of hard disk space, a non-Roman font may take up in excess of 7 MB.

Before WorldScript, the difficulties of incorporating different languages side by side in a single document seemed insurmountable. Soon, laying out Arabic will be as easy as English.

Brett Wickens, graphic designer, London

First published in Eye no. 9 vol. 3, 1993

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.