Website Translation: Deciding How and What to Translate

A lot of technology has come and gone over the past 15 years. Technology that sticks around not only supports a particular business goal, it does it well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that mobile technology was the “next big thing.” Businesses clamored to develop a mobile presence, but gave little thought to how it would impact their existing website, technology, staff, and users. Mobile apps and sites are popping up everywhere, and the UX community is enjoying the challenge of designing for reduced real estate.

Today, mobile apps and technology is considered standard for most businesses. UX professionals became skilled at designing for mobile devices, and now discuss the best way to deliver mobile content (for example, native app vs. mobile web).

Businesses advanced and became more confident in their ability to manage content and provide more sophisticated functionality, providing everything from e-commerce platforms to targeted personalization campaigns. This was typically provided within their home region or country and in their native (usually a single) language. This made sense, since managing a site, even in a single language, is a challenging task.

As smartphones and tablets gained momentum, the public’s appetite for immediate access to information expanded globally. Today, many businesses only provide content to users in their native language and those who do not speak or read that language will be unable to use the site.

Translating content into additional languages is incredibly rewarding and enriching. It opens doors to new users and provides additional value to individuals residing outside of the home country or those whose native language is different.

However, like the early days of mobile delivery, the planning and strategy can easily become secondary, resulting in disappointing results or abandoned projects.

A good first step is to ask, “How much translation is enough?” The easy answer is all of it! The better answer can be determined by analyzing the content you want to provide and then determining what you can provide.

Having a goal of translating all the content of a site or app at one time is admirable. However, it is probably unattainable. A better approach is to translate the site over a period of time.

Consider the following two factors involved in translating site content:

  • The quality of the translation
  • The design or presentation of the content.

Quality: Translation Resources

A good place to start when determining what is feasible to translate is to think about how it will be translated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

If you choose automated translation you’ll still need a staff to review, modify, and confirm that the translation is accurate and appropriate. If your content is translated by machine you will undoubtedly get a baseline translation deprived of the context humans require to fully understand the content.

That can present a challenge for businesses that have content with industry specific terminology. For example, when a company that manufactured scientific equipment needed to translate the product description and specifications for products such as “Neutron Generators,” an automated translation could not provide a proper translation; it required a subject matter expert within the company.

Automated translations may also send the wrong message to users. They may get the impression that their language and business aren’t a high priority and this might result in their choosing a different site to get information or do business.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand how translated content will impact daily resources. There have been great successes in hiring translation services that are paired with in-house expertise to fine-tune translations. But this means you’ll need someone in-house who can speak different languages to make those adjustments.

Another option is to only use an in-house translator. This may cost less than outsourcing, but will likely mean that the individual will be working as a solo translator. Their existing responsibilities may need to be handed off, since translation can become a full-time job.

One recommendation is to compare the costs for professional translation companies with the cost of in-house translation. You may have someone who speaks multiple languages at your disposal, but they’ll need to be open to this new responsibility.

Lastly, look at the time and workflow for the translation project. Professional services can assist with large quantities but will need time to do so. Weighing the pros and cons of mass translation versus smaller amounts should also be a part of the cost analysis.

Content Presentation: Balancing Growth

Once you have an idea about how much content you can translate, you should think about how that content is presented. A first step is simply incorporating a link to the second language near the original content. For example a press release could be distributed in English but can also have a link En Español (see Figure 1).

Screenshot of a web page with links to translated PDF documents.

Figure 1. Links to travel information available in different languages.

As translated content grows, the mix of local language content and secondary translated content won’t be as sustainable since both the native and non-native users will only be able to read a subset of the content.

The good news is you are ready for the next step, which is creating a dedicated section for the translated content (as shown in Figure 2). By placing clear and identifiable entry points to the translated content, users won’t have to wonder what has been translated and what has not. This option will impact your site navigation, but requires little work other than the translation itself.

If you already provide a dedicated section you can consider translating the entire site into a second language. Translating your current site is powerful because in most instances you can utilize pre-existing layouts and design. This option requires the most amount of work but provides the biggest bang for your buck. Users will navigate as they normally would without having to hunt for content translated in their native language. In addition, it provides a strong incentive to your non-native language users. For those embarking on a left-to-right language there will be modifications to the layout and design.

If you are not quite ready for a full-site translation then consider a smaller, yet exclusive, site for your secondary language. Depending on the amount of content you choose to translate you may still be able to use the existing layouts and design. In either instance—in addition to the impact to your business in managing the content— you should already have a clear understanding of the cost and timeframe of content translation.

Once you have completed a full-site translation and are considering translating to multiple languages, you’ll have more decisions to make. For example you may be thinking about how to direct users to the appropriate site effectively. One approach is through IP recognition and geo-location, which is simply a method to direct a user to the appropriate translated site based on location.

Another approach is to offer navigation that provides the users with the ability to select their desired language and/or toggle between multiple languages. This approach is found on many global web sites and is familiar to most users. Remember, this will affect your global navigation and you’ll want to have the language selection option visible for users, but not in their way.

Lastly, don’t forget scalability. If you only have two or three languages you could potentially have those as individual items of your navigation. However, as you begin to translate into more languages, providing a dropdown or overlay to accommodate for a larger number of selections will be necessary.

In the end the decision whether to incorporate more than one language can feel complex. But with the proper planning it can be a valuable tool in growing your business’ website.

Spates, C. (2014). Website Translation: Deciding How and What to Translate. User Experience Magazine, 14(4).
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