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Lost in Translation

Kevin Zink
Jul 01, 2016
website translation

As the net, web pages specifically, continue to permeate to the far corners of the globe, multi-lingual sites begin to become a necessity rather than a nicety. This requirement is inherently full of stumbling blocks that can cause designers, developers and content creators no end of frustration.

Before design and development can even begin, one must determine what translations the site requires and how they'll be managed. There are two basic methods:

Dynamic Translation

Using Google Translate, or a similar service, the content within a site can be automatically translated into any number of languages. This process is (relatively) painless. In most cases, a simple control (drop box) is placed within each page allowing the user to select which language they prefer. The original content is sent to the designated service and the translated content is returned directly within the user's browser.

This process is extremely quick, easy and efficient. Unfortunately it is often prone to ending up with items lost in translation. The more complex your content, sentence structure and subject, the more likely the meaning will be mangled during the process. This may be fine on blogs and personal sites but can be detrimental within the professional realm.

How mangled can the message become? Look for yourself. This video demonstrates the translation of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air through every language within Google Translate and then translated back into English. Think of it as the most complicated game of "telephone" ever.

In addition to poor translations, you end up with the following issues as well:

  • Image based text will not be translated
    • Ideally these instances are limited for a variety of reasons (accessibility, SEO, ability to be updated, translations, etc.), but where they do exist, they won't pick up automated translations
  • Language specific URLs will not exist
    • This impacts search engine optimization and introduces issues when translated page URLs are shared
  • Reliance on a third party
    • Should the third party service be down or removed, all capabilities of translation are removed as well

So, what should you do if you want a professional site translated that works well for SEO and link sharing while not relying on a third party?  First, get your team comfortable because manual translations don't happen by themselves.

Now that your team is mentally prepared, you must determine the following:

  • Which languages will the site be translating?
  • Who will create the translations?
  • Who will enter the translated content into the site?
  • Will the site be maintained separately or within a single instance?
    • Can your existing CMS / Coding structure handle a single instance site with translations?
  • Will ALL pages within the site have ALL translations?
    • If not, what happens when a user wants to translate a page?  Do they see the original version, go to a 404 (page not found) page, or something else entirely?
  • Will the hierarchy and branding remain the same between translations?
  • How will the user select which site variation they would like to see?

When the above questions are answered, design, content creation and implementation can begin. Having a properly translated site takes work. Each time an existing page is updated or a new page is created, the content changes must be translated and then integrated into the site. In addition, the developer must ensure that cross-references (i.e. hreflang tags) exist between all translated variants of a page in order to reap the SEO benefits.

Once the design and coding framework have been put in place, the majority of the work falls on the shoulders of the content creators.

There is no ideal technique for multi-lingual websites at this time. Until automated translation algorithms can match the nuance of human intervention, a decision will need to be made as to what best suits the site while working within the constraints of both time and staff.

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