RTL Script and Bi-Directional Text (Don’t be Afraid)

As English speakers, we are accustomed to reading from left-to-right. It’s something that we are taught to do as children, and something we probably don’t give a whole lot of thought to for the rest of our lives.

But what if you tried to learn a language which is written and read not from left-to-right, but instead from right-to- left?

difficult pretty be would that

Similarly, bi-directional text exists when scripts contain segments flowing right-to-left and left-to-right. So some parts of sentences may be read forwards and some may be read backwards, depending on the meaning and context.

Right-to-left (abbreviated RTL) writing has been in use for centuries, proving there’s no wrong or right way to structure text as long as you know how to interpret it.

Let’s learn a little bit more about RTL script and bi-directional text and how they tie into the language services industry!

Examples of RTL Scripts 

Arabic script: Arabic is currently the most common right-to-left script in the world. But don’t get the Arabic script confused with the Arabic language – the Arabic script is actually used in writing many languages, not just Arabic. Other languages which utilize Arabic script include Kurdish, Pashto, Persian, and Urdu.

Arabic is an abjad, which means that most characters represent consonants and you are meant to infer vowels.  A notable abjad which is no longer used is Aramaic; in fact, Arabic is derived from Aramaic.

Hebrew alphabet: The Hebrew alphabet is used in writing Hebrew and Yiddish. The alphabet has 22 letters, but does not utilize upper and lower cases.

Each Hebrew letter has a distinct pronunciation which can vary from region to region.

Syriac alphabet: The Syriac alphabet was used to write the middle-eastern Syriac language (no longer spoken).  Like Hebrew, the Syriac alphabet has 22 letters, and is a cursive script.

Syriac shares many similarities with the Hebrew and Phoenician alphabets, but was replaced by Arabic as the common written script of the Fertile Crescent area centuries ago.

N’Ko script: N’Ko is a relatively new script. It was developed in 1949 to be the writing system for the Mangding languages of western Africa.

The N’Ko system marks both tone and vowels. Like many other RTL languages, the letters are connected to each other when written (like cursive). N’Ko is mostly used in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea.

Examples of Bi-Directional Text

Chinese characters: Chinese characters and text are very unique in that they can be written in many different ways – RTL, LTR, top to bottom, bottom to top. The one thing that never changes is the orientation of the character. For instance, you will never see a certain Chinese character flipped to be a mirror reflection because then it loses meaning.

Egyptian hieroglyphics: Like Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs can be written in any direction but the orientation of the characters never changes – they always face a certain direction.


Boustrophedon is another type of bi-directional text. However, what makes boustrophedon unique is its structure, wherein every other line switches direction. So, you will read the first line in a paragraph from left-to-right, then the next line from right-to-left, and so on. In addition, the letters in the lines read from right to left are also reversed as if they were reflected in a mirror.

Boustrophedon was commonly found in ancient Greek texts. This method of writing is meant to imitate the pattern in which an ox plows a field; in fact, the word “boustrophedon” means “ox-turning” in Greek!

To put this in a more modern context, boustrophedon is sometimes used to describe the motion of certain types of dot-matrix printers.

How Does This Relate to Translation and Localization?

Arabic is currently the fifth most widely used language in the world, with more than 300 million speakers (mainly in Asia and Africa).  With such a wide base of people who speak and write the language, Arabic is an important language to consider when contemplating language translation scope.

With this in mind, it takes skill and a keen eye to translate into an RTL language. If you rely too heavily on machine translation, the text may not be oriented properly. In fact, some computers are known to reverse the orientation of RTL or bi-directional text because they are not used to the format. That’s why it is so important to have top-notch translators on your side.

Need something translated into an RTL language such as Arabic? Lionbridge can certainly help you with that. Come check out our new website to see a full list of our services.