The typesetting paradise: a brief introduction to LaTeX

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The typesetting paradise: a brief introduction to LaTeX

A brief introduction to LaTeX, LaTeX writing, its uses and the best way of translating TeX files.

Popular modern word processors, like Microsoft Word and Apple Pages, present formatted text in a WYSIWYG environment. This is quite useful for most common documents, but when you need to typeset complex texts with formulas, equations, diagrams or scientific data, you will achieve better results if you can control every aspect of the document by separating the contents from the layout. Here is where LaTeX comes to the rescue. LaTeX, pronounced as “Lah-tech” or “Lay-tech,” is a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting. It is based on the TeX typesetting system and is mostly used for medium to large scientific and technical papers, but it can also apply to almost any other type of publication. A few examples will speak louder than words: check this showcase of high-quality TeX documents to get a taste of what can be achieved with LaTeX. It must be remarked that LaTeX is not the name of any particular editing program, but it generally designates a specific subset of markup tagging conventions. Even though you can use almost all word processors or text editing programs to write LaTeX documents, there are some specific editing programs and platforms that make the use of LaTeX easier. Recently, more and more interactive smartphone apps and websites are simplifying and generalizing the tasks of writing docs with LaTeX, freeing the user from the burden of installing and configuring complex software packages.

Difference between TeX and LaTeX

LaTeX uses the TeX typesetting system to format its output. LaTeX can be defined as a set of macros built on top of TeX. The relationship between TeX and LaTeX is like the relationship between a low-level programming language like Assembly and C. TeX is low-level, while LaTeX is a higher-level language built upon TeX, with the additional advantage that you can put chunks of TeX code in your LaTeX without “breaking the document”. To make a long story short, LaTeX is a set of sequences of TeX commands.

Why LaTeX?

Why should you use LaTeX? LaTeX makes typographically sound documents, especially for mathematics and science in general, although you can also craft a beautiful resume with it. It was created by scientists for scientists and is incredibly powerful because its set of features can be extended with additional “packages”, which are libraries of extra commands and environments. There are packages to typeset poetry books, create presentations, customise headers and footers, deal with exotic languages, etc. Since LaTeX files are plain text files, writers can use (advanced) text editors, such as Notepad++, or other dedicated authoring applications and software packages. Special markup tagging codes are used to define the document structure (e.g. book, letter, article...), to style the text in the entire document (like italics and bold), and to add cross-references and citations. LaTeX allows authors to focus on the content and not to worry (not too much, at least) about the look of the document. Additionally, LaTeX can easily handle large files, and allows you to put your text files under revision control (for collaborative projects). Finally, bibliographies and indexes are automatically generated in a much easier way than in common word processors.

How LaTeX works

Instead of choosing a font type and size, and a specific style for each part of the document, authors will simply create a plain text file (or a batch of files), mark the specific elements of the text with a series of commands which describe the structure and the meaning of the document. So, in LaTeX, you would input a simple text as:

\title{Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisci elit}
\author{John Doe}
\date{May 2017}
    Sed eiusmod tempor incidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua!

At the end, the document will be output according to the values the designer decided to apply to the “article” document class. It is the LaTeX program (a LaTeX distribution like MiKTeX or TeX Live) that processes the text and commands to produce a beautifully formatted document, as a PDF, PostScript or DVI, according to your digital distribution or printing needs. 

What do you need?

Since the creation of documents is a two-step process, you need 2 different tools (all available distributions generally include both):

  • A text editor, that can be a generic one or a LaTeX-specific one.
  • A LaTeX distribution (there are LaTeX distributions for Linux, Windows, and Mac). 

One of the trademarks of LaTeX is its maturity. It has been used comprehensively for decades by many writers of diverse and large communities as their first-choice authoring environment. It has now evolved into a very powerful and extremely efficient writing tool which is broadly used in academia for publication and communication of scientific documents in a variety of fields like statistics, math, engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, quantitative psychology, economics, political science, and philosophy. It also has a significant role in the publication and preparation of articles and books that have complicated multilingual materials like Sanskrit, Greek, and Tamil. LaTeX can also be employed as an intermediate format. Sometimes it is used as a part of a pipeline to translate XML or DocBook-based formats to PDF.

How to translate LaTeX content

Many specialised companies nowadays provide professional academic and scientific proofreading along with translation and editing services for the authors of LaTeX documents. Since LaTeX uses plain text files, you only need to submit your thesis, book, article, letter, report, or any other document for proofreading or translation and the LaTeX editing services provider will do rest of the job. Authors don’t need to convert their files. The difficult part is to isolate or extract the actual translatable content from the commands and the rest of markup codes. There are a few methods to achieve this extraction and we will cover them in a future article. From the author’s point of view, it is enough to say that not all professional translation companies are able to process LaTeX files, because you need a deep knowledge of LaTeX in order to separate codes from content and correctly configure the packages needed for the translated document (especially when a translation is requested in a language with non-latin alphabet).

Further reading

Being mostly used by the academic world, you will find plenty of free resources of excellent quality. If you want to know more about LaTeX, we strongly suggest a book by Peter Flynn, Formatting Information, which is freely available online, as well as the LaTeX Wikibook.

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