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Translating Twitter into languages read right to left isn't easy

March 08, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • A Twitter post in Farsi from @twitter
A Twitter post in Farsi from @twitter (Twitter )

Twitter now comes in 28 languages. The newest ones -- Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic and Urdu -- were added just this week.

Those four languages posed a particular problem to Twitter's team of translation volunteers because they are read from right to left, rather than left to right. Therefore the translation required not just word challenges, but technical and design challenges too.

For example, before Monday, Twitter couldn't support hashtags in right-to-left (RTL) languages. 

Wrap your brain around that! (We're still working on it).

To be clear: People have been able to send tweets in right to left languages for a while -- remember Twitter's role in the Arab Spring last year? But those tweets were aligned the same way as English tweets are -- from left to right.

"Now they will read and behave correctly from right to left," said Laura Gomez, who manages Twitter's localization team.

We sent Gomez a series of questions to find out more about how her team went about translating Twitter into Hebrw, Farsi, Arabic and Urdu. Here's the exchange:

1. How did you recruit the translation team?

Twitter is translated by a team of volunteers organized through the Twitter Translation Center. Anyone with a Twitter account can volunteer to be part of these groups of translators across the globe. Currently we have nearly 500,000 volunteers, and 13,000 of them helped make right-to-left languages a reality on Twitter. We also work closely with a select group of volunteer language moderators, who help us maintain the quality and accuracy of the translation.  

2. Did they work off an English Twitter template?

The Twitter Translation Center is designed to help our volunteers translate English text and strings. We encourage them to use style guidelines, glossaries and other tools to create the best “Twitter” in their language.

The different language communities also learn from one another.  Some languages face similar challenges (pluralization, gender, grammar issues, etc). We constantly encourage translators to use informal language and familiar phrases to localize the site for their language and culture.

3. What exactly got translated?  Not actual tweets, right? My understanding is that people were already able to tweet in these languages, but now the framework of the site can be displayed in Urdu, Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi.

Correct. We translated the user Interface of Twitter.com. Tweets were not translated. People could tweet in their languages before, however, these Tweets were aligned in the same way English Tweets are (from left to right).  Now they will read and behave correctly right to left.

4. Any interesting details you can tell me about the challenges of showing text right to left rather than left to right?

Prior to this launch, we couldn't support hashtags in right-to-left (RTL) languages. We've added this support, as well as showing hashtags in search results. 

The anatomy of a Tweet by nature can be complex since it often contains a mix of text, links and hashtags. Adding RTL to the mix raises its own technical and design challenges.  For this launch, we had to make a number of improvements to ensure Tweets look and behave correctly RTL. 

5. If people were already able to tweet in these languages, how were they able to get the text to display right to left within the tweet?

We already supported the display of RTL Tweets.  Twitter detects when you’re using RTL script in your Tweet.

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