SimulTrans Localization Blog: SimulTips

Choosing Fonts for International Publications

[fa icon="calendar"] June 12, 2013 / by the SimulTrans Team

It is important to select a typeface that supports international character sets and preferences.

Determining what font to use for an international publication is much more complex than many people anticipate. The many factors that need to be considered during font selection are both creative and technical in nature. Should a serif font or a sans-serif font be used? What character sets need to be included? What international and special characters are necessary for the publications?

In order to better understand choosing a font, it is first essential to understand the fundamental components that make up the font. At the most basic level, a font is a graphic representation of a set of characters. Each of these characters takes up a certain amount of space around it. To help measure the space required, a base was developed against which each letter is measured called x-height or the height of a lower case “x” in that font. For letters such as “d” or “g” additional measurements need to be taken into account. These are called ascenders and descenders because characters such as these have parts that extend above or below the x-height. Furthermore, to measure the height of a capital letter the cap height was developed.

Understandably, each character takes up a different amount of space around it. Most fonts are proportionally spaced meaning each letter is given just the space it needs. However, there are a few fonts that are monospaced (such as Courier) that allocate the same space to each character. Using a proportionally spaced font allows for much more text to fit on a page; many publications today use proportional fonts.

To dive a little deeper, fonts can be broken down into two categories: serif fonts and sans-serif fonts. Serif fonts contain cross-lines at the end of a stroke (like Times) and sans-serif fonts do not (like Helvetica). Within these two families there are a great many fonts varying from more traditional fonts to fancy, extravagant fonts.

Typography has a long history dating back to the mid-15th century. Computer fonts have a comparatively shorter history beginning with bitmap fonts. A bitmap is an array of pixels that dictates how a character appears on the screen. Today, bitmap fonts are used in the Linux console, Windows recovery console, and embedded systems.

Next in line in font evolution are outline fonts. This means that the glyph (or character) is represented by a set of lines and curves to define its shape. Type 1 (otherwise known as PostScript) fonts and TrueType fonts are two very common font formats. While these font types were prevalent for some time, many technical issues arose from using them. Most commonly, the fonts were not rendered accurately on all output devices such as monitors and printers. Methods to alleviate this problem were developed, but this created additional burdens for font developers. International typesetting was particularly challenging, as most fonts did not include non-Western characters.

In the late 1990s, the new OpenType font format was introduced. This format solved many of the problems publication experts were experiencing. OpenType now allows for fonts to be read across different platforms, is based on Unicode, and can support over 65,000 different characters. This grants much greater flexibility and versatility to publication professionals in their ability to work with fonts in the OpenType family. These fonts provide much larger support for international languages.

Despite the growing prevalence of Unicode, most computer users in the West use a character set that only supports about 200 Latin script characters. In order to more easily accommodate translation or localization, a character set that has the capability to support a much greater number of characters should be used. Through the use of OpenType and Unicode technologies, many languages are supported by modern typefaces. Many fonts offer universal support for Latin languages in addition to Cyrillic, Greek, and Eastern European languages. Other typefaces include or focus on Asian-language character sets for Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Contextual alternates, discretionary ligatures, and other OpenType features give communicators more control over typography for both English source and international documents. Recognizing the elemental differences between fonts aids in creating effective documents and helps create greater consistency in translation between target and source.

When selecting a font for layout templates it is helpful for you to answer two main questions:

1. What is the purpose of your publication? The answer to this question can have multifold implications on the document that is eventually created. If marketing materials are being designed then using fonts at a larger size, more graphics, and less body text are probably appropriate. Additionally, using fonts that are less conventional and catch the eye are more likely to be used. However, if a users’ guide is the document in question perhaps more traditional fonts should be used, as there is a significant amount of body text.

2. Into what languages will the document eventually be localized? Translating a document into other Latin based character sets is somewhat less complicated than languages requiring other Cryllic, Greek, Chinese, or Japanese. Furthermore, translating to languages that are read from right to left such as Hebrew or Arabic present even more complex problems. Being aware of the languages a document is destined for will help tremendously in choosing which font to use in the source document.

Very few typefaces include characters for all international languages. One rare example is Arial Unicode. Arial Unicode MS is distributed with Microsoft Office and bundled with current versions of Mac OS X. It may be purchased separately (as Arial Unicode) from Ascender Corporation (http:\\, who licenses the font from Microsoft.

Even if not selecting a typeface that includes all languages, it is helpful to choose one that provides support for as many languages as possible. The “Pro” series typefaces from Adobe offer broader language support than traditional or “Standard” typefaces. For example, Myriad Pro includes glyphs for Cyrillic, Greek, and Eastern European languages, in addition to Western languages.

If you choose a typeface that does not offer native support for Asian-language characters, it is helpful to select complementary typefaces for unsupported languages. For example, if you use Myriad Pro for your source documentation, you may specify that Mincho Gothic be used for Japanese. By including specific fonts for Asian languages in your style guide, you will ensure consistency between publications and graphic similarity with your source-language materials.

SimulTrans uses the most current version of Adobe’s Font Folio. This investment enables SimulTrans to have access to over 2,300 typefaces that are almost exclusively OpenType. Font Folio 11 is compatible across platforms and contains characters for Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, and Thai. This version also includes advanced features in many typefaces including ligatures, small caps, old style figures, proportional lining figures, diagonal fractions, superscript and subscript characters, ordinals and superior letters, swashes, alternates, titling capitals, ornaments, and case forms.

If you need assistance in selecting typefaces for international publications or would like a list showing similar fonts for Western and Eastern languages, SimulTrans would be happy to help. Feel free to contact us anytime.

Topics: Documentation Translation

the SimulTrans Team

Written by the SimulTrans Team

SimulTrans provides software, document, and website localization services, translating text into over 100 languages. Established in 1984, SimulTrans has enabled thousands of businesses to provide high-quality content to their international customers. Management ownership allows an exclusive focus on customers and quality, as exemplified by ISO 9001 and ISO 17100 certifications. In addition to its headquarters in Mountain View, California, SimulTrans has offices in Boston, Dublin, London, Paris, Bonn, and Tokyo.