Building multilingual websites
by Simon Ager, author of Omniglot
When building websites in multiple languages, you are faced with a
variety of challenges. Translation is an important part of the process,
though not the only one. Some of the things to consider are discussed
Inputting translated text
Adding text to a website in an unfamiliar language can be tricky. One
solution is to include notes and labels which tell you which part of the
text is which and where is belongs on your website. If you do this, you
should explain the purpose of such notes to your translators. Unfortunately
not all translators will follow the instructions: some will translate the
notes and labels, others will leave them out of their translations. Even
with such labelling, some web developers and editors will still not be
confident about adding the translated texts to websites, particularly texts
written in different writing systems.
Another solution is for the translators to enter the translated text into
your website. This can work if you have a content management system for your
website, though there may be problems text formatting, links and coding. If
your translators have some knowledge of such things as HTML and CSS, such
problems can be minimised or eliminated.
Alternatively you could employ web developers who are familiar with the
languages into which you are translating your website, or send them on training
courses to learn those languages.
Fitting the text into your web pages
Text in some languages takes up more space than others. For example
German and Russian text usually takes up more space than English, but texts in
Chinese and Korean take up less space. Certain sections of websites, particularly
menus, often have a fixed width. Sometimes you have to use alternative, shorter
translations to fit the available space.
Here is an illustration of the amount of space taken up by different languages.
The same text, font face and font size is used for all the languages.
This image also illustrates the font size problem - the Chinese and Japanese
text is quite difficult to read at this size, but the other languages are
In some languages, such as Thai and Lao, there are no spaces between words.
When building websites in such languages, it really helps if you can read the
text in order to add line breaks in appropriate places, otherwise it will
overflow the edges of your pages.
If you translate your website into languages that are written from right
to left, such as Arabic, Persian or Urdu, the page layout should be flipped
over so that it's a mirror image of the pages in left-to-right languages.
Some images may need altering and adjustments to the style sheets and some
page elements will also be needed.
Some languages, such as Chinese, Korean and Arabic, are difficult to read
at font sizes that are perfectly legible for languages like English, French
and Russian. Using separate style sheets is a solution to this problem.
Another solution is to avoid specifying font sizes at all, though designers
don't tend to be very keen on this as it messes up their design.
Linking to and between translations
On bilingual websites linking between languages is straightforward. On
multilingual websites though, it can be more challenging.
There are a number of ways to link to and between the translated parts of
a website. A popular method is to list all the translations available on your
homepage, though it's better to link to the translation on every page of your
site as not all visitors will enter your site through the homepage.
Some people list the languages using either their native names or their
names in the original language of the website. Others use flags and/or the
names of countries. The latter two methods are misleading if your translations
are not country-specific. For example, if you use a French flag to link to
your French translation, French speakers from other countries may feel ignored
and/or offended. However, if your French translation is aimed at people from
France, using a French flag for the link is appropriate. Flags are country-specific,
languages are not.
Maintaining your website
Websites tend to be changed regularly. Keeping all the translations of your
site up-to-date is a real challenge. Some changes will be large; others will
involve just a few words here and there. Sending such changes to your translators
whenever they occur may be inconvenient for both you and the translators. Some
large organisations employ in-house translators. Another solution is to save
up the bits of text that need translating and send them to your translators
once a month. The best solution would be to employ web editors who speak
each of the languages into which you've translated your website. This could
also be an opportunity for translators to branch out in a different direction.
Localising your website
Translation is not the only aspect of localisation. Other things that need
to be considered include formality of language, currencies, weights and measures,
public holidays, cultural sensitivities, gender roles and geographic examples.
The original text of your website might be written in informal language, but
this could be inappropriate in some of your translations, or vice versa. It's
a good idea to explain to your translators the kind of audience your website
is aimed at so that they can adjust the register of their translations
Handling enquiries from your website
Once you've translated your website, people will start contacting you in
foreign languages. This is one aspect that many people seem to overlook.
Answering such enquiries in the appropriate language is important. There
are various ways you could do this, including employing people who speak
the languages; having the enquiries translated, writing replies, then
having the replies translated, or using automatic translation software.
If you are not receiving many enquiries, you could have them translated by
your translators, write replies, then have the replies translated. With automatic
translation software you can get a translation of the enquiries, then either
reply in your language, or translate your replies, though the translation produced
by such programs tends to be quite poor. The ideal solution is to employ people
with both language and sales skills, or to train people with the relevant languages
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About the author
Simon Ager is web developer who specialises in multilingual websites. He speaks
eight languages, and has some knowledge of twelve others. He is also
author of Omniglot.