Umlauts and circumflexes and tildes, oh my

In localization circles, we frequently talk about the need to include fonts in what gets internationalized: localization works beyond translation in making sure a source message is correctly conveyed in the new, target market, so of course the work includes any visual element with meaning. Fonts have their own subliminal expressions — in the United States, for example, Times New Roman is considered a little stodgy, Courier New ironically old. But more pragmatically, certain fonts simply don’t work in other languages. Take Traditional Chinese: use a typography too thick or bolded and the actual character could change. Anything below 10.5 point and even unbolded copy becomes impossible to read.

If managing the typeface a client’s message is in sounds hard, try localizing the font itself. That’s the concern our company faced when it created Lionbridge Sans, the company’s new corporate font. Used for marketing, sales and internal communications, it turns one year old September 5.

If 2018 was the year of the dog in China, in the United States it was the year of bespoke fonts, with The Verge reporting that no tech company makes it big until after it’s developed one. The article focused on Netflix launching Netflix Sans, mentioning the font followed Apple’s release of San Francisco, Samsung’s SamsungOne and Google’s Product Sans. And, yes, in case those “sans” made you wonder: Lionbridge, Samsung and Google’s typefaces all find their roots in Comic Sans.

If fonts have cultural meaning, then in American design circles, Comic Sans comes with a smile. Its childlike simplicity makes it the font typophiles love to hate, but this simplicity is precisely what makes derivatives perfect for localization. Microsoft actually invented Comic Sans in 1994 with the express design of developing something less stodgy and more user-friendly than the Times New Roman it used at the time. Comic Sans’ thin strokes made it ideal for software user interfaces and had the helpful side effect of looking good in pictorial languages. “It’s a special font,” said Jaime Punishill, Lionbridge’s chief marketing officer. “It’s universal across mediums, universal across languages.”

A tagline localized into Lionbridge Sans in French.

That’s not to say localizing Lionbridge Sans was easy. Five internal departments partnered with design agency Vivaldi on every umlaut, circumflex and tilde. Not only was there stroke width to consider, but non-Roman languages understandably have their own writing systems, many Roman languages have letters that don’t appear in English and then there’s the whole issue of diacritics — a particular concern to Lionbridge’s Polish translator working on the font team. Getting the o-acute (ó) right was particularly tricky: written correctly, the tail of the accent must hit square in the letter’s middle. In early, pre-release drafts, a Lionbridge engineer noticed the capital Ñ was taller than entry settings in Excel allowed — something the company clearly needed to resolve for Spanish language spreadsheets.

A tagline localized into Lionbridge Sans in Korean.

Letter by letter, language by language, the details had to be worked through with in-country linguistic and design experts to get everything right.

“In today’s marketplace, branding and experience are more important than ever — and increasingly difficult to achieve,” Punishill said. “It’s one thing to say you’re brand internationalization experts.” But it’s another, trickier prospect to actually globalize your own brand.

Terena Bell
Terena Bell is a reporter covering the language industry for MultiLingual, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and others. In a past life, she owned In Every Language, an LSP, and served on the GALA and ALC board.


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