The right-to-left (RTL) writing system is most widely used in the Middle East. As the name suggests, writing of RTL scripts starts from the right of the page and continues towards the left. Popular RTL language scripts include Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi and Urdu.
In general, Semitic languages, except for the Latin-written Maltese and the languages with the Ge’ez script, follow the RTL writing system. With an estimate of about 540 million native speakers, Arabic, Persian and Hebrew are the most widely used RTL writing systems in modern times. This writing system also includes top-to-bottom, right-to-left scripts such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, although they are now more commonly written left to right due to western influence.
E-commerce is a growing trend in the Middle East, with plenty more room for growth. According to Global Arab Network, e-commerce in Arab countries is projected to be worth more than $20 billion by 2020. This is a significant increase on $14 billion in 2014. Daily News Egypt states that the number of online buyers in the Middle East is expected to increase by 14% in 2016 because of a more prevalent use of the internet across the region. This provides a good opportunity for businesses to increase their reach via e-commerce in this fast-growing region.
Providing consumer content and services in the Middle East in the region is no easy task. Here are three aspects businesses should take into consideration when localizing content from left-to-right (LTR) to RTL writing systems:
#1 WEBSITE DESIGN, LAYOUT, AND CONTENT: To cater for audiences using RTL writing systems, the design, layout, and content of left-to-right (LTR) website content will need textual and stylistic changes to accommodate for Arabic characters and correct display of text and text alignment. RTL are visually very different from LTR scripts. Some translation tools may not accommodate bi-directional text; therefore, translators have to manually fix punctuation such as hyphens, forward slash, commas, especially if using LTR translation tools. It is important to engage language specialists who have translation and linguistic experience and also have experience at working in these markets to get fully into the mind-set of potential customers.
#2 SOFTWARE: It can be difficult and complicated to work with RTL scripts when using the usual software optimized for LTR scripts in English-speaking countries. Many software used in English-speaking countries are not compatible with RTL scripts. It is important for businesses to be aware of the potential problems they may face, and obtain the correct versions of their software if needed. Some software may need reprogramming to display RTL text, allowing for Arabic characters in the display and UI and also reversing the layout of the screen so content is aligned to the right instead of the left.
#3 HEAVY RELIANCE ON CASH: Cash-on-delivery remains popular in many countries in the Middle East region. Buyers’ distrust towards online payments may become an obstacle to the growth of e-commerce. With cash-on-delivery, customers can change their minds and reject the delivered items. The heavy reliance on cash will remain an obstacle unless the customers are assured and told that they will be safe to do transactions online. This may impact the overall online payment and delivery system, including legal terms and conditions for the sale and return of goods for e-commerce sites serving this region.
It is not a case of simply translating content for RTL writing systems but looking at the overall business model and ensuring all activities have been localized for Middle Eastern markets and cultures. Neglecting the e-commerce websites while localizing and translating to RTL scripts may compromise the impact and functionality of the content, website and ultimately overall business.
When translating digital content to a RTL writing system, it is important to perform linguistic and functional testing on all localization projects to ensure sites deliver a smooth user experience and is culturally relevant to the target audience.
For RTL localization projects, it’s important to allow more time for project setup, integration and quality assurance and testing.
Cecilia Tang is a member of the global marketing and sales support team at Welocalize.