In an increasingly connected world, multilingual websites are becoming more common. In fact, savvy companies are finding they can distinguish themselves quite a bit by appealing to a diverse group of readers. However, there’s currently no easy way to create multilingual sites.
Getting a multilingual website on-line requires a significant investment of time and money. Even using a WordPress site requires an immense amount of effort, as do any of the other free website tools. Plus, WordPress is designed for small, quick, and simplified use – designing a larger multilingual website takes a much larger investment that can’t be quickly snapped together.
Language Barriers: Multilingual Complications
Although there are free tools that can give you quick and dirty translations, using them is not recommended. These tend to look unprofessional, and you may not get the translations you’re hoping for. The last thing you want is to accidently offend or confuse your users. To get a truly accurate translation, have native speakers do it.
Humans will always have an advantage over software when it comes to interpretation. Language is immensely complex, and computers have to follow rules specified in their programming. Human translators know all the grammatical inconsistencies and strange usages that creep into any language, but a computer can’t really be taught exceptions, turns of phrase, expressive meanings, and intent. Sadly, it takes more than binary to naturally use a language.
Linguistic Locals and Tourists
Hopefully you’ll decide to work with a human instead of punching your text into Google or having it auto-filled. But even at this stage, you’ve got an important distinction to make when you hire an interpreter for your website: native or non?
Native translators are far better than non-native translators. While a non-native translator knows many of a language’s conventions, every language has odd idioms that can only be mastered and understood by training from childhood. For example, the most accurate English translation of the Chinese “míngpiàn” is “name card,” but a native speaker would never use that translation. Instead, they would use the term “business card.” Native speakers and habitual users also know all the common colloquial phrases and how to use them. They’re intimately familiar with the language’s grammatical structure as well as the exceptions to the grammar rules.
Furthermore, languages evolve – and native speakers are far more likely to recognize that evolution than non-native speakers. A scholar of Biblical Hebrew, for example, may guess the correct translation of the modern, resurrected Hebrew, but beyond a certain point, he or she’ll eventually mistranslate or misunderstand a referent. The only languages that don’t change are “dead” languages, like Latin, whose structures became calcified to the point where referents to new concepts no longer existed.
Words and Colors in Web Design’s Multilingual Melting Pot
The language barrier is perhaps an even grander issue than cultural limits; even single-language sites can run into this problem. For instance, you use an “elevator” in the US, but you use the “lift” across the pond. No British user would say “station wagon” rather than “state car,” and an American would never call a “sedan” a “saloon.”
Differing terminology is difficult enough in and of itself. When slang, non-verbal cues, and gestures are included, the situation becomes even more fraught. For example, the “V for Victory” sign that’s relatively common in the United States is an obscene gesture in other places. You wouldn’t want to have a page about a winning soccer team showing the team doing the “V for Victory” to go over to the United Kingdom or Australia, where it’s the equivalent of flipping people the bird.
Color choice is also important when designing a multilingual and multicultural site. While orange might indicate “autumn” to an American user, it has political overtones in Ireland. White indicates purity for most Western audiences, but for many Eastern users, it indicates death, being the color of mourning and funerary items, like shrouds. When building a multilingual website, consider the cultural implications first.
Consider the cultural website etiquette and most common differences in website transfer and logistics, particularly for payment. Some countries don’t use sites like PayPal for money transfers. Other countries have different etiquette for requesting donations. Consider the cultural expectations when building a multilingual site.
How to Approach Polyglot Design
There are numerous logistical difficulties involved in building a multilingual site. Perhaps the first is deciding whether to have a single domain with sub-pages for all the language choices you intend to offer or multiple domains. While the second is best for search engine optimization, the first is less expensive and not subject to domain availability in several countries.
If you decide on subdomains, you then have to pick how you want to offer the language choices. Menu links, whether as a drop down selection or as icons across the top, are the most common option – but both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Icons are advantageous for their recognition factor. Users will recognize the icons and see that multiple language choices are being offered. The downside is the most common icon (a country’s flag) artificially conflates nationalism with language. Some language choices, such as American English and British English, may correspond roughly with national borders. Others do not. Spanish can be more similar to that spoken in Latin America or that spoken in Spain.
Furthermore, some countries such as Switzerland, don’t have a single common language. In others, there may be several different dialects of the same language. For instance, in China, there are numerous local variants, some of which are considered different languages by many. No Chinese speaker would ever confuse Mandarin with Cantonese.
Drop-down menus circumvent the national issues and have less of a space requirement, but they have their own difficulties. Many drop-down menus are too unobtrusive, and depending on the font used, some of the languages might be unreadable.
Consider directing all visitors to an entry page where they make a language selection and setting that as the default language for that user’s computer. It’s not recommended that you make language selections based on the user’s computer settings or IP address. Making the decision at the beginning simplifies the process immensely. It also helps to circumvent the issue of how to handle changing the language choice without routing the user from the page they’re on back to the homepage.
Other Ways to Be a Good Global Host
Font choices in single language website can be difficult enough.
But when you add multiple languages, the matter becomes far more complex, which is another reason to use native speakers. Native speakers understand the visual nuances of the language and can help you select a font that conveys the correct impression. Other concerns include:
- Typography: Typography should also be considered in the translation process. Learn the reading patterns common to language users, and account for them during the design process. Otherwise, your website may translate fine but give the wrong impression to visitors. This is another area where native programmers and speakers will give you an advantage. The best programming language for creating multilingual websites is Unicode. With its ability to encode the characters of over 90 languages, Unicode makes character translation far simpler than it was before the coding language was developed, as you can use the same coding language across the entire platform. The downside is that to use it for your website, you’re restricted to programmers familiar with the language.
- Usability: Consider the cross-platform and device usability of your website. Different markets use different platforms, and in certain areas, mobile use is more common than desktop or laptop use. While these are always considerations in web design, they assume greater importance in attempting to create a multilingual website. Furthermore, don’t forget the importance of expanding these efforts onto your social media accounts. If you’re relying on social media to either net new leads or funnel users down a pipeline, there’s no point in getting readers to your Japanese site and linking them to a Pinterest page in English, or vice versa. Services like Twitter will likely need new accounts to solely produce content in a different language, but companies like Facebook have attempted a direct-translation tool based on the reader’s location. Of course, this presents the same cultural and translational problems already discussed. It’s virtually always better to invest in a custom marketing plan targeted to different regions.
To handle all of this, you’re probably going to need a lot of help. Consider enlisting a professional design team, particularly one familiar with building multilingual sites. You won’t have to do everything yourself and can entrust the site to specialists.
(Lead image source: Fatima – A Shrinking Globe)