Building multilingual websites
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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 it 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 with 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
Text in some languages takes up more space than others.
For example German and Russian takes up more space
than English, but 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
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
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 designs.
Linking to and between translations
On bilingual websites, such as this one, 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 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
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
Dealing with enquiries from your
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
About the author:
Simon Ager works as a web developer
and specialises in building multilingual websites.
He speaks twelve languages, and has some knowledge
of ten others. He is also author of Omniglot,
a site about the writing systems and languages of
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