Arabic is a right-to-left language, so when using Google Translate to translate this expression:


from English to Arabic, it returns

س / ص

where 'x' is on the right, 'y' is on the left.

This also happens for other mathematic operator symbols (+, -, *, ^). What should the correct algebraic notation be?

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    Are you asking just about Arabic, all languages written in Arabic script, or are you including Hebrew? – user6726 Sep 28 '17 at 19:21
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    Including Hebrew, just RTL languages in general. – Mr Anderson Sep 28 '17 at 19:22
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    Translate is wrong in this case, but mathematical notation, like other translingual symbols, is really a function of locale, not language. As of 2017, major Arabic locales use so-called international mathematical notation. – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 28 '17 at 20:08
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    Google translate is wrong. Always. – fdb Sep 28 '17 at 20:55
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    Similar: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/11302/… – fdb Sep 29 '17 at 9:08

Edit: add N’Ko

I know of two modern living RTL mathematical tradition: Arabic and N’ko. I have no idea how other living RTL scripts (Hebrew, Dihevi, Syriac) deal with math.


For Arabic (including other languages (Farsi, Urdu), written in the Arabic alphabet), there are three distinct traditions (Morocco, Maghreb, Mashrek), so I think the fraction order might be ambiguous depending on the country you're in.

The W3C document on Arabic mathematical notations says, for this specific case :

Finally, although stacked fractions are rendered the same way in both European and Arabic, bevelled fractions in RTL Arabic will appear, as one would expect, with the terms in RTL order, i.e. A divided by B would appear as "B/A". In some locales, the preference is for the slash to also be mirrored, as "B\A".

This document also contains many other examples. You also have some examples on the corresponding Wikipedia page.


N’Ko is a modern (20th century) RTL script used in western Africa for Manding languages. I happen to have an introductory book on N’Ko at home, and it ends with some example of elementary arithmetic operations, which are written right to left, as expected. Furthermore, the numbers in N’Ko (contrary to Arabic) are written right-to-left: The current year (2017) is written ߂߀߁߇, with (߂=2 ;߀=0 ;߁=1 ;߇=7).

Remark on historical texts

And if you look at historical texts, then you have lots of different conventions to adapt maths to different typographical traditions, including vertical writing in East Asia. (See e.g. this Unicode proposal pdf about notations used to translate Western mathematical texts in Ming and Qing China).

  • Unrelated but there is an international Linguistics Olympiad problem on N'Ko as well (: – WiccanKarnak Oct 23 '17 at 15:41

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