Developing on the web for a multi-lingual audience

shutterstock_424918375For many organizations, the natural progression for market expansion and client outreach is in the expansion to international markets and/or non-English speakers. In 2016, it’s no longer a matter of “if,” but “when” and “why haven’t we yet?” At Curotec, we’ve helped many companies spearhead multi-lingual website initiatives over the years, and felt it pertinent to share some of the key factors we’ve learned about the process so as to help your firm make that leap confidently and as smoothly as possible.

If there is one main underlying concept to which the rest of this guide is to stay consistent, it is that when taking the step to develop a multi-lingual website, you must do your due diligence, and know your new market like the back of your proverbial hand. Do the necessary research into the language(s) and market(s) into which you endeavor to expand. Accurate translation, while critical, is only one step in the process. This guide should help shine a light on many of the other important concepts to keep in mind when spearheading a multi-lingual initiative.

Multi-lingual Content

If you’re developing a multi-lingual website, your back end concerns come secondary to your content. Your content is the life-blood of your website, and as such should be regarded as the most important factor in building multi-lingual functionality. And translation accuracy can and will make or break your efforts to reach out to speakers of other languages.

This is not limited to syntax, and proper verb conjugation. For example, Spanish speakers in Mexico do not speak the same as Spanish speakers in Spain. Likewise, Canadian French is not precisely the same as in France. This is, again, where your initial research and due diligence come into play. Mind the English idioms you may be used to and be aware that they do not tend to translate. More pertinent to web traffic specifically, research other websites in the regions and languages to which you’re expanding because the SEO (search engine optimization) keywords that garner high traffic in English may not be the same in other languages. Google Trends is a great resource to assist in this kind of research.

As for the translations themselves, there are two main factors to bear in mind when developing your multi-lingual content strategies:

1. Existing content as is.
2. Future content, and changes to the existing content.

A website’s content, generally, is not a static thing. It is like a living, breathing entity that changes, grows, and evolves. So your translation strategy needs to account not only for accurate like-for-like translation of the content that already exists on your site, but also the future additions and changes that are inevitable. Some resources at your disposal for translation include:

– An in-house translator. Obviously it would be ideal to have a native speaker on staff who is familiar with a given language’s intricacies.
– Use of a third party translation service. Many such companies exist that can play the role of translator if none exist in-house. Here is our translation partner.
– MT(machine translation) tools. A great baseline, but far more effective when combined with human translation efforts.

A healthy combination of the above resources is your safest bet for content translations. It is also important to note that “content,” in this context, is not limited to simply paragraphs of text. Images, for example, can often need “translation.” English words may appear within a given image, or the image may have less relevance in different countries, and could call for replacement should your research deem it necessary. Again, intimate awareness of your target market/region/language is imperative.

The forms that appear on your website will also be in need of translation. Contact forms, for many businesses’ sites, is the most important method of direct communication to and from clients or partners, so those forms need to be as natural as possible. Another not-so-obvious translation factor to keep in mind is when dealing with languages whose written forms are read right to left, such as Hebrew or Arabic. Or in the case of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, are read top to bottom, right to left. You will want to specify, “rtl” under the “dir” attribute in your site’s config files. Likewise, languages with non latin characters can be managed by your CMS (content management system) via a Unicode (UTF-8 encoded) character set.

Your multi-lingual strategy is not limited to simply the content that appears on your website. For example, you will also want to determine how your website’s URL should be structured, through which you have several options:

-Subdomain: Spanish.YourSite.com
-Subdirectory: YourSite.com/Spanish
-Top level domain: YourSite.es

Cookie Law

Another consideration that may not be obvious, especially to American website owners, is the legal implications of establishing a web presence in other countries. As of May, 2011, any website either hosted in, or directed toward, countries in the EU are required to follow “Cookie Law.” Cookies, as you may or may not know, are little files websites and apps store on a user’s computer or device to store basic information like login credentials, preferences, settings, and visitor tracking or other pertinent analytics.

Cookie Law simply states that if your site utilizes cookies, it must make a user aware of this and obtain his or her consent to do so. This is typically done via dialog box that opens upon your site’s loading, and makes a user aware that cookies will be used, what kinds of cookies will be used, and then presentation of a clickable choice whether or not to give consent. As it pertains to this Cookie Law, you have 3 choices, and each has its own pros and cons:

1. Comply with the law. This has the obvious upside of being legally compliant and therefore worry free about any legal ramifications involved in non-compliance. The downside is that if someone chooses not to allow the cookies, your site may not operate properly or at maximum efficiency.

2. Don’t comply with the law. Non compliance can result in fines and/or having your site taken down. Likewise, users in the EU who are used to the option may distrust your site, and therefore distrust your company. We are absolutely not advocating the non-compliance option, but are listing it here for the sake of being thorough. Just note that even if you think it may be worth the “gamble” to avoid the annoyance of a consent dialog, and are able to avoid being caught, there still may be latent consequences in users avoiding your site and harboring ill will toward your brand.

3. Don’t use cookies. Depending on what your business does, and how it utilizes its web space, this may be an entirely workable solution for you. However, most websites of even lower complexities make use of cookies in some capacity. So be aware of potentially limited functionality if this is your chosen method for addressing EU’s Cookie Law.

Development Frameworks

Since you’re working to develop a multi-lingual web site, another decision you’ll need to contemplate is the framework with which to build it. You have several options for this, and your comfort and familiarity level with various platforms will likely dictate which route you take. While you are not limited to these options, we have 3 recommended development frameworks for your multi-lingual efforts:

1. WordPress. With a plugin called Multisites, WordPress can be a powerful tool for creating multi-lingual functionality. Multisites will allow for each of the above three URL/domain options, and also has additional plugins such as Multisite Language Switcher, Zanto, and Multi-lingual press to synchronize multi-lingual content once properly configured. Alternatively, you can also clone your website’s content into the new language, which prevents you from needing to redo theme customization, widgets, links, menus, etc. Just note if you opt for cloning as opposed to synchronization, a user will be redirected to your home page if he or she switches languages.

2. Laravel. Laravel is a framework with native localization functions, albeit along with Ruby on Rails (below), is far more complex than WordPress. However higher complexity means more control for a developer familiar with these frameworks. Laravel’s “Lang” class provides for a developer a convenient method for the retrieval of strings (code-speak for variables containing ‘strings’ of ASCII characters) in different languages. These strings are stored in files within your “app/lang” directory, with subdirectories created for each language you wish to support on your website or application.

3. Ruby on Rails. Like Laravel, Ruby on Rails development is a touch less novice-friendly than WordPress, but tends to be the preferred framework for development firms like ours. You can initialize l18n (short for “Internationalization”) support for your Ruby on Rails application, and then have the ability to Internationalize your website or app. This means you can abstract every locale-specific element and then localize it, which then provides the necessary translations for those abstracts.

The development framework you use is, again, a matter of taste, experience, and your chosen working method for content management and translation. Coding and configuration specifics for these frameworks are far beyond the scope of this document, however you can always reach out to us for more information and advisement on the nitty gritty of multi-lingual development.