[FIT-Congress, Vancouver 2002, Proceedings, pp. 271–275; translated by John Hopkins]



Typography and Layout as a Translation Problem



Jürgen F. Schopp

University of Tampere (Finland), School of Modern Languages and Translation Studies



In recent times, translators have been faced more than ever with issues related to typography and layout. Text-processing and desktop publishing software is now part of the daily routine of almost all translators. The use of such software has resulted in a new type of translation product, the print-ready or ready-to-publish translation.

Translators must deal with typography and layout in several parts of the translation process. Source texts are usually in printed (i.e. typographic) mode. Target texts (translations) in most cases will be published, either traditionally as a printed document or often nowadays as a digital, or electronic document. In former days, to get a translation printed was a very complex process, with many experts involved. Nowadays all would seem to be quite easy: The commissioner gives the translator a document to translate in the form of a digital file. The translator loads the file into machine translation software, and the computer can produce a translation with a layout that is identical to the layout of the source language. After receiving the translation back from the translator, the commissioner seemingly has nothing else to do than to put this file onto the web or, if a printed version is desired, to transmit the file to a print office.

Is this the “brave new world” of professional translation? Is it really so easy? Do we really have something like a global or an international layout for newspapers, handbooks, and manuals? In fact there is something like an international layout in academic publications and, to a certain extent, in the field of technical writing. But this is the result of the happy ignorance of typographic lay people who, without reflection, have used style sheets which contain numerous relics from the typewriter era, “designed” by other lay people without typographic knowledge: software engineers. Another important question is: will translation quality be achieved via this process?

The fact is that translators nowadays are being required to take over functions that previously were the responsibility of trained experts in typography. But in order to be able to carry out such tasks optimally, translators need a basic knowledge of layout organization and typography, especially knowledge about differences in typographic conventions. Without this basic knowledge, working with desktop publishing (DTP) software becomes misguided. As a consequence, texts (whether printed or electronic) may appear unprofessional and may be unsuitable for the target culture.

1. What does Typography mean?

To understand the translated text as a communication tool which transfers a message, we must consider that every text consists of several levels: (1) communicative structure, (2) verbal content and (3) visual form (see Schopp 1996). This last characteristic has traditionally been called typography when the text was distributed in printed form. To this we must nowadays also count texts which are published in an electronic mode (WWW, CD-ROM, DVD, etc.).

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In Europe typography has existed since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing process with movable type which imitated professional handwriting. This process remained unchanged until the industrial revolution of the late 1800s brought a number of new technologies, like the line-casting machine. A second industrial revolution in the middle of the 20th century brought photocomposition, which has become more and more computerized. The third industrial revolution was the introduction of desktop publishing, which meant the full digitalization of type and – more important – something like a “democratization” of typography.

Since everyone has access to typographic fonts, typography has become a cultural phenomenon. Used by everyone this kind of typography has replaced mechanical and electric typewriters (to avoid confusion, I recommend the term “typographic writing” for such “lay-typography” texts). We often still find documents today where the influence of the typewriter can be seen. These documents often include numerous “offenses” against legibility or readability, orthotypography and reading comfort (e.g. geometric typefaces used as body text, very long lines with too many characters, changing the character spacing from line to line, etc.). This contrasts sharply with professional typography, which must take into account the relationships between all typographic items, an aesthetic point of view, the legibility of the text, the purpose of the printed work, its degree of presentation and durability and so on.

However, professional typographers have also adopted these new technologies and have explored new possibilities to design printed works. For this reason translators should take into consideration at least two kinds of typography: lay-typography and professional typography.

2. The Typographic Repertoire

Although a text has, against the belief of many linguists, no “natural” typographic form, both the communicative structure and the verbal content influence the typography of a text. In order to express these relationships, typography must involve much more than laymen will believe (Fig.1).

In a wider sense typographic items include all elements which belong to a printed (and, nowadays, also a digital and electronically-published) text. This includes empty space, alignment, type-area, paper format, quality and color, the proportions between the format and type-area, the proportions between printed and white space, and the contrast in size, shape, tone, texture, direction and color, etc. Some experts call this field macro-typography (e.g. Hochuli 1987: 7).

In a more special sense I count as Micro-typography I the script (font) which is used. The script is a secondary system of signs with basic characters (alphabetical graphemes in the form of uppercase letters, lowercase letters and small caps) and special (non-alphabetical) characters such as numbers, logographs, punctuation marks, etc. All these exist in numerous typefaces (Roman/Serif, Grotesque/Sans Serif, Egyptienne, Broken and countless others) and type face variants (thin, light, regular, bold, black, italic, condensed, wide, etc.).

A third area of typographic items contains all the possibilities that exist to emphasize words, parts of words, syllables, etc. This area I call Micro-typography II


It is clear that no one can deal with all of these items without special training, which must include training of the eyes, because typography is not a mathematical phenomenon, but an optical one.

3. Typography and Layout in the Translation Process

In 1996, when I read my paper “The Typographic Competence of the Translator – Visual Text Design and Desktop Publishing” (Schopp 1996) at the FIT-Congress in Melbourne, somebody from the audience asked: “What does the translator have to do with typography? Isn’t it enough just to translate?” Much has changed in the past six years. Nowadays it seems self-evident that translators will use typographic items to form the visual layout of the translation. More and more the commissioner expects that the translator will just “overwrite” the source text file in the target language so typesetting and composition costs can be saved. But the commissioner seldom knows whether the translator is typographically competent. So we must ask: what do translators usually know about typography? Do they know more than an average user of computers and text processing software? The visual form of many translations shows that the translator is not very knowledgeable about typographic design and conventions in the target culture.

When and where does the translator need knowledge and skills in typography and how much does he or she need? This question can only be answered when we know where in the translation process the translator is confronted with typography. (When I speak of translation I always mean professional translation and not linguistic translation!)

If the translation is produced in the source culture, very often the visual form will follow the conventions of the source culture, which means that the target reader will be confronted with a  “strange” text layout. And no wonder, because many translators have still a very naive “typographic awareness”.  They are not aware that …

… foreign-language typography requires more than having the typefaces with the correct accents. Respect for the typographic rules and conventions of each country, as well as for the original design, taking into account the intended purpose of the document, requires highly trained specialists who understand the language in question and are familiar with the possibilities and constraints of typography.  (Bokor 1998)

Understanding the translation process in a wider sense, as a complex of all such actions which are necessary to produce the target text up to the final product in typographic form, there are several phases where the translator is confronted with the phenomenon of typography. I see four different situations:


Figure 2: Page layout as a translation problem
(left: source text, right: the Finnish translation)




(1)   In the analysis of the source text the translator has to look for message-relevant and culture-specific visual elements in the source text layout, sometimes also for author-specific elements. An example of this is in Fig. 2, which shows two pages of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (see also Schopp 1994: 349-350), where Twain, as a former typesetter and newspaper-man, used typographic items to reproduce the image of an old newspaper page with all its faults (Chapter 26). The Finnish translation shows this part of the novel as a galley proof – not a very logical solution.
In cases where the source text layout should also serve as the target text layout, the translator must evaluate this layout and be able to point out items which are source culture-specific and must be changed into target culture items. Often these cannot be translated correctly if one does not have the whole material (e.g. text and pictures), as shown in Fig. 3, where the English text doesn’t correspond with the picture as the Finnish and the German texts do.


(2)   By the conception of target text layout the translator should be able to evaluate this layout, if it is designed in the source culture and gives advice about target culture-specific items. The creative design of a target text layout requires a special professional competence in graphic design, which not many translators have – it should be clear that the designing of a layout demands professional training and cannot be done by just anybody.


(3)   The reproduction of the target text layout may be a visual help to formulate the target text or an instrument to make the translation print-ready (see Schopp 1996: 192) – whether it happens by overwriting a pre-formatted layout or just reproducing a given target text layout.


(4)   When producing a translation in the source culture it is enormously important that the translator be involved in the publication process by proofreading the page proofs, with the objective of ensuring that there is no typographic element belonging to the source culture which will look odd (or result in misinterpretation) in the target culture.


4. Typography as a Translation Problem

When discussing typography and translation, we must distinguish between graphic and typographic phenomena. But since almost all writing nowadays is typographic, all graphic phenomena are also  typographic.

From a semiotic point of view some typographic items can – other than in handwriting – occur in a special context as signs which add new information to the text, e.g. the typeface:


         German History                      

         Irish Food       

Example 1                                                             Example 2



In the second example the typeface adds some specific associations to the verbal text (see also Fig. 1 in Schopp 1996: 191), which perhaps would be different for an American, an Irish or a German reader. Not every German would identify the typeface American Uncial, used for “Irish Food” in example 2, with “Irish” or “Celtic” content, but rather usually with associations such as “handicraft” or “artistic.” But the broken typeface (Fette Fraktur), used for “German History” in example 2, is for Germans in a political or national context not “typical German” (as e.g. for Americans and Finns), but has connotations of “neo-Nazism.” In another context it may awaken associations like “good old times”, “gemuetlich”, etc.

When preparing a text in the source culture for print or electronic publication, the visual form of the text, as already mentioned, very often follows the typographic conventions of the source culture. But “type produced in one language using the conventions of another will, at best, look ‘odd’ to the intended target audience. At worst it will impair legibility and give the impression of illiteracy” (Bokor 1998). As visual translation problems we have to take the following eight points into account:


(1)   Differences between the source language and target language systems, e.g. the average word length may have an influence on optimal letter spacing, line length, the possibility to use a special alignment, etc. Differences in the grammatical structure of the two languages may result in changes of the layout (see an example by Bokor 1998) or even make it impossible to realize a layout, as happened in the European Union in 1997 when the slogan “1997 European year against racism” got an identical layout in Finland first with the non-Finnish phrase “1997 Euroopan vuosi vastainen rasismin” and then with “1997 Euroopan rasismin vastainen vuosi” (which could be understood as “Year against European racism”).


(2)   Differences between the graphological systems of the source language and the target language may prevent the realization of a special design (e.g. a layout with an English headline in capital letters where there is no extra space between the lines, which could not be realized in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish and other translations because such letters as Å, Ö, Ü, Á, Ñ, Ç need additional line-spacing).

Figure 3: When text and picture do not fit



(3)   Language and culture-specific typographic characters (e.g. different writing/script systems – alphabets – which are used to show linguistic units; the possibility of using emphasis and marking the hierarchic structure of the text when typeface variants are not available; correct writing of names and other culture-specific items; suitability of certain typefaces in a specific context for specific languages).


(4)   Culture-specific application and distribution of typographic signs / items (e.g. use of quotation marks: „ “ ” » «; use of hyphens, en- and em-dashes: - – —; the spatial arrangement of compounds, numbers, etc.; the distribution of allographs: e.g. s / # – long-s and round-s in broken typefaces).


(5)   The use and frequency of typographic items (e.g. typeface variations such as italic, bold, small and caps used as a basic font within specific parts of a text or as a medium to show emphasis; the associative influence of a typeface; the use of a typeface as a dominant font for the body text; the use and frequency of  rules, underlining, edges and boxes).


(6)   Different use of layout items (e.g. paper formats, culture specific and text type-specific preference of symmetrical or asymmetrical design; use of grid rasters vs. free arrangement).


(7)   Functional organization of layout (e.g. weighing of picture and text elements; arrangement of text and pictures; selection of picture contents; restricted use of colors and color combinations as cultural or national symbols; paper formats).


(8) The quality level of the realization of a layout design may occur as a translation problem in such cases when the printed work is produced in the source culture, representing a lower typographic quality level than in the target culture.

5. Concluding Remarks

As I have shown, translation and typography “are similarly two distinct skills requiring different tools, yet translators are often expected to double as typesetters” (Bokor 1998). On the other hand it has in principle always been necessary for translators to take typographic items into account. But translators must 

… know their own limitations and those of the software they use, and should be able to intelligently discuss the typesetting aspect of a job that is to ultimately appear in print, regardless of whether they will undertake the DTP part themselves. To do so, they must be familiar with at least some basic concepts used in typesetting and the correct terminology to describe them, and they must know to charge for the extra work involved. (Bokor 1998)

Therefore translation studies should contain a module giving the students (and future translators) something like what I would call a typographic competence (see Schopp 1996: 193-195), which consists of basic typographic knowledge and skills. This competence would enable translators to avoid visual translation problems, to “overwrite” a layout-formatted file but at the same time take into account the typographic conventions of the target culture. But it is not enough to create the design or layout of a printed work in the target culture. This can only be done if the translator has something like a typographic design competence. In any case it is not enough for translators only to learn to use desktop publishing software mechanically. Every translator should know on a professional level the typographic conventions of all the cultures and languages he or she is working with, as discribed e.g. in Duden (2000) for German, Itkonen (2000) for Finnish, and Martínez de Sousa (2000) for Spanish.


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