Thursday, May 5, 2011

Olivetti Lettera 32 Portable Manual Typewriter - Arabic

There are times when I have been able to tune out completely from current goings-on, staying immersed in my little world of eclectic hobbies - typewriters, papers, pens, ink, blogging, wondering whether it is a good idea to embark on yet another sourdough starter experiment. Engrossing stuff.

And then there are other times like the last couple of weeks, when major world events have kept me glued to my little screen, refreshing my news feed and the websites of major news outlets. First there was that hubbub about the "last typewriter factory" closing, which was mildly amusing. Then there was a wedding I didn't know I cared about, but ended up following keenly and even getting misty-eyed at parts. That was the best part. And now... well, this. Still, I've been meaning to post this little beauty for a while, so here we are. Besides, my post coincides neatly with Robert Messenger's celebration of Olivetti's hundred year anniversary!

The week I salvaged the red Everest K2 was a very good week for me, as far as typewriter discoveries go. The very next day, I decided to stop by my local Salvation Army and see what was new. There I discovered not one, but two Olivetti Lettera 32s! Truth be told, I had been hoping to find a Lettera 22 to cannibalize for parts (ours has a broken return lever), and the excitement I felt at spotting the familiar blue striped case quickly faded when I realized it was "just" another L32.

The first was nothing special: an unusable (for me) Italian qzerty keyboard, very dirty, missing case, ordinary pica font. The second looked odd. I peered in closer and discovered a pristine Lettera 32, zipper slightly separated from case (as usually happens with these models), and a very unusual keyboard. It did not take too long that I realized what I was looking at - Arabic! Very, very interesting. I have spotted a couple of Russian typewriters in the wild previously and they have evoked no interest, but this was the first Arabic typewriter I had seen outside of Mr. Perrier's museum.

To tell you the truth, I wasn't exactly enthused at first. Here was this beautiful little specimen, quite unusual, pretty rare in Switzerland, an exciting find of course - but did it have a place in my "collection"? I already have a few machines sitting around waiting to be used, and I long ago resolved not to acquire typewriters I would not use - or intend to use - on a regular basis. This was the walking definition of impracticality! I do not know the language, and while the pretty script is all very well and good, it would serve little purpose for me.

But I had to make a quick decision: the shop was closing when I walked in, and the assistants were already turning out the lights. I didn't want to leave, decide later that I wanted to give Habiba here another shot, and have to come all the way back to look for her (and find her gone, even worse). Besides, at the very least I thought it would make for a fun blog post, including a comparison of Habiba with our regular L32 pictured above (which we had also found unusual and worth acquiring because of the 'rare' qwerty keyboard). Afterwards, I could always contemplate giving Habiba away, like the Everest K2.

The two typewriters are very similar, but several years apart. The serial number of the qwerty L32 is 1903407, dating it to circa 1965, while the Arabic L32 is 6896279 - hence made in 1972.

In terms of mechanism, the differences are obvious in use, and you can refer to Richard's post on his own Arabic typewriters to see some of his discoveries with his Erika 10 and Olympia SM-5 Arabic typewriters.

In the case of these Letteras, though, you will notice that they look virtually identical at first glance. It is a common misconception that Arabic typewriters will have the carriage return lever on the right, but as you can see, this is not the case. Olivetti solves the problem by flipping the lever pretty much upside down on the Arabic typewriter - instead of pushing it towards the machine, this one moves away from the typewriter. The parts are the same, just mounted differently: the Arabic lever forms an "L", and the qwerty a "_I" shape.

 When the space bar on the Arabic typewriter is pressed, the carriage starts moving to the right. Consequently, the backspace arrow points in the opposite direction!

Other than these subtle changes - and the fact that the characters on the keyboard, type slugs, and paper table are all in Arabic - the two Letteras could be twins, and there is no indication that much was changed in the intervening seven years in terms of production methods.

Both typewriters were manufactured in the Olivetti plant in Barcelona.

Conclusion: For ten bucks, I really have no complaints about this lucky discovery! It was fun to play with it, type some gibberish, and discover the mechanical modifications Olivetti included to make this suitable for Arabic speakers. I have a few ideas about who I could give this to - including a friend who learned to read and speak Arabic many years ago and visits Lebanon every year. I hope he will be amused! We'll see.


  1. I always look at it as an entertainment expense. Will I get $5 (or whatever) worth of fun out of playing with it? If so I buy it. Like you, those are the ones I later give away.

  2. Ah, sourdough experimentation. Been there, done that. After many failed and several semi-failed attempts at creating starter on my own, I finally broke down and bought a bit of well-established starter from a baking company (King Arthur Flour). That starter has lived for years now, despite all sorts of abuse and neglect. Come to think of it, I haven't used it in awhile...I'd better check it.

    Interesting and rather elegant how Olivetti pulled off the reverse escapement on this model. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Amazing. I'm always excited to see typewriters made for different languages. I would really love one in Russian, and French as well. Good find!

  4. @notagain - Totally agree with the "entertainment expense". Especially since movie tickets can cost upwards of $20 in Geneva, I have definitely come to appreciate typewriters as an inexpensive, educational hobby - the price to quality ratio is unmatched.

    @LFP - I think for me it will have to remain a vague dream; while notions of capturing my own wild yeast are romantic and appealing, we don't go through enough bread to justify the effort of raising and feeding a starter. They are rather high-maintenance; it's great you found a reliable alternative.

    @Rad - Thanks. They're always a lovely surprise to find, but after a while the novelty wears off. I have given this away already, actually, and hoping the new owner has as much fun with it as I did - even more, since he'll actually understand it!

  5. Ten dollars for this rare typewriter is a steal! And you're right, it's interesting and fun to play with.

  6. For what it's worth, my most successful sourdough starter attempt started with pineapple juice. It didn't taste as good as the King Arthur one, though. And that one is robust enough that I can use it once a month or less (I like to make crumpets, if I don't have time for bread), feed it well, and stick it back in the fridge--or even freeze it--until I'm ready to use it regularly again.

    I do love the romantic idea of capturing yeast out of the wild...but my starter is supposedly descended from early New England sourdough. That will have to do. ;-) I imagine there must be even older strains there in Europe!

  7. Hi This is a great find. I am an art student in the UK and I'm doing text based type written pieces on 30 foot sheets of paper. Lining wallpaper to be precise. This weekend I watched again Naked Lunch, which as you all probably know has various bug typewriters as "characters" or hallucinations. After seeing the Arabic-language Oliver No. 9 and checking out the website that gives the details of the models ( I am in love! I need, want, crave an arabic model. Don't know why, don't ask. You are very fortunate to have found such a beautiful item. best of luck. Ken

  8. Great post! Thanks for this.
    Had been looking for info about Olivetti 32 as I'm about to sell mine on ebay, and I'm quite surprised someone sold it for $495 - Wow!

    Hope all's well.

  9. I have a few manual machines (more by mistake than collecting design) ... I just acquired a new one yesterday .. irresistible because it is Arabic and chunky and probably 50's and clearly the bastard son of the naked-lunch beetles) am still researching its identity (chrome Optima on the front - Elite silkscreen name with cute typographic logo on the back and an Arabic one as well... main problem is getting it back home... because i came across it in Alexandria (back street market) .. and it weighs an excess bagage tonne...

  10. Hello Jim - Thanks for stopping by! Just saw the picture of the Optima you uploaded on photobucket and it is a beauty! Good on you for picking it up and going through the hassle of lugging it home; it's totally worth it and I would have done the same. Arabic typewriters are fun to find and use - even more so when one knows the language, I imagine! This Olivetti is now with a good friend who appreciates it very much and is able to use it like I never could :)

  11. Hi, if you happen to know where to buy Olivetti lettera 32 in any other language apart from latin, it would be very appreciated if you drop me a line; my email

  12. need to buy an Arabic Type writer
    if some one has it
    just contact me :

  13. Hi, i work in france in fine arts school in montpellier, i need to buy one arabic typewritter in arabic for an artistic project. If you can help me i will be grateful!! Andres Hera.

  14. Hello, I also happen to need to buy one arabic typewriter for an artistic project. If anyone can help me in my request I would very much appreciate it. Norbert Attard: my email is

  15. Hi,
    This is a very nice typewriter. Do you know from where can I order a portable manual arabic typewriter?
    Thank you..

  16. I need this!!!!
    If anyone can help me this is my email:
    I would appreciate it


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