How to Easily Change Text Directions after Hebrew Words with Zotero

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Zotero does a wonderful job handling a lot of the research management work that would otherwise fall to you to do manually.1

With any tool, though, when it doesn’t work like you expected, you then have to take time to fix what’s amiss. And once you’ve found a fix, you can then get back to what you were trying to do that much faster the next time around.

One such case you might encounter with Zotero is some unexpected output when a source’s title ends in Hebrew text.

A Problem with Hebrew Text

If you’re primarily writing in a left-to-right language like English, you may come across this issue when citing a source with any right-to-left text (e.g., Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac) ending the title or another part of a citation (like the headword in a lexicon citation).

But let’s take the particular example of Hebrew text using Zotero’s SBL style.2 For instance, you might use Zotero to add the following citation to your document

  1. Mordechai Breuer, נוסח המקרא ב״כתר ירושלים״ ומקורותיו במסורה ובכתבי היד [The Biblical Text of the “Jerusalem Crown” Edition and Its Sources in the Masora and Manuscripts] (Jerusalem: Keren Ha-Masorah, 2003), 21.

So far, so good. But then, let’s say that

  • you want to cite this source again and
  • you’ve used נוסח המקרא ב״כתר ירושלים״ in Zotero’s short title field.

In that case, you might well get a citation like

  1. Breuer, נוסח המקרא ב״כתר ירושלים״, 42.

And this citation has several problems, including how

  • the page number appears after the author’s name rather than after the title of the work,
  • a space gets interposed between the page number and the next comma, and
  • the title of the work (rather than the page number) ends the citation.

These problems arise because, in this citation, Zotero has output more than just the title in right-to-left text. That is, the space and comma “after” the page number aren’t really after the page number but are after the title, if you are still, at that point, reading the note text from right to left.

But in SBL style, the page number should follow the title as usual in a note like

  1. Breuer, נוסח המקרא ב״כתר ירושלים״‎, 42.

How to Change Text Directions with Zotero

Thankfully, the solution to this difficulty is actually quite easy, and it doesn’t require editing individual notes.

Among the various characters that Unicode supports is the left-to-right mark (U+200E). This character doesn’t display any text. It simply applies a left-to-right direction to the text that follows it.

If you have right-to-left text in a citation from Zotero, as in the example above, that text may cause other text to flow right-to-left as well—maybe too much text.

If it does, all you need to do is to insert in your Zotero record (or the citation dialog if the right-to-left text is a locator) a left-to-right mark on the far-right end of the left-to-right text.

Once that mark is at the beginning of the right-to-left text (which is also the end of that unit of the citation before you want text to start flowing left-to-right again), Zotero will order the following text left-to-right.

You can insert a left-to-right mark in a few different ways. Some are

  • On Windows, to open the Character Map app, find the Unicode character code, and copy-and-paste the character where you need it to go. This process is regrettably rather cumbersome. So, if you find yourself needing to do it often enough, you might consider using a tool like PhraseExpress to streamline it and any number of other repetitive actions. For instance, in PhraseExpress, I’ve specified “;ltr” as a sequence that, whenever I type it, PhraseExpress automatically replaces it with the Unicode left-to-right mark.
  • On MacOS, to hold down the option key, type the Unicode character code (200E), and release the option key.

Conclusion

If you need to chop down a tree, you can spend just about any amount of time preparing your axe and still beat how quickly you’d finish the job using your bare hands. Though, at the same time, the more efficiently you can prepare your axe, the faster you can get the tree down.

By the same token, the details of how to get what you need out of a reference manager like Zotero takes some learning. And in principle, that’s learning you otherwise wouldn’t have to do. But over the long haul, this learning will pay significant dividends in the time that you save wrangling minutiae.


  1. Header image provided by Zotero via Twitter

  2. Ordinarily, SBL style uses translated titles. But on scenarios like those addressed here, see SBL Press, “Titles in Non-Latin Alphabets,” SBL Handbook of Style, 22 February 2018. 

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