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The ultimate guide to website translation

By Neil Gauld, 

What is website translation?

In short, website translation involves translating some or all of the content on your site into another language. This can be done in a number of ways, which can be slightly overwhelming if you’re new to the subject.

Translating your website is pretty much a necessity if you want to reach an international audience. So, if you’re thinking about the best way to get your website translated, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve created the ultimate guide to website translation to help you understand the ins and outs of the entire process, including how to decide which method would be the best for you and your business.

1. Translation, transcreation, and localisation

When it comes to translating your website, it’s important to consider how your content is translated. Do you want it translated word for word? Or would you prefer a translator to adapt the copy specifically for the audience? It all depends on what you’re translating and who you’re translating it for.

Let’s take a look at the different methods of professional translation and when they should be used.

What is standard translation?

Standard translation is professional translation in its simplest form. In short, the content must be translated to exactly reflect the original text. Any cultural differences between the texts or idioms in the text are not normally considered – words are simply translated on a superficial level

When to use standard translation

Standard translation is usually fine for content such as product descriptions, training documents and instructions. When it comes to this type of content, all you need is straight-down-the-line clarity.

Standard translation can also be a cost-efficient method, as the translator/writer doesn’t have to be creative with how they translate the text. If you’re not concerned about cultural differences for the particular content you’re translating – and don’t have to pay close attention to the brand language – standard translation could be the option for you.

When NOT to use standard translation

This method of translation can cause a wide range of issues when it comes to attracting a new audience. By using standard translation, you eliminate the ability to consider the context, cultural differences, and language mishaps – all of which can alienate your audience. Take, for example, a succinct and catchy marketing slogan in English such as a previous Pepsi slogan, ‘Pepsi brings you back to life’. When this as translated into Mandarin for the Chinese market, the slogan became ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it! As the heading suggests, this is a prime example of when not to use standard translation.

What is localisation?

Unlike standard translation, localisation involves being aware of cultural nuances and consumer preferences when translating web copy. In other words, translators must understand their respective nation’s cultural quirks, traditions and superstitions to effectively localise the content they are translating. Have a look at our blog post about the difference between translation and localisation for more information.

It can involve everything from changing colour and images on marketing material, to altering the fonts on your flyers and the layout of your website. For example, in China the number ‘8’ is considered very lucky and could grab your audience’s attention. However, the number ‘4’ is very unlucky as it sounds like ‘death’. So, if you were pushing a campaign in China, you’d want to leave this number behind!

When to use localisation

Localisation is a targeted form of translation, aiming to create a personalised experience for the audience. So, when you’re planning to translate your website for a new market, localisation should be on your radar! It’s important to think about your multicultural reach early on – it could save you a whole load of internal politics, time and expense in the long run. In fact, it could keep your brand on top of the world. If you need more information, speak to a translation agency – one that specialises in global marketing communications such as Brightlines Translation – that would be well placed to assist you.

What is technical translation?

In comparison to some types of translation, technical translation requires the translator to understand the subject and implement the correct industry terminology.

Technical translation is more than just translating specialist language and key terminologies accurately. According to an article published by the American Translators Association, technical manuals should have a totally objective tone without ‘any sign of the author or trace of subjectivity’. To achieve this in the target language requires specialist skills.

So what exactly does a technical translator need to do?

  • Have an in-depth understanding of the intricate subject matter, and preferably have worked in the industry
  • Understand the preferred terminology and vocabulary of the company
  • Be an expert in the culture of the target language
  • Make the text culturally appropriate and understood by the target audience

When to use technical translation

If your source text contains complex or industry-specific terminology and concepts, you’ll likely need the help of a specialist language partner who is an expert in technical translation. The source technical document could be a comprehensive guide, technical brochure or safety report. The subject of these texts can range from science, software or engineering, right through to detailed medical data sheets and beyond.

Here are a couple of examples of common technical documents:

1. Patent translation

Patents are governed by legal and practical requirements. The translation of patents is highly complex, and requires the linguist to have subject matter expertise and be skilled in writing the documents. The subject could be medical, chemical, mechanical or pharmaceutical.

A clear understanding of the context of the document is required – whether it’s a claim, description, or if it’s going to be needed in a legal dispute.

2. User manual translation

User manuals are one of the other most popular types of document to need technical translation.

As with patents, this type of text also needs the linguist to be an expert on the subject matter, and preferably to have had industry experience. In addition, the linguist needs to be an expert on the translation of manuals and guides and be able to execute the right style of writing.

What is transcreation?

Transcreation refers to the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. It’s all about preserving your message in a new environment to reflect your brand and company ethos. Transcreation is the only safe option for humour, abstract slogans, and any text which has a distinctive tone of voice.

Head over to our complete guide to transcreation blog post for even more information about the process.

When to use transcreation

Transcreation should be used whenever you need to communicate your brand effectively with a local audience. Some would argue that this makes it essential for all marketing and advertising copy, such as your brochures, flyers and banners.

For global marketing in particular, highly branded materials – such as product names, slogans and advertising copy – will need the process of transcreation. Standard or technical translation isn’t always enough, and it’s crucial that you carefully consider this when preparing your content for global campaigns. If you want to ensure that your brand and message are culturally appropriate for your audience, it’s essential to transcreate rather than simply translate.

Our blog post about when to use transcreation goes into more detail on these points if you want to delve even deeper.

2. What are the differences between various translation technologies?

Machine translation

Machine translation (MT) is a translation service that uses an automated system to translate text in a matter of seconds. Today, the software works by building up a dictionary of grammatical rules, or by using a range of real-life example translations.

In recent years, it has become even more sophisticated, and has been adapted to recognise similarities between documents and build up a rich glossary of words. Its ability to produce cost-friendly translations on a large scale is incredibly attractive for businesses across the globe.

The benefits of machine translation

Machines don’t need eight hours of sleep or four weeks’ annual leave – they can work 24/7 for 365 days of the year. This means they work at a significantly faster pace than humanly possible, translating thousands of words per minute, every day. So, if you have a high volume of content that needs to be translated quickly, MT can be extremely useful.

MT effectively does the heavy lifting for human translators. For example, technical manuals, which use a lot of repetitive language and standard industry terms, greatly benefit from MT in the first stage of the translation process. The MT output will be specific to a language pair, such as English-French, and subject matter (e.g. engineering).

One thing to bear in mind when using machine translation is quality: the standard of translation provided by MT will be nowhere near as good as content that has been translated by a professional.That’s why it’s essential to use MT in conjunction with a human translator to proofread the content – a process which is often referred to as post-editing machine translation (PEMT).

The PEMT process can be done lightly or heavily, depending on your budget, and requires the expert eye of an experienced linguist. There may be words which don’t quite make sense in the context the machine has produced, or the copy may need to be localised to be acceptable within the target culture. This shows how the increase in adaptive MT will gradually just merge into the standard use of computer assisted translation (CAT) tools, which while used for years, will never replace the need for human translators.

The downsides of machine translation

One of the major flaws of MT is the damage it can cause to your visibility and site rankings on Google. Automatically translated content is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, meaning that the search engine doesn’t regard MT copy as high-quality content. When this happens, your website could be unranked for months and your customers will have difficulty finding you.

So how does Google detect automatically translated content? Well, when a website is translated accurately by a human translator – and exists in two different language versions – Google makes comparisons between the two and stores the correlation to improve the accuracy of Google Translate. Google senses auto-generated content because it creates a dangerous feedback loop, endlessly recycling its own translations, making the service less and less accurate over time. That’s exactly why it doesn’t even give you a chance – as soon as you publish automatic machine translation content as your own content, Google will stop indexing the site.

In addition to Google, other search engines also disregard MT content in their rankings. Bing’s guidelines require ‘rich and engaging’ content, which rules out anything automatically generated. Yahoo! also has very specific guidelines about not using automatically generated content. If you choose to ignore these search engine rules, you do so at your own peril!

Machine translation is also unable to understand context, and can sometimes translate words into their literal counterparts instead of the word that fits best. So, when copy is translated, it sometimes doesn’t make sense in the other language. Take, for example, this Vietnamese-to-English translation from a mainstream sports channel:

If this were translated by a professional translator, we’re sure the outcome would’ve been very different!

To maximise your SEO efforts and avoid translation mishaps, we’d always say using a professional translation agency is the best way to go. An agency will have a native SEO expert who can do the research to produce a list of keywords that should be used on your website. This’ll increase your search visibility and ensure that your content is reaching the right the audience. Contact us today for more information on the multilingual SEO services Brightlines offers.

WordPress translation plugins

Translation plugins can be installed on your WordPress-hosted website, and add additional features to help manage multilingual content. This means that a native Spanish speaker would be able to choose their own language, even though the website has been designed in English.

There are two types of WordPress translation plugins:

  1. The first type allows for automatic, machine translation of your website content. The main caveat here is that the quality won’t be up to scratch. This is generally referred to as auto translating WordPress plugins.
  2. The other enables you to create and manage multilingual content, where the translation comes from external source. Plugins such as WPML, which we’ll get to later, are an example of this.

Both plugins help to serve the right content in a particular language, thus keeping international users on site. For more information, head to our blog about WordPress translation plugins.

When to use auto translating WordPress translation plugins

If you’re on a budget, using an auto translating WordPress plugin is certainly a cost-efficient option. Plugins can also be useful for translating large volumes of text in a short amount of time. In fact, it’ll be translated in a fraction of the time it would take a professional translator. So, if you’ve got an especially large piece of text, auto translating plugins can be a quick and temporary solution.

Brightlines has previously explored when it’s best to use WordPress auto translation plugins – head over to the blog to have a look.

When NOT to use WordPress auto translation plugins

Although auto translating plugins provide fast translation, this definitely doesn’t mean that the content will be good to go first-time round. WordPress plugins won’t produce translations that are 100% grammatically or structurally correct, which is why you’ll still need a professional translator to do a thorough review of the copy.

When it comes to particularly large or specialised pieces, auto translating WordPress plugins can also struggle to identify grammatical inaccuracies – have a look at our technical translation blog post for more information. They can often produce grammatical inaccuracies from generally grammatically correct text – that’s why you still need to use a professional translation service alongside the WordPress plugin.

To save yourself time, consider hiring a translator or translation agency to proofread the auto-translated copy. As long as you factor the post-editing and proofreading stage into the total amount of time required, you’ll still be able to provide usable content quickly.

What is WPML?

Arguably the most popular translation plugin, the WordPress Multilingual Plugin (WPML) streamlines the setup of a multlingual site and the translation workflow. The platform, which Brightlines works with, allows you to translate all posts, web pages – even custom post types.

Some of the main features offered by WPML are as follows:

  • Only requires one WordPress installation
  • Powerful translation management
  • You’re able to build and run multilingual ecommerce sites using WooCommerce
  • Translation is available for theme and plugin texts
  • The software works with most WordPress themes
  • Reliable support from developers.

WPML is very affordable and offers a seamless and easy-to-use system. Have a look at the WPML demo video for a quick overview of its services:

Using the WPML plugin in conjunction with a WPML Translation Partner – such as Brightlines  – enables the seamless flow of text and translations back and forth between the translation partner agency and your website. Just add the pages you want translated to the basket in the backend, and we do the rest. Professional translations pushed directly to your website, no emails, no pasting, no confusion… just an expertly translated website.

Our blog post outlines why Brightlines works with WPML to provide a streamlined translation process.

What about human translation?

Business users who are reading an email, watching a video, browsing your website or checking through a contract, expect the presentation to be perfect. In business, your marketing materials and contracts won’t be taken seriously unless they’re translated perfectly to look like an original document. That’s where human translators come in! nothing that can surpass the skill and expertise of a human translator.

Whether you’re hoping to attract new business from abroad – or to engage the customers you have already – using their language properly is important. A professional human translator will be able to communicate with your customers in their own language, presenting your product or service in a way that they can relate to. Your customers want to feel valued, and they want to be sure that the company they’re dealing with is reliable and professional. Accurate translations will ensure this.

When to use human translation

Unfortunately, MT doesn’t have the capacity to understand the context surrounding the content on your website. This means you can’t play with words or use humour – the machine just won’t understand. It’ll provide literal translations that can sometimes be inappropriate, and can also misinterpret words – which can lead to all sorts of problems.

Human translators not only understand content, but they also pick up the nuances of a language and – as we’ve already mentioned – they can translate idioms or use colloquialisms if appropriate. As a bonus a human will even pick up errors in the source text, which a machine just cannot do.

Head over to our blog for more information about the benefits of human translation.

3. Layout and navigation

The layout of your website in one country can be very different to what it will look like in another. For example, some languages – such as Arabic and Urdu – read right to left rather than left to right. This alone can have a big impact on how you would set out a website aimed at readers of these languages. The direction people read in can heavily influence which areas of the website their eyes are drawn to first – and therefore should influence where you would put your most important content or buttons.

Although your brand will essentially be the same, when looking at how you’re going to use the space available to you, you’ll need to take notice of how the language will appear visually and think about the design of your website for different cultures.

Language expansion or contraction

Different languages take up different amounts of space on web pages. If you’re translating from English to French, you could expect the French text to take between 15% to 20% more space than the English text.

Japanese words can take up much more horizontal space, and some languages can even take up more vertical space within a website. All of these factors need to be considered when looking at how space will be used in multilingual websites. Indeed, sometimes the layout of your website may have to change drastically, not just because of cultural differences, but also because the text in a different language takes up a significantly different amount of space.

Some languages also have much longer words than English. French is one example of this, with some long words posing problems with layouts where there is limited space or, for example, within a button.

The following translation illustrates how the translated text uses far more characters than the original:

Without the correct formatting, a heavier word count like this could look squished or may not fit into the same neat-looking paragraphs as the text on your company’s English website.

Imagery

But surely we’ll just use the same images? This is a dangerous assumption and one that could cost your business dearly in certain markets. Colours, for example, that have connotations of happiness and prosperity in one culture could mean death and unhappiness in another. Certain gestures can mean very different things when used in different countries. For example, in Britain, the thumbs up is a good sign – everything is good, good job. However, in some cultures it can mean something totally different – in Germany it means the number ‘1’, and in Japan the number ‘5’!

In addition to this, it’s really important to ensure images on your website are suitable for the audience you are targeting. For example, if you’re translating your website into Arabic, you might want to steer clear of any images that involve alcohol or gambling. The last thing you want is to insult or offend the user!  

While this might seem obvious to some, the use of imagery can often be overlooked when it comes to website translation. Making sure your imagery takes into account these cultural differences – and embraces them – really can make the difference between business failure and success in different countries.

If you want more information about the layout of your website, have a look at our blog post about how to handle space on multilingual websites.

4. Choosing your multilingual URL/domain structure

What is a multilingual URL/domain structure?

One of the most common questions we get at Brightlines is from companies who are looking to translate their website is about their domains:

“What domain structure should I use for my website languages?”

Usually this is because companies want to choose the best option for SEO, without the hassle of managing multiple sites and installations. Many web developers aren’t experts  – and the client finds themselves searching for the answer.

There are a few options that you can consider when setting up your domain.

Option 1: In-country domain

Example: www.yourbrand.fr

When in Rome, do as the Romans do! The idea that when you’re in a place, you should adopt the local customs and fit in. That saying applies to websites too – you can go hyper-local by getting an in-country domain. For example .de for Germany, .fr for France or .co.uk for the UK.

The benefits of this approach are:

  • Clear geo-targeting
  • Increased trust
  • Maximum SEO visibility
  • A clearer divide between your regions
  • Benefit of linking between your domains
  • A visible dedication to that market
  • You can easily customise your website for each region (localisation)

Here’s an example from DFS, who have gone for dfs-banken.nl as their domain:

This is also the approach of large companies like Google and Coca-Cola, who have a separate domain for every country. There are, however, drawbacks to this approach:

  • Technically harder to manage
  • Changes to main site are not easily transferred to other regions
  • In-country domains lack the prestige of a .com
  • Difficult to build up domain authority as you are starting from scratch
  • Best domains may already be taken

Option 2: Subdomain

Example: www.fr.yourbrand.com

You’ve already done a lot of work to build up your domain. You have a global brand and you don’t really want to customise your offering for each country. That’s where a subdomain comes in handy – for example, www.france.yourbrand.com

There aren’t many brands using this approach. One which does is Wikipedia, presumably because it has such a huge volume of content in folders, it internally finds it easier to organise using a subdomain for each country.

The pros of this approach are:

  • Easy to organise content
  • Simpler to manage than in-country domains
  • Able to use Search Console geo-targeting

The cons are a short list, but all significant issues:

  • Not as good for UX as the structure can be confusing
  • Difficulty in building domain authority
  • Generally not great for SEO (explanation below)

Option 3: Sub-folders

Example: www.yourbrand.com/fr/

This is probably the most popular and best way to manage international domains in a smaller company. When you are limited in resources, you would probably take this route. This involves having a .com domain, and then a subfolder for each country. For example, this is exactly what the iconic English footwear and clothing brand, Dr Martens, has done.

It’s also the default for CMS systems like Shopify, which has built it this way based on expectation from users.

Other options:

There are some other options, which are not very attractive for various reasons. We’ll outline them quickly here:

  • URL parameters: These allow you to display an in-country domain using a URL parameter, which is usually used for tracking, and looks like a piece of code. It feels like a bit of a hack, and doesn’t give your users great confidence or trust – so, in our opinion, should be avoided.
  • Translation plugin: As we’ve mentioned previously, plugins like WPML or Google Translate can display your website in a different language for users in that country. Unless your website is info only and non-commercial, it’s not really a good choice. It doesn’t give you the flexibility to keep a consistent message, shows lack of commitment to a region, and can often be inaccurate. It’s also not very good for SEO.

For even more information, head over to our guide to domain structures.

5. Implement a multilingual SEO program

Multilingual SEO is a necessity for your website if you’re looking to globalise your brand. No company ever became a multinational without appealing to customers who speak another language. A sobering thought for someone looking to optimise their search results to other parts of the world is that some regions have speakers of a variety of different languages, even if the native language might originate a long way from the land it’s spoken in. An example of this is London, which is reported to have speakers of 300 different languages living there. Any SEO effort in, for example, English only, rules out the possibility of dealing with many potential clients. Only 5% of the world’s population speaks English as its primary language; the other 95% is out of reach if you aren’t using multilingual SEO and a precision translation agency.

When implementing target keywords, you need to remember the importance of the local dialect and make the search terms are organic. No one searches like a robot, they search intuitively. To get this right, human translators should be used, not automatic translation tools. There is no substitute for using the minds of many native language speakers to collate a comprehensive list of search terms. In addition to the search terms, the HTML elements are equally important. If they aren’t up to scratch, you run the risk of subjecting your clientele to the horrors of terrible automatic translation, which is of-putting for anyone. It’s also against the major search engines’ webmaster guidelines.

How do I use multilingual SEO?

The first step is to think about which regions you’re looking to branch out into. These need to be exact, because – as mentioned before – every region has a varied selection of nuances and dialects. Put simply, everyone speaks differently.

Deciding on regions rather than languages may be an easier business approach. A concerted effort to spread a brand or product over one region (e.g. North Mexico) could be more successful than doing the same over the entire Spanish-speaking world.

When you’ve decided on the region, depending on whether you speak the language fluently and have a great cultural knowledge of the way native speakers search the internet, you need to decide whether to hire a translation agency. For example, an agency like Brightlines could do the research and formulate your search terms. Make a list of the most popular terms and attempt to incorporate them in the text on your site. It should be possible for them to be inserted very naturally and only require minor manipulation of the wording. This minor manipulation, however, will have a dramatic and lasting effect on your site.

Geotargeting

One tool which can be used to make your website more popular on foreign search engines is geotargeting. This means making a new URL which has a location specific ending, like .fr (denotes a French website). Some URLs are generic and location non-specific, such as .com, .fm and .net. These don’t have any particular edge over one another when it comes to multilingual SEO, since they aren’t tied to a specific region or country. Creating a subdomain such as de.example.com, or even a whole new site such as example.de – carefully translated by a translation agency into the target language – can be a very effective way into that seemingly impenetrable international market.

Why use geotargeting?

Geotargeted URLs are variably effective and help to penetrate international markets. The closer they are to a URL which is native to the targeted region, the better. The more removed and modified they become, the less effective they are -, with phrases such as ‘/language?=german’ being difficult to garner any sort of real results from. A simple ‘.de’ at the end of your website name is the most effective way of ensuring that your business shows up to the population of Germany. Of course, geotargeted URLs need to be combined with precision keywords, engineered from elements as obscure as regional dialects and even slang.

What is hreflang?

Hreflang is a tag that you can use to specify the target audience of your web pages through either their language or their country. It not only serves to help stop search engines seeing the different versions of your websites as duplicates, but also points people to the language version of your website that would be most suitable for them.

For example, if a German-speaking customer was searching for your website, Google would put your German page in their search results, rather than just showing them the English one.

What can hreflang be used for?

Hreflang tags are used by search engines to see what country your page is intended for and which language it’s written in. It can also provide alternatives of the same page, but for other countries and languages, and specify a default country and language. A hreflang tag is one of the ways that you can ensure that your target audience in a particular country get to see the most relevant version of your website when they search for it.

If you’ve gone to the trouble of localising your web page for a particular country, you want your potential customers to land on it when they conduct a search. By giving your target audience information that is relevant to them, you’ll get fewer bounce backs to the search engine, and therefore a higher ranking.

You can implement hreflang in one of three ways: by using HTTP headers, an XML sitemap or a HTML link element in the header. These methods each have their own set of pros and cons, so it’s important to research what would be right for your website, and choose the method that best suits your purposes

What is multilingual PPC?

Multilingual PPC is a paid search campaign whereby your advertisements will be tailored to specific markets based on their location, culture and language. This means localising the copy, images and colours to fit the target country.

Why should you use multilingual PPC?

Paid search is great for capturing people who are actively looking for a product or service, and have purchase intent. It’s this opportunity to target the right people that makes multilingual PPC such a great marketing channel. It helps you tap into a huge number of potential customers that you could’ve missed in an English-only campaign.

In a study carried out by the European Commission, 9 out of 10 internet users in the EU said that – when given the choice of languages – they would always visit a website in their own language. Another survey carried out by the Common Sense Advisory reported by the Harvard Business Review, 56.2% of consumers said that having information in their own language is more important than price. These stats  really show the importance of multilingual content and, when done right, multilingual PPC can be an extremely effective way for new customers to find you online.

6. Using a professional translation agency

How important is communication to your business? Does it matter how you sound in foreign markets? Does it matter how this translation is perceived by the audience who’s going to read it? Do you want to be a bright shining star in your new market, or a forgettable nobody? It’s not just about translation gaffes and mistakes, which get a lot of press and attention. The real value is that translation shows how much effort has been made, and how much you care about and respect that market.

This is where using a professional translation services comes in handy. An agency like Brightlines will have the experience, knowledge and passion to translate your website in the right way, appealing specifically to the audience you want to reach. Professional translators will also have a broad range of knowledge about various industries that they can confidently apply to your new website.

Why Brightlines?

At Brightlines, we believe that every brand deserves to be just as effective and clear in every language when it comes to marketing copy – not just in English. We are definitely for brands who care more. And whether that’s for marketing or more general translation, you’re in safe hands with us.

Contact us today about the services we offer at Brightlines. We’re happy to help and our advice is always free – so what have you got to lose?

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