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Blog: article

Multi-Language Websites

17 2011

by Nigel Harding


Before I ever thought of becoming a web designer I was a modern languages graduate. I therefore became quite excited when our first multi-language website opportunity came along! That website has now been translated into 5 different languages and is under review. So what are the considerations in producing a multi-language website?

Language translation

The language translation itself should ideally be translated into native language by a native speaker, or if that is not possible a native speaker should carefully proof read the resultant translation. No matter how proficient we think we are in another language it is all too easy to make mistakes. I am reminded of the French play “Le rois se joue“ (The Kings Plays himself) which was memorably translated by an American publisher as “The King is playing with himself”. Even though I am a French language graduate I would always get a natural French speaker to check any work that I undertook.

Cultural differences

In order to be effective your website needs to take account of any cultural differences. For example an American company will most likely be very up-front and direct in it’s tone. On the other-hand, I have visited Scandinavian countries in sales meetings where this approach would be considered rather crass and vulgar and where “understated” is very much the norm. So your language translation may need to take account of expectations in terms of the tone of language used.

Google Translate and online translation sites

In this day and age translation tools have come a long way and one person has asked me why we don’t all just submit pages to Google Translate to get the job done! Well, it is rather naive to think that an automatic translation service can yield a professional, readable document. Certainly Google Translate has it’s uses, if you have no idea what a foreign language website is saying then you get certainly get a sense for it but idiom translator it is not. You may find it useful for the trsnslation of unambiguous items such as country names but any kind of complex sentence or grammar structure will be unlikely to be rendered correctly. It will be interesting to see how this technology advances in the coming years but for now it is an aid to understanding rather than a comprehensive translation service.

Getting the website layout and code right

I have found that utf-8 encoding works best for most languages I have encountered (European). You will most likely want to set the correct locale with a lang=”“ setting.

You will need to be disciplined in localizing every string and phrase that could appear to the user, error messages, labels, instructions etc.
Layout – you will find that some languages are more verbose than others so allow time for tweaking menu options etc where size is critical. For some languages you may have to make more more radical considerations e.g. Arabic reads from right to left. You would likely need to have separate CSS files to handle this (swap side bars around etc).

Date formats would need to be formated according to the culture code.