International Business: Marketers, designers and others must reverse their way of thinking in the Middle East

Published: Friday, March 7 2014 8:21 a.m. MST

Screenshots of 3M's Saudi Arabian websites show the layout of the Arabic version (right) mirrors the layout of the English version (left) in multiple ways.

3M.com screenshots

English-speakers often perceive Middle-Eastern script, such as Hebrew and Arabic, as quite beautiful, even if we do not understand a single word. Marketers and developers may seek localization of text to target Middle-Eastern markets, while artists, directors and everyday people on the street like to include such script in various designs and productions to create a certain feel or impression. However, those who do not see and understand these languages from the correct perspective use them at great risk.

Singer Katy Perry recently illustrated the importance of understanding Middle Eastern culture before using Arabic text when the Arabic word “Allah” appeared on costume jewelry in one of her music videos. Critics alleged the word was used inappropriately and disrespectfully, propelling Perry’s team to edit that particular scene.

Backwards language blunders

With many languages like Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, proper perspective goes beyond cultural awareness to perception of directionality. The BadHebrew.com blog illustrates just how dangerous the consequences can be to those who misunderstand, displaying dozens of Hebrew tattoo blunders permanently etched on the arms, wrists, backs, chests and feet of those who did not realize Hebrew is written from right to left, not from left to right like English.

Budget-conscious tattoo aficionados are not the only ones to produce these backwards gaffes; even expensive productions can get it wrong. A Jewish funeral scene in the BBC comedy "Episodes" showed a gravestone epitaph that was not only mistranslated — indicating the deceased was “pickled at great expense” — but also written in backwards Hebrew. Of course, since it was a Matt Le Blanc comedy, the faux pas could have been intentional. Show producers were actually fortunate that this perceived error went viral in Israel.

Mirroring more than language

Many other products from online applications to signs or mugs might not benefit from such mocking. As previously noted in this column, a Swedish antacid brand reportedly once advertised in Arabic newspapers using only a series of three images and the product name. The images basically told the following story: in the first image, a man looks as if he is ill; in the second, he drinks the product; and, in the third, he appears happy and well. The message — the antacid helps you feel better — would seem rather straightforward; however, the ad did not account for the fact that Arabic speakers read even images from right to left, thus perceiving that a happy man becomes ill after consuming the product.

The antacid advertising example illustrates that not only words run from right to left but also timing, priority and other layout expectations, thus affecting the display of many elements beyond text. For example, when comparing the Arabic and English versions on Egypt’s website for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, users see the website reverses not only text direction and image order but also button order and even text motion for the scrolling headlines. A look at English and Arabic versions of 3M.com shows that layout of menus, search bars and sidebars also require mirroring or inversion of directionality.

This mirroring of websites and applications requires preparation and work, especially if left-to-right English brand names and numbers are also included to make a user interface bi-directional (bidi). If you question the need for such effort, check out an illustration created by Google internationalization engineer Roozbeh Pournader in a 2011 Google Tech Talk for IMUG (The International Multilingual User Group) titled “Demystifying Bidi: Bidirectional Languages in Software and Web Apps.” In the presentation on YouTube, Pournader displays an English software interface as it would appear if not properly oriented for our left-to-right perspective, thus giving Westerners a taste of what Middle-Easterners often put up with when viewing translated websites and applications that are not properly mirrored.

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