18 language versions done, here’s what I learned

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I am a linguist by training and at heart – I’ve even taught general linguistics at the university for one semester. This is why managing projects where digital learning materials are translated into different languages gives me immense pleasure!

I’ve worked with language versions for the past five years, but last autumn I had the chance to work with nearly 20 languages – many of which were new to me. Working with languages you have no knowledge of is extremely interesting since you need to find clever ways to ensure everything is correctly displayed.

What did I learn? At least these three things:

1. When you need to have your content translated, give the translator a visual demo of how the text will be displayed, preferably a full working version in English if that’s available. Especially when it comes to languages with non-Latin alphabet, seeing the context will mean the world to the translator.

2. Always try to work with web-safe fonts as otherwise you may (or rather, will) run into trouble with special characters. Do a test run with all the possible special characters in a given language with your font. Even if the font is said to support a certain language, do the test run anyway. It will save you a great deal of time, as otherwise you may be working for hours on a project before noticing that a certain special character isn’t showing as it should and need to change the font to the entire project.

3. Although you can’t be expected to know the syntax of each language you work with, do some basic research so you know what to look for while testing the final product.

At the minimum, first find out what special characters there are. As the space for text is always limited, you may for instance notice that the “tails” of letters like these are not displaying properly: щ ņ ķ ų ę ą (these are from Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Czech).

Second, learn how the basic punctuation marks are used. Did you know for instance that in French you need to have a space before and after many common punctuation marks (these at least : ; « » ! ?), like this:

Jean a dit : « Je veux le faire. »

Also, find out what kind of quotation marks are used – the English type (i.e. “like this“) or the German type (i.e. „like this“)? In my experience the German type„“ is much more common than I expected – for instance Czech, Polish and all the Baltic languages use it.

Hope this year brings me lots of new interesting languages to work with!


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