by Alfred Thompson, Wycliffe UK
‘Forgive me for getting a bit emotional; I just couldn’t believe that your colleagues would spend many years working on a Nastaliq-style Arabic digital font with the hope that Scripture might be translated into this language one day. The devotion, commitment, and sacrifices are what we won’t be able to find in our business and social enterprise. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for what your team has done for our Father and his kingdom! Thank you!’
So said a potential new funding partner in the middle of a meeting in Asia last year. The font she was talking about is called Awami Nastaliq, and it was developed by the Writing Systems Technology team of Wycliffe’s main partner, SIL International.
Awami Nastaliq is an Arabic-script font specifically intended for a wide variety of languages of Southwest Asia. Awami is an Urdu word meaning ‘of the people’ and Nastaliq is the name given to the sloping style of Arabic writing which is based on a centuries-old calligraphic tradition and, because of its beauty, has sometimes been called the ‘bride of calligraphy.’
Its sloping beauty (see the image, right) means that it is a much more complex font to render on computers than the flat Naskh-style Arabic font. Peter Martin, who is based in Scotland, was the type designer for Awami Nastaliq, working alongside programmer colleagues Sharon Correll (USA) and Martin Hosken (Asia) to produce the correct shaping for the slope of the font, while avoiding any overlapping of dots and diacritics – no small task.
‘When people start typing the first letter it starts on the base line, but then when the second letter is typed, the first one gets pushed up in the air so the second character is on the base line,’ Peter explains. ‘And that dancing effect continues as the word gets longer. It is bamboozling the first time you see it, but as you work on it, your eye adapts to it and you realise the beauty of it.’
A flat Naskh-style Arabic character usually needs around four shapes to enable it to be typed, but a Nastaliq character typically has more than 20 shapes as it is so fluid and complex. ‘For me as a designer,’ Peter notes, ‘it was very, very daunting. It is by far the most complex project I have ever worked on.’
Peter explains why he does this work: ‘We see font development as primarily a critical component of Bible translation and literacy. However, it is also a service to the wider community in that it is enabling that culture to have a voice in communications – you can’t print books or newspapers, use a mobile phone, or email, or have a website in your language if you don’t have a font for it.’
The Writing Systems Technology team give away for free the fonts they develop, to fulfil this service to the wider community. ‘A number of our fonts have been added to the Google fonts library which gives them huge exposure,’ Peter notes. ‘People download an unbelievable number of our fonts – hundreds of thousands of times. So as well as Bible translation, our fonts are being used for tens of millions of webpages around the world to enable communication that otherwise couldn’t happen in that language.’