ULG's Language Services Blog

The Challenge of Bidirectional Languages

When English speakers learn to read and write, we’re taught words and letters flow from left-to-right. That’s because we’ve learned a language and an alphabet based on Latin languages (e.g. English, French, and or Greek).

Many of the world’s languages do not follow this convention. Some languages are written and read from right-to-left. When languages follow this pattern, they’re referred to as bidirectional (sometimes referred to as BiDi) and they can present numerous challenges in the field of translation.

Why do Bidirectional Languages Matter?

Examples of bidirectional languages include: Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, and a majority of Asian languages. These languages are spoken by more than half a billion people across the globe. From a business standpoint, that is a massive market waiting to be tapped into. If you can’t reach them, you’re losing out on a substantial consumer base.

Translation Troubles

When translating a document from one language to another, there are some words or phrases that cannot be easily translated. Acronyms, for instance, are often not translated into a target language. This means that you can have a fully translated text with multiple languages. This becomes more complicated when combining bidirectional and non-bidirectional scripts. For example, how would you mix English with Arabic? This kind of complexity will throw a wrench into translation projects.

Even when the project deals with a bidirectional language as a standalone, it still requires intense manpower and numerous hours to ensure accuracy in the finished product.

Additionally, it is extraordinarily difficult to format bidirectional languages for digital purposes. That’s because computers and the Internet are, for the most part, configured to deal only with languages which follow the left-to-right convention. Things are changing, though. As globalization demands, these languages are becoming better supported on the Internet, in machine translation, and on consumer electronic devices.

Programming Support

Unicode is the programming standard computers use to determine directionality of letters. It works like this: each letter is assigned a number which denotes the position of the letter, telling the computer how to make it show up on screen. Unicode became a standard in 1987 and in 1991 partnered with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to produce ISO/IEC 10646. This regulation provides governance for implementing bidirectional languages in operating systems, computer languages, and for use on the Internet. The most recent version of the regulation was published in 2014.

Rising to the Occasion

In addition to the ISO/IEC 10646:2014 standard, companies like IBM are working diligently to provide support for bidirectional languages in their programming. In fact, in a publication titled, “Introduction to Bidirectional Languages,” the tech giant states, “In reality, supporting bidirectional languages is not very difficult.” IBM’s assertion could mean we may soon see universal support for bidirectional languages from all the major players in the tech industry.

The Future of Bidirectional Translation

As we move forward with advancements in technology and develop more knowledge and insight about how to support bidirectional languages, we will see more and more bidirectional languages fully supported and easily translated alongside their Latin-based counterparts. This means businesses will have an easier time reaching bidirectional markets, which means more global economic growth. And, when businesses are able to connect with international markets in an impactful way, it brings the world a little closer together.