Website Translation Basics

April 17, 2018 Julianne Ragland

Does your organization serve populations whose native language is not English? If so, you may be thinking about translating your website to reach them better. At Saint Paul Media, we have experience building websites for communities who don’t speak English natively. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

Focus on content

Because translation can be expensive, you’ll probably want to do a content audit first. That’s a topic for another post, but essentially what you’ll be creating is a big list (usually in a spreadsheet) of all your site’s pages, blog posts, etc. The list will reveal content that needs to be cut or edited before the translation process begins.

During the content audit, you may realize that manually translating your entire site isn’t exactly feasible right now. That’s okay! Many people use browser extensions like Google Translate to automatically translate websites that aren’t written in their native language. There are three things you can do right now to improve their experience on your site:

  1. Simplify your language. As designer Laura Kalbag put it in her book Accessibility for Everyone, “Plain language is good usability, making content easier for non-native speakers to understand. And chances are, it’ll make automatic translations better, too!”
  2. Don’t use text in images. Automatic translation tools can’t translate text that is embedded in images. Plus, you’ll have to recreate the entire image if you ever manually translate it later on.
  3. Use fonts that have support for multiple languages. All fonts are not created equal. Some are missing diacritical marks or even entire characters that certain languages require. If possible, use multilingual fonts on your site.

Be strategic about your languages

If you decide to move forward with translation, you probably know which languages your audiences speak. You may need to prioritize, though (especially if you’re a nonprofit with a tight budget).

You can start small with just one language. To decide which one, use web analytics. Google Analytics, for example, will break down the languages your visitors speak. (It gets this information from the preferences they’ve saved in their browser settings, not from listening in!) This data will help you decide which language to start with.

Choose the right CMS

A modern content management system (CMS) like WordPress will have some sort of support for multilingual sites. We use WordPress at Saint Paul Media, so that’s what we’re most familiar with.

In the past, we’ve used WordPress’s Multisite feature to create a network of sites with one language per site. This is a good solution in some cases, but it can get unwieldy at times. You have to remember to update every site in the network whenever you make a change.

Another method available to WordPress users is a translation plugin. Some of the most popular are WPML and Polylang. With translation plugins, you don’t have to worry about updating several copies of a page. They can be configured to show original content and translations together on the same screen. This helps content editors keep translations in sync.

Expect to pay for translation

As a nonprofit, you might be able to find volunteers or interns who are willing to translate your content for free or at a reduced rate. You could even hire a freelancer through an online marketplace like Fiver—but your best bet is to work with a professional translation service. These services typically charge by the word, and some may offer discounts for nonprofit clients.

Are you considering a web project that involves translation? We’d love to hear from you! Please get in touch.

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