Multilingual Websites

I will not discuss the necessity of multilingual websites in this post. It is obvious in a multilingual environment like Switzerland. However, some providers of websites seem to be quite oblivious of their users. Last week, I stumbled over 2 websites using an automatic translation tool producing plain gibberish, and one website randomly mixing languages within its pages.

Air Malta, text supposedly translated into German

Translated back into English by Babelfish (quite adequately, as a matter of fact):

I repeated the flight details above. All possible changes, after they bought, depend on the applicable loading. I read and accepted the full price of transportation conditions and the designations and conditions.

The original English version:

Air Malta disclaimer in English

Most websites I found skimming a web search on multilingual websites treated the necessity, the costs and the benefits of maintaining multilingual (or multicultural) websites or how to effectively translate them. As the example above shows, these are important issues.

But so far, I haven’t found any tips on the information architecture of multilingual sites. We’ve been discussing this recently in several projects, because there are few «ideal» multilingual websites where each page in language A corresponds exactly to one page in language B. Usually, for reasons of frequency of use, cost, or cultural differences, only part of the pages exist in several languages, and the information architecture of each language is different. Does this matter to the user?

Let’s look at an example:

Tromso midnight marathon homepage in Norvegian

Even if you don’t speak Norvegian – as in my case – it is quite obvious you’re missing out on something:

Tromso midnight marathon homepage in English

So yes, I guess it does matter, at least to curious users. And it’s definitely confusing if you press the language button and the navigation bar is still in German, or it changes all together, as on the Berlin website:

Berlin Website, English version with German navigation

Berlin Website, English version with English and German navigation

Are there any solutions? I like two examples which address different questions.

Educa, the Swiss education server, has editorial staff for five different languages. Some of the basic information on the Swiss education system is analogous in all languages. When you select a different language, you will be pointed to the exact page in that language, i.e. each page is mapped to its sister pages. If there is no corresponding page available, you will be pointed to the homepage of the selected language where you get an overview of all contents available in that language.

The Canton of Berne (a Swiss state) has a page called «other languages». It’s very much hidden, and the label is not very helpful if your mother tongue is Albanian, but I like the idea of giving a central overview over all pages available in foreign languages. It’s a good approach for a site with a limited amount of foreign language content. Other than Educa’s solution, however, it does not show the user starting from a certain page if that specific page is available in other languages or not. Basically, it’s similar to the Norvegian marathon page above: it shows what’s there, not what isn’t.

From the usability (theoretical) point of view, not providing transparency is lousy. But I haven’t yet decided if it’s worth while investing much time and energy into finding a perfect (and costly?) solution. Maybe tagging could provide a pragmatic approach for the Canton of Bern case: Each page available in other languages receives the corresponding tag, and by selecting all pages with that language tag, you’d receive the overview. (To be precise, these are links and not tags, because they don’t describe the page itself but refer to  similar pages.  Still, it might be worthwhile thinking this through).

In the case of Educa, I believe the solution is completely adequate. It could be enhanced by giving the user feedback if a page is not available in another language and offer the choice of continuing to the homepage of the selected language or returning to the original page. But that’s just wishful thinking – in the first place, you need to get the translations right.


4 Responses to “Multilingual Websites”

  1. 1 Roxanne August 5, 2008 at 18:36

    I agree that automated translation in terms of website creation can become quite difficult. However, if you get a CMS (Content Management System) that has UTF-8 coding you will at least ensure that your multilingual content will be placed in a organized manner that will be presentable and that customers will be able to comprehend. Bitrix Site Manager 7.0 is definitely a great tool. Take a look at the website for more information.

  2. 2 Andrea August 9, 2008 at 16:38

    Thanks for the tips. You might be interested in information recently provided by Google in its webmaster blog plus the comments to the post:

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