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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 below.

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 perfectly legible.

Illustration of the amount of space needed by different languages

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.

Page layout

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.

Font sizes

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 appropriately.

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 in sales.


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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.

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