In the late 1970s, the science fiction writer Douglas Adams described a fish that could instantly translate any language it heard into someone’s mother tongue. Admittedly, this fish (or Babel Fish) had to be inserted into your ear to work, but then The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels were never intended to be entirely realistic.
In the intervening decades, technology has progressed in ways Adams could never have imagined, yet the digital equivalent of a Babel Fish remains frustratingly elusive. Fortunately for anyone attempting to target an international audience, there are alternative ways to create multilingual websites without the inconvenience of popping a fish into your ear canal…
The first, and perhaps most obvious, way to create multilingual websites is by offering language selection functionality. This involves duplicating the original branch structure with a new menu for each language. When a user chooses their preferred language from a dropdown menu or header bar, they are redirected to a subpage whose content has already been translated.
A landing page also allows visitors to specify from the outset which language they want, though these are detrimental to SEO since the homepage is devoid of meaningful content. However, being able to host different site structures can be beneficial – Arabic countries read from right to left, so relocating a left-handed menu bar for certain languages can bolster usability.
Another option involves separate websites, each registered with the country-specific TLD you wish to target. That’s great for SEO purposes, since search results in Britain will favour co.uk TLDs. The downside is there will be multiple hosting costs. Plus, a company targeting German-speaking clients would need separate country-specific sites in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other European nations where German is an official language.
Regardless of which option you choose, to create multilingual websites you will need content translation. There are a number of ways to achieve this:
1. Employ a professional. The internet is packed with freelance translation services, whose quality can vary hugely. Don’t prioritise cost – look for testimonials from people who can actually verify the accuracy of the material translated on their behalf.
2. Seek volunteers. There are community-powered translation platforms where people voluntarily translate language for the greater good. These voluntary platforms often require a degree of quid pro quo, and there are few guarantees of quality.
3. Use software. Google Translate is the most famous translation tool, using a proprietary algorithm that learns with every translation. Unfortunately, results may vary, and you won’t get much SEO input in any of the translated languages.
A couple of notes for anyone planning to create multilingual websites: never use national flags as a language identifier. Some countries have more than one language, while many others have adopted a former colonial power’s language. Encourage site viewers to report any errors in translation, and ensure your site adheres to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These were laid down by the W3C consortium to ensure people with disabilities can access websites without undue difficulty.