The Jigsaw Puzzle of Mapping Languages

Arabic Map Prototype

We just received our prototype of our complete map of Modern Standard Arabic grammar. This one is particularly important to me personally, and I've been eagerly awaiting this map for some time. I thought I'd take the time to share some of the joys and challenges of actually creating one of these maps — it's quite an involved process.

The first step is obviously research and data collection. We have robust systems in place for what pieces and functions we need to cover. Through a combination of surveying native speakers and doing the more hard-core linguistic research ourselves, we're able to exhaust the patterns of a language. This portion of the process can take several months. The main patterns are always the easiest — it's really getting into the nitty gritty details that takes the greatest amount of time and work. For the "exceptions" and variant patterns of a language, native speakers — even highly educated ones — tend not to offer much help and we rely on linguistic resources to really clarify the details. The Cambridge University Library is one of my favorite watering holes.

Once all the material is down in rough form, there is then a long refining process that involves checking to make sure we have everything we need, that everything we have is correct, and that all pieces are put in the right place and right order. At the same time, we begin formatting all the material for its placement on the final map.

Even with all the material assembled and proofed, there is a huge amount of work to produce the final file for printing our fabric maps. Section by section, we arrange all the grammatical material and gradually fill up a blank canvas in Adobe Illustrator. Once one section is placed, then we move on to the next. When subsequent sections don't quite fit, we invariably have to return to previous sections and revise the layout. If it were just a matter of getting everything to fit neatly, it would not be such a big deal; but our maps are carefully designed so that relevant material is grouped together. There is a rhyme and reason to the layout process, which is great for the final product, but it means that the one working on the design also has to understand the language and the materials being laid out.

Getting the broad strokes down takes a few dozen hours of formatting. Once it's done, decorative images (and extra tigers) are added to the maps. There is then a secondary process of refinement to make sure everything is aligned properly, all images are formatted correctly, and that all formatting within the tables is also correct.

We usually get a prototype printed so we can make adjustments to the digital file that affect the final fabric version in ways impossible to tell just on a computer screen. Our Arabic map, for example, looks awesome, but the font is too thin in weight and we're going to change it to make it easier to read for beginners.

The Arabic map has been particularly challenging to format. Arabic is read right-to-left and the competing directions of scripts for our examples and English titles or explanations has been a nightmare. Different operating systems handle Arabic scripts differently, and several times we've had content formatted correctly in one document, only to have it completely messed up when copied into another. Letters get split apart or word order reversed. Some programs handle Arabic alright without vowels, but as soon as vowels are added, everything gets messed up. As the final documents are assembled from several different freelancers, interpreters, proofreaders, etc. the formatting for this project has doubled if not tripled the amount of time it has taken to produce the map.

With the prototype in hand, I know what needs to be done to adjust the Arabic map to final form. The materials have all been through final proofing, and now need to go through one more round of formatting before the map is ready for filming (screencast explanations of all the grammatical patterns). The materials are currently being audio-recorded by a Quranic recitation expert in Jordan.

Buy Our Arabic Map HERE.

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