Designing for translation with InDesign

Problem statement:

  • Produce high-quality desktop-publishing documents in many languages at minimum cost
  • Handle bi-directional languages (e.g. Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) as well as left-to-right languages


  • Use InDesign to create great DTP source
  • Follow simple but powerful rules when creating source
  • Translate in memoQ (or similar)
  • Follow simple steps to adapt to target language’s fonts and directionality

Benefits of using InDesign

  • Powerful desktop publishing
  • Compatibility with Web and print versions
  • Compatibility with translation tools such as memoQ
  • Good support for Arabic and other bi-directional languages

Benefits of “designing for translation”

  • Fonts can be changed for the entire document with less than five mouse clicks
  • Formatting differences can be solved once per language, and used for all documents
  • Objects such as tables and diagrams can be mirrored easily for bi-directional languages
  • Consistency between documents

Note: all of the benefits mentioned above apply regardless of translation tool.  However, I find MemoQ to work exceptionally well with InDesign.

Benefits of using Kilgray MemoQ

  • Translates InDesign files directly
  • Finished translations exported as InDesign files
  • Excellent translation workbench, popular with freelance translators

A typical large DTP project (for translation)

My business and passion are translation, and two of my favorite products are Adobe InDesign and Kilgray memoQ.  I have never seen two products that provide so much synergy.

In 2013 I was asked to create a set of documents for a college course, consisting of over 2 million words of scanned PDF documents.  The requirements included:

  • Document formats need to match the original publication, but with a consistent style across documents (which were sometimes contradictory requirements!)
  • All footnotes needed to be included
  • Diagrams needed to be faithfully rendered and translated
  • Images containing text also need to be translated
  • Final format is a book containing the main course file and about twenty articles; about 250,000 words per book.
  • All documents needed to be translated into over a dozen languages including Arabic and Urdu.

Not all source files are created equal: designing for translation

Here are some tips about designing files for translation.


Most DTP documents contain a variety of font families, styles and sizes.  No matter how smart a translation tool is, it will not know which fonts to use for most of your target languages.

Poorly designed document:

All fonts are specified throughout the document, usually based on one default (“normal”) style.  When a paragraph needs to be centered, the designer selects the “centered” icon and creates an ad-hoc style change.


If this document uses non-Roman fonts, they will need to be changed for each and every ad-hoc style change in the document.  This is a very time-consuming step, and it is totally unnecessary.

Well designed document

All text is based on paragraph styles (and possibly character styles).  In addition, these styles are strictly hierarchical, meaning that they all derive from other styles which are in turn derived from a basic style.  If the document uses italics and bold in addition to regular text, the translation will need those styles too.


Changing the font family in the basic style changes all fonts throughout the document – one change does it all.  Changing the font style for bold, italics, and other forms also require only one change each (i.e. the family is set in the basic style, but bold/italics/etc. require another step).

In-line formatting versus styles

Poorly designed document:

Some paragraphs are formatted by adding tabs, spaces, hard carriage returns, and extra paragraphs.


This type of formatting almost always looks bad in translations.  Where a hard return makes sense in English, it most certainly will not make sense in Indonesian (which is much longer than English), or Chinese (which is much shorter than English).

Well designed document

All formatting is done with paragraph styles.  If a paragraph needs to be indented, it should have an indented style.


In most cases, the style will work correctly in the translation.  If it needs to be modified, it only needs to be changed once.  For example, an indented style for English means a left indent; but for Arabic it needs to be a right indent.  Once that change is made to the style, all the paragraphs using that style are fixed in one step.  In addition, styles derived from that indented style will also automatically update.

Stamp out “overrides”

This rule is an extension of the previous one, and is much more comprehensive.  In addition to avoiding the use of tabs, spaces, and hard returns, we also want to avoid using overrides for ad-hoc formatting.

InDesign calls ad-hoc changes “overrides.”  If a sentence contains a few words that need to be bold, it can be done on an ad-hoc basis by highlighting it and clicking control-shift-b.  That creates an override.  Since the paragraph style does not specify bold, this change marks the paragraph as overridden.  In the Paragraph Styles window of InDesign, there will be a + following the style name.

Overrides for individual words are OK, because the main paragraph settings are still valid.  Only a few words are modified to be bold.

All other overrides should be avoided.

InDesign provides a way to see all overrides.  Simple click on the + symbol at the top of the Paragraph Styles window, and all overrides will be highlighted in blue.  The goal is to have no overrides except the single-word exceptions for bold, italics, and the like.

Poorly designed document:

Headings, centered text, bullets, and other enhancements are done ad-hoc, using the menus or icons for the individual paragraph.


Each override needs to be adapted for each translation, a very time-consuming task.

Well designed document

Each change of format has its own style.  These styles can be easily created by cloning the style closest to the desired result.  Then only the difference needs to be set in the new style.


Typically, no adjustment is required after translation.  If a style does need to be customized to account for much longer text (e.g. Indonesian) or right-to-left orientation (e.g. Arabic), this only needs to be done once for a set of documents.

A set of documents?

One of the main benefits for using paragraph styles is that they can be shared between files.  As mentioned above, there are some cases where styles need to be modified for a given language,  Let’s consider the worst case scenario: an English document translated into Arabic.

Let’s assume that all styles are derived from [Basic Paragraph].  This is a very good assumption for any well-designed InDesign document.  For Arabic, [Basic Paragraph] needs to be modified as follows:

Basic Character Formats Font family: Adobe Arabic (or some other Arabic font)
Font size: perhaps bump up one size, e.g. from 11 to 12 to make up for small font
Font style: no change
Advanced Character Formats Language: Arabic
Middle East Character Formats Digits: (determined by customer)
Character direction: default
Indents and Spacing Paragraph direction: Right-to-Left
Alignment: Right

Once these changes are made, most of the text will be correct.  However, indented paragraphs need to be modified:

Indents and Spacing Paragraph direction: Right-to-Left
Alignment: Right
Left indent: 0 (English had .3125”)
Right indent: .3125” (English had 0)

Bulleted styles:

Bullets and Numbering List type: Bullets (same as English)
  Bullet Character: it might be necessary to define a character in the Arabic font, or specify the name of another font that contains the desired bullet
  Alignment: Right
  First Line Indent: -.25 (this is the same number as for English, but it refers to indenting from the right)
Indents and Spacing Left ident: 0
  First line indent: -.25
  Right indent: 0.5 in


Numbered paragraphs: similar to bullets, with the same changes from English.

Create once, use many times

Once these styles have been set, I recommend saving the file with a name like Paragraph_Styles-Arabic.indd.

Next time you open an Arabic .idml file, here’s what to do:

  • Open the Paragraph Styles window
  • Click on the menu (small arrow in the upper right corner)
  • Select “Load Paragraph Styles…”
  • Load the styles from Paragraph_Styles-Arabic.indd

Even if the new document has a lot of different styles, you will have a huge head start.  For example, let’s say the numbered style 1 in Paragraph_Styles-Arabic uses letters a,b,c but the new documents uses I, II, III.  All you need to do is change Bullets and Numbering –> Numbering style–> Format to I, II, III.  The heavy lifting of right-to-left orientation, right justification, and indents will be the same as the styles you loaded.

It is really neat to see a document come to life after loading paragraph styles for languages that need special fonts!

Translating InDesign files in memoQ

The most important facts to know about InDesign and memoQ are:

  1. Use the IDML form of InDesign files. To create an IDML file, select Save as… and choose “InDesign CS4 or later (IDML) (*.idml)”.
  2. Import the IDML document into memoQ
  3. After translation, MemoQ will export the document as IDML.
  4. The first thing to do after exporting the file from memoQ is to open it in InDesign, and load the paragraph styles. For languages based on Latin 1 (Roman) script, this doesn’t matter so much.  But for Russian, Thai, Hindi, Arabic, and a vast number of other languages, you will see garbage until this step is performed.

Before loading paragraph styles, language = Arabic.


After loading styles:


The same paragraph styles file is used for all files in this project.  A modified version is used for another project of million-plus words.


I hope you have found this post useful.  As I mentioned at the outset, I have been using these techniques for several multi-million word projects in more than a dozen languages, and they really work.

If your project needs professional help with issues raised in this post, please contact info “at”  Happy translating!

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