Multi-lingual web sites

Paul Boag

Here is a scary fact. Did you know that you could be turning away 64% of your potential audience? OK, I might be stretching the truth slightly but I bet it makes you read on!

Did you know that only 36% of those using the internet speak English as their first language? I certainly didn’t until I came across the Internet World Stats web site.

The top ten languages are:

  • English (36.3%)
  • Chinese (13.3%)
  • Japanese (8.3%)
  • Spanish (6.8%)
  • German (6.6%)
  • French (4.2%)
  • Koran (3.7%)
  • Italian (3.6%)
  • Portuguese (2.8%)
  • Dutch (1.7%)
  • Others (12.8%)

But I only want to reach English speakers

Obviously if your web site and products are aimed purely at an English speaking audience then this does not apply to you. However I do have a word of caution. Don’t presume that just because your market is British that everybody primarily language is English. For example 26% of people in Wales speak welsh and also we have a very large number of ethnic minorities who would not consider English their first language.

But so many people speak English as their second language

True, but it doesn’t mean they want to have to. Also just because they can speak English doesn’t mean they find it easy. Why make it harder for people to understand your site. By translating your site into their local language you show a commitment to non-English speaking users.

So how do I go about translation?

If you are trying to reach a broader international market then translating your site into the appropriate languages is vital. However resist the temptation to use one of the many automated tools you find online such as google’s language tool. Although useful they are just not accurate enough to use on your site.

Where possible, the best option is to get translation done "in country". A native resident of the country you are trying to target will be able to pick up on the nuances of the way people speak rather than just providing a literal translation. This means your copy will seem more natural and easy to read. If you have ever read a Japanese video recorder instruction manual you will know what I mean. It may have been translated perfectly well into English but it can still be confusing and hard to follow.

Oh yes, a couple of design points to leave you with:

  • Make sure your design is flexible enough to accommodate more wordy languages. For example, the average German sentence is a third longer than its English equivalent.
  • Don’t use flags to allow people to choose between languages. If I am American or Australian I am not going to be happy clicking on a Union Jack to get to the English version.