Good strategies for typesetting bilingual books

I’m currently laying out and typesetting the second edition of an academic book about European fisheries and their status in the current EU climate. The book is bilingual, with all articles appearing in both English and Spanish: English text on left-hand pages, Spanish on right-hand pages. The Spanish text is usually about 25–30% longer than the English text.

The first edition of the book was typeset and laid out by a Spanish designer, and I don’t think it’s saying too much that it looked horrible. Not only was there no baseline grid, the text (both in English and in Spanish, but most noticeably in the English) was also maltreated rather cruelly to make the length of the two versions match up. In this endeavour, nothing was spared: font size, kerning, and leading were all rather randomly and egregiously tweaked up and down on a per-paragraph (sometimes even per-line) basis. The result was a mess, so I decided to start over, keeping font-size, kerning, and leading consistent throughout and simply finding a good balance in size difference where the English and Spanish texts end up being of approximately equal length.

In the first edition, the Spanish text was set in a different (and rather unpleasing, it must be said) colour to the English text, which had the desired effect of breaking the two up quite clearly. Obviously, since we’re used to reading from the left page to the right, a fairly strong visual cue is needed to let the reader know he shouldn’t be doing that here. Unfortunately, the funding for the second edition is not quite sufficient that full-colour printing is feasible, so I’m having to go a different path.

The strategy I have so far gone with is to choose a font that has both serif and sans-serif variants, and using that as a visual cue: left page/English in serif, right page/Spanish in sans serif (I’ve gone with Fedra, just because I quite like it and it’s a good, readable font that isn’t overused). The result looks something like this (lo-res, but you get the idea):1

Sample spread

My concern now is that this differentiation is not strong enough to create a proper visual cue: it doesn’t break apart the left-hand pages from the right-hand pages as efficiently as colour does, and I fear the reader will just continue from the English text right into the Spanish text automatically and have to do a little double-take and back up to get back into the sentence they were reading—hardly optimal for good book design!

I have considered a few alternative options on how to make the visual cue clearer, but they have rather obvious downsides:

  • Using more dissimilar fonts. Would probably make for a clearer visual cue, but at the cost of something that feels icky and hacky, and looks messy and less ‘under control’ (which is what I’m trying to improve over the original layout)—just imagine a book set half in Caslon and half in Avant Garde (*shudder*).
  • Tinted/grey text. Would definitely make for a better visual cue, but once you tint/grey the text enough for this to happen, it starts getting light enough that it can become difficult or straining to read, particularly if the book ends up being printed as digital print-on-demand, rather than being offset printed.

So, my question in a nutshell is: what are some good, tried-and-true methods for breaking up bilingual text flows like this that do not rely on colour, do not look messy, and do not result in less readable text?


1 Yes, I know the margins need work; I’m still not sure if I’m limited to this particular page size or not, that depends on where we end up printing the book.


Here in Switzerland there are quite a few multilanguage Examples with multiple languages on one page (even more than two).

  • Most differentiate with color. (I don’t have any example around but it really is very pretty).
    — If you don’t have color as an option this falls short.
  • In addition to color many use different positioning for the type area. This way the Eye know better where to start reading.
    — This doesn’t work If you need to save space.

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  • There are even solutions where one text sits on its head.

  • And then there is your solution. Probably the most subtle version and also the hardest because you have to find the same baseline for two different fonts. This is easiest if you have a family with Sans and Serif versions so you can maintain a similar contrast. I wouldn’t use different weights.

So all in all I think you have a good solution there.

Source : Link , Question Author : Janus Bahs Jacquet , Answer Author : KSPR

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