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.

  • Im pretty sure that the text being in a different language is a pretty strong clue. But incidentally i recall the same question was allready asked earlier cant find the thread now.
    – joojaa
    Sep 29, 2015 at 22:24
  • @joojaa Yes, of course—once you notice it on the first page, the different language is a big clue, and once you’ve read enough pages to get used to it, you eventually stop reading the other side of the book altogether. But the reader shouldn’t have to read close enough to realise they’re different languages by the content—that should, in a successful layout, be made obvious before they even get to reading actual content. Sep 29, 2015 at 22:29
  • 1
    Sure but considering your constraints are you probably need to contend to a smaller than optimal clue. Most rational users would get this by spread 2 by latest. I dobt think any person would consider spanish to be english for longer than a sentence. So how close is that. but if you want to be explicit why not print english and espaniol on top of page prominently.
    – joojaa
    Sep 29, 2015 at 22:45
  • 2
    I think your approach is pretty smart, and you're really almost there (as joojaa mentioned, once you learn the difference you don't need a heavy-handed reminder). Rather than tinting a color or using grey text, I would just chose a slightly lighter-weight sans-serif font to increase the contrast between the two just a bit more. It doesn't necessarily need to be a font that is classified as "light", but something that visually feels lighter than your chosen serif font. Right now they feel equally heavy to me.
    – Vicki
    Sep 30, 2015 at 1:56
  • this is a really painful but interesting issue, may I know which solution you took eventually?
    – user161643
    Mar 12, 2021 at 14:35

3 Answers 3


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.

enter image description here

  • 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.


There's a few ways to do this and of course it depends on how you plan to build your layout.


A common way to do this is using italic instead of different fonts.

Some countries prefer the "main language" to be bigger and/or top on position, and the other language(s) will be in italic. Other countries must have all the languages with the same size and styles for fairness. Best way to know what to do is to have a look at projects similar to yours or government booklets.

Italic can help if your second language takes more room than the first one, as you mentioned for spanish. Lot of fonts such as Palatino or other serif are more condensed in their italic version.

example italic bilingual

Dividing line / Horizontal separation

Often the text is not on different pages but on top of each others and separated in the middle with a line, and the bottom language can be in italic too. This method can be useful for encyclopedia or directories because you can use the same title and table of contents for both languages.

kid book bilingual

bilingual program


Sometimes it's 2 columns. I think that's one technique used with... bibles or other religious books!

religious book

multilingual book

2 columns Canada

Upside down

If the layout and project permits it, you can also use half of the booklet for one language and the other half can be upside down for the other language. This way there's no secondary or primary language, everything is equal, and it can also be useful if you want to personalize the cover for each of them. Readers don't get distracted at all by the other language. That could work well for a booklet or brochure that doesn't need a back cover.

upside down

I suggest you be careful with using gray text if you plan to get this printed. You will need to use a dark gray that has at least 60-70% black otherwise you might see the halftone pattern in it and it might look almost like using rasterized text made in Photoshop! Gray text on light/thin and small font is a bad idea and you need to be careful on offset with this.

I didn't suggest you many options on how to change the font because I'm "old school" and to me it's better to use serif or serif+italic than using sans serif if you have a lot of text. I know it's just a matter of habit probably but I'd hate to have to mix so many fonts together. I think you're not convinced either by this idea!

From the images you posted and if this is for a book (and if it was my project), I would probably use the same font for each language but work on the layout and position instead. Probably separating the text vertically on the same page or in 2-columns. For a catalog, I would go with the italic for the secondary language.

  • It is a book, yes, with somewhere around 550 or so pages (give or take); so it does need both a front and a back cover, and the upside-down solution won’t work. Most likely, we’ll have to make it print-on-demand (due to lack of funds for proper offset printing), which makes page size a limiting factor as well, and I think two columns would end up being too cramped with the page size I can use. A vertical split could be a possibility, but there are rather a lot of fairly large images which would be difficult to work in, I fear (since they all need captions in both languages, too). Oct 24, 2015 at 11:56
  • Italic would probably work fairly well. My only fear there is that it’s a hassle to deal with styles. Things that are in italic in the English text would have to be in Roman in the Spanish text, which would double the number of character styles needed (the annoying lack of separation of weight and style in InDesign already meaning that I have to create separate styles for Regular Italic and Semibold Italic, etc.). Oct 24, 2015 at 11:58
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Maybe you could use the text on top of the other, and your pictures on a different page with references if necessary. A bit like the program example in the images I posted. If the spanish text has the same font and is longer, it can appear on the next page at the bottom, and the top part could welcome the images since there will be more room there. I hope I make sense! It's a pain to do multilingual projects, that's for sure!
    – go-junta
    Oct 24, 2015 at 12:15
  • may I guest another method. "two facing pages"
    – hsawires
    Oct 24, 2015 at 13:23

I have exactly the same issue -- a book with 8 chapters in English and the same 8 in French. The page count at this point is about 464. And it will be done as the `upside down' model (Canadian gov't document) ... a familiar enough format, as we're in Canada.

The benefit of this is not just that one reads only one language -- whichever way the book's been opened -- but that the whole problem of English almost always taking less space than most other languages is totally avoided. So the book may have 464 "pages" but the English part will have fewer than the French. It doesn't matter, then, how much longer it takes to say that same thing in French -- or Spanish or German -- the texts are complete, typeset with the same parameters. I think any layout that wants to put both languages on view at the same time is looking more to provide translations between languages than provide information in one language.

  • Hi Christina, thanks for your contribution. There's nothing quite like advice stemming from actual experience. One tip: could you maybe edit your question and add some images of this particular set-up? We hope you enjoy the site and keep contributing!
    – PieBie
    Nov 9, 2018 at 12:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.