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Multilingual Web Sites That Work Twitter Facebook Print E-mail
Written by Tyler Dalton   
Thursday, 18 March 2010

Is it really possible to create a usable multilingual Web site that works across a broad set of languages? This has been a great challenge for the Church as we try to ensure that Web content can reach the worldwide Church and not just a subset of those who can read English.

Design

Developing a database-driven Web site that has many languages is fairly straightforward. The challenge is to make it friendly to all those languages. For example, compare an English Web page to a Hebrew or Arabic page. Everything flows in the opposite direction in Hebrew and Arabic, since these languages read from right to left. This alone breaks the structure or template of a page.

To resolve this problem, you can program the site to alter the CSS based on the language. One of the simplest ways to do this is by including the lang attribute on any elements that will be displayed differently by languages. The lang attribute allows language-based CSS changes. You can modify the direction (right to left vs. left to right) of text and move a left-floated navigation div to the right of the page. This requires time and some extra CSS code, but a dynamic and clearly designed site can deliver a message better than one that frustrates the user.

Dynamic vs. Easy-to-Translate Content

A second challenge is the fact that we like to make content dynamic. In our Web 2.0 world we like to make everything personable, causing our sentences and paragraphs to be broken into fragments that cannot be translated across languages. Imagine just the code “Welcome ” + name + “ to the ” + section + “ of our site.” If “name” and “section” are replacement variables, the translation in many languages would not fit the sentence structure and is therefore useless.

This challenge is tough because you can lose a more personable experience for a better translation. One option is to make sure to use full sentences without replacement variables so that translation can occur. This seems to sacrifice the personal experience however.

Search Engine Optimization

Who manages all this content? And how do we optimize it for a search engine? Search engine optimization (SEO) also has to be configured in the correct languages, and what works for one language may not translate into or work for another. International keywords may be different than just translating an English set of keywords. Do we need a language content editor for every language our site has to maintain?

While you can get a close fit when it comes to search engine optimization and translated content, nothing currently is better than a little manual intervention. For example, Google Translate is a tool that allows you to translate any site on the fly, but the context is seldom correct. While the message may get across, it may not come very clearly.

It should be clear to us, as an international organization, that every language and culture is different. If we want to reach users in the most comfortable way, then we need to make sure the content conveys the right message and is easy to find. Therefore, some manual intervention is necessary to make sure the right pages get into the right search results. Manual intervention may include writing code to affect search engine optimization. We can also keep the translated pages more dynamic and engaging by using human editors to keep content fresh and personal.

Summary

I believe it is possible to reach all nations and languages through one Web site in a way that the message of the restored gospel can clearly be understood.

Please share your thoughts regarding challenges and solutions related to multilingual sites.

Tyler Dalton is an engineer for the Church.

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