Tutorial: How To Build A Multilingual Web Publication

One of the most common questions I am asked is how to build a multilingual website or publication. This is becoming an important requirement for many businesses, whether you need to reach Spanish speaking customers in the US, or reach international guests to your bed and breakfast. This tutorial explains how to do this easily, and without spending a lot of money. 

The first question I ask customers is how they are hosting and managing their website, specifically, are you using a content management system (CMS). A CMS enables website owners and contributes to edit and manage documents, blog posts, etc without editing HTML code. For example, we use the Word Press platform for Translation Reports.

The second question I ask is which CMS you are using (unless you’re a serious geek and are FTPing HTML files to your own Linux server, its likely you’re using a CMS even if its not called that). This is important because some CMSs, such as Drupal and Joomla, have multilingual support built in. Most do not, in which case you’ll need a wordaround that I’ll explain in a minute.

CMSs that support translation, such as Drupal, enable you to manage your content in many languages, and to create translations for documents published in your site’s parent language. Drupal and Joomla both have extensive multi-lingual features, so if you’re building a large website with lots of content, you should consider these.

The third question I ask is how much material needs to be translated, and how frequently new content is published or updated. This is important because if your content is mostly static, you don’t need to invest in translation automation technology. If you have frequently updated content (for example, a news website), you’ll need to automate the process of translating new content as it is published (the translations can be done by professional translators, but the process of requesting translations and posting them to the site is automated).

With these questions in mind, you have several options to consider.

Option #1 : Set Up Mirror Websites

This is the simplest solution from a technical perspective. You simply create mirror sites, with their own domains or subdomains, and manage the content on each independently. For example, your main website might be http://www.yoursite.com and your Spanish site es.yoursite.com or http://www.yoursite.es If you were using Word Press, for example, you’d simply create two Word Press sites, and point different domains at each.

This actually works pretty well, as long as you don’t have a lot of material to translate and don’t update frequently (for example, a static website that describes your bed and breakfast). No special technology is required. You just have the people doing the translations for you log into the translated sites to manage them. Another advantage is that you can have different content for each language that does not appear in others. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t scale very well, so if you have a continually changing website or large number of documents, this won’t work.

Option #2 : Use A Translation Plugin For Your CMS

Translation plugins are available for several content management systems, including Drupal, Joomla, and Word Press (self-hosted version, but not wordpress.com, yet). These plugins enable you to have your pages translated using a combination of machine translation, your users or editors, and professional translation through services like Gengo. If you are open to using a new content management system, you may also want to consider a CMS that is designed specifically for translation, such as ShadoCMS from Straker Translations. (Watch for articles about the best translation plugins for leading CMSs). One particularly interesting company to watch is Transfluent. They have a Word Press translation plugin that combines machine, crowd and professional translation. Transfluent also does social feed translation for Twitter and Facebook Pages.

Option #3 : Use A Translation Delivery Network

But what if your CMS does not support translation, or your web hosting company will not allow you to install third-party plugins? WordPress.com, for example, does not currently provide any support for translation widgets, and does not allow users to install third-party plugins. This is a shame because it is such a good publishing platform.

In this case, you can use a translation delivery network (TDN) to translate your website on the fly. The way TDNs work is pretty simple. You create a subdomain like espanol.yoursite.com and point this at the translation delivery network. The TDN then loads pages from http://www.yoursite.com, parses the pages and replaces the source texts with translations. The reader sees the page in their language, but with the original layout preserved. This approach does not require any change to your web server, and will work with almost any site.

Smartling, GTranslate and Motion Point provide this type of service (Smartling has been especially innovative and offers a great solution that enables customers to combine machine, crowd and machine translation).

What Works Best?

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. The answer depends on what publishing system or service you are currently using, as well as your technical skills. If you have a multilingual CMS, a translation plugin is generally the best way to extend your site to multiple languages. If you’re not very technical, or are using a platform that doesn’t support multilingual content like Word Press, you’ll probably want to look at a translation delivery network (or if you have a small, mostly static site, just set up a mirror site on a different domain).

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