When London made its bid to host the Olympics, one point was made over and over. London is a city of the world. London is a multicultural city. More than 300 languages are spoken in London. Come to London, and you’ll find the world. And so on.
And so the Olympics came to London. People have been coming to London from all over the world. From all over the world, people have been watching London.
And when is the worst time to fall flat on your face? When everyone in the world is watching. In the last couple weeks, we’ve seen a few Olympic-sized pratfalls involving Arabic typesetting. All of them make the same simple mistake. It’s like watching people slip on the same banana skin, every time.
On 19 July, the BBC reported that train company First Capital Connect, had posted information in English and seven other languages, including Arabic, at several major train stations such as Kings Cross, St Pancras International, Blackfriars and others.
The problem was, those who could read Arabic couldn’t read the posters. All the letters were back to front, and none of them joined up as they should. A basic typesetting error (treating Arabic letters as if they were like a Roman alphabet) led to red faces all round – and hasty reprints of all the posters.
As an aside, they had also used flags to label each language. This can lead to all kinds of trouble as I will discuss in a later post, but their use of the flag of the Arab revolt of 1916 is certainly an interesting solution.
On 26 July, the Guardian joined the BBC in a report that Westfield Shopping Centre – the brand new mega-mall that nearly all visitors to the Olympic Stadium have to pass through – had put up welcome signs in different languages. A nice gesture. But they made the exact same Arabic typesetting error that First Capital Connect had done. To explain the problem to English readers, the story it was like signs saying “WELCOME TO LONDON” being printed as “N O D N O L O T E M O C L E W”. You recognize the alphabet, but you can’t understand a word. Once again, the information had to reprinted.
Still, the Guardian kept pretty quiet about its own big gaffe a little earlier in the month.
On 17 July, the cover page of their G2 newspaper section was plastered with that very phrase – “Welcome to London” – in a number of different languages, including, of course, Arabic. And they had made exactly the same Arabic typesetting error. To compound their mistake, they’d done the same with the Hebrew typesetting – all the letters were printed in reverse order. And this being a newspaper, it was too late for reprints.
At WorldAccent, we’ve seen people make this mistake many times. We’ve just never been watching along with so many other people.
A final warning: those who don’t learn from this story are condemned to repeat it.
• WorldAccent offers translation services in the world’s languages, including Arabic typesetting.