How do you properly mix English and Hebrew?

xigam's picture

This is not exactly a typographical question, but I honestly don't know where to ask such things, so please forgive me!

How do I properly mix Hebrew and English? More specifically: Suppose you have a program menu: Should the English menu items be left-aligned? And what about the submenus? Should they be on the right? And what if there's a mix of Hebrew and English? Worse: What if I cannot predict if the items people will put on these menus are Hebrew or English? Should I try to distinguish the languages programmatically? And then do what? Or should I right-align everything, put the submenus on the left and be done with it?

I'm confused.

William Berkson's picture

Hebrew and Roman scripts are very hard to mix well. Not only do you have the problem of l to r versus r to l, but also the difference in typographic 'color.' Roman has heavy verticals and light horizontals, and Hebrew is opposite.

To match typographic color somewhat, you can choose Hebrew and Roman fonts that have relatively low contrast. (See the El Al logo.) Or you can design so that you deliberately contrast the weights of the Hebrew and Roman.

Generally speaking, the easiest way to use the two together is on mirrored pages, so they don't visually clash. The traditional thing is to have the Roman on the left page and Hebrew on the right page. But some have argued, I think correctly, that the other way around is preferable as a general rule. Then you need to match the color and height of the Hebrew and Roman. Often this means that the top of the Hebrew (except the pole on the lamed) is between the x-height and cap height of the Roman—similar to a small cap of the roman.

If you keep both main and sub items with their same language, on mirrored pages, that's the easiest way. But you still have to deal with aligning mirrored passages of the same meaning, as whichever language is a translation will often be longer.

Next easiest is to have the Hebrew and Roman on separate lines. Hardest is to have Hebrew and Roman work together visually on the same line.

There is no one best way to to solve the problem of the differences in direction and color. It will depend a lot on which language you expect most of your readers to read, how you expect different readers to consult the two languages, how much text you have, your choice of fonts, and so on.

Good luck!

hrant's picture

{To Follow}

xigam's picture

Not sure if I made that clear, but I'm working on a multi-tiered multi-level drop-down menu on a website. The site itself is multilingual. The overwhelming majority of pages is monolingual however (except for the odd bit that still awaits translation). The menu will be shown on all pages - rtl pages and ltr pages alike. The menu is fully editable so I expect ltr users - like Hebrew speakers - to end up with a mix of ltr and rtl items on their menus. My guess would be the safe choice is to align everything right and add the submenus on the left. But I'd much rather leave the final word to a native speaker of Hebrew or another language that's written ltr. There's no way I can make this annoyance-free for Hebrew speakers I suppose. I was merely wondering what the least annoying version would be.

hrant's picture

What about centering?


William Berkson's picture

I don't understand the design problem enough. Is your menu on the top, left or right? And you have a typo: Hebrew is right to left. European languages are left to right.

As far as menus, many sites just have a link for 'English' and 'Ivrit' (in Hebrew script), and people click whichever menu system they want to work in.

Also you could have drop down or roll over menus, one in Hebrew and one in English.

On the alignment I would think it would depend on how long the items are, and where they are oriented. I'm not a native speaker (and not a very good speaker at that), so I can't tell you what they'd prefer.

John Hudson's picture

Hebrew is right to left. European languages are left to right.

Unless the European language in question is Yiddish. :)

xigam's picture

Oh, yes, that was most definitely an error. I did mention that I find this confusing, didn't I? 0_O

The website is named Wikia which is a wiki hoster. Most wikis on Wikia are monolingual of course and the majority is (still) in English, but I've seen quite a few Hebrew wikis in my research.

The menu resides at the top and comes standard with every new wiki. My gadget adds a user-configurable section to the menu. It does not replace the entire menu or modify the rest of it. That means a lot of things are given. The menu's color scheme is up to the wiki's creators and as such out of my hands. The menu's typeface and general design is up to Wikia and as such out of my hands as well.

Here's a screenshot of my menu in an English wiki:

And here's an example of a Hebrew wiki:
(I cannot read Hebrew and I only arrived at this particular one by repeatedly clicking the "Random Wiki" button. Please don't hold it against me or Wikia, if this wiki is about something stupid ;)

Centering is a nice suggestion, but not really an option, I'm afraid. The added menu shouldn't look different from the rest of it, nor should adding the menu modify the rest.

While I whould hope that users do not put rtl and ltr items on the same menu or submenu, they probably will. If you give users the option to ruin it for themselves, they will. So let's say, hypothetically, I did find a way to programmatically distinguish between English and Hebrew: Would it be good or bad, if there were items on the same menu that have different alignment? Or would aligning everything to the right and placing the submenus to the left be less messy?

William Berkson's picture

In Hebrew sites, I believe they tend to put the menus on the right, as in Masterfont's site. But I would think that having everything on the left right aligned would be cleaner can having them bounce left and right. Especially if they are one or two words, which is usual for menus, it should be OK.

Michel Boyer's picture

The Microsoft site has a mixture of English and Hebrew with a right aligned English menu.

xigam's picture

Yeah. I guess I should align right on Hebrew wikis - regardless of the menu item's language. The dir-attribute on the html-tag will decide which alignment it is then.

Scott-Martin Kosofsky's picture

I recommend the following: Set all Latin flush left and all Hebrew flush right. Then determine a center line between the groups that ensures that neither language will extend beyond the other's line of departure, and that each will have a clearly identifiable position. That will be your measure.

You might try using the new Myriad Hebrew with Myriad Pro, both from Adobe. This will give you a wide range of compatible weights that will enable you to go smoothly from script to script without changing sizes. It was designed with just this sort of purpose in mind. It has been optimized for web use, including the vocalization diacritics.

Much has been written on this board about Latin-Hebrew compatibility. It's a subject about which I find it impossible to generalize, as so much depends on the use. In much of my work, which concerns Hebrew liturgy in a multi-lingual context, the Hebrew needs to have pride of place rather than be smoothly integrated with the Latin. But there are other contexts, too, even within the same book. In your case, Xigam, you need very smooth integration, so the Myriad will be a perfect solution. I was, by the way, the principal consultant on its design and development.

Good luck!

kellywilson's picture

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