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  • Chris Gib

The minefield of multinational and multilingual websites Part 1

Cultivating an international business brings a wealth of benefits and opportunities, opening doors to new markets, releasing untapped potential and generating increased revenue.

Alongside a physical presence in overseas markets comes the requirement to align your digital ecosystem too. Naturally, customers in different countries would prefer to experience the buying journey and messaging in their own language. Local employees also need to be considered. Language barriers might cause disruption when it comes to using tools, systems and platforms that are relied on for processes and productivity. And that only scratches the surface. This article primarily focuses on some of the considerations surrounding creating or converting website(s).

Lost in translation

Ask anybody who speaks more than one language and they will tell you there’s rarely such a thing as literal translation. For example, the literal translation of the German phrase “Das Meerschweinchen im Krankenwagen” into English is “The sea piglet in the suffer cart”. In fact, the correct English translation should be “The guinea pig in the ambulance” (which also barely makes sense, but you get the point). Add into the mix that there’s approximately 40 different definitions for the word “nut” in English, so context also becomes super-important in order to reveal which particular nut we’re talking about when translating. Free online tools like Google translate are pretty good for most small phrases or words, but their ability to translate swathes of web copy accurately and correctly is severely limited. The main takeaway here is this: Correctly translating large amounts of contextually relevant and appropriate copy is far from straightforward, especially when the message isn’t basic or simple - A great deal of process, planning and reviewing will certainly be required.

Agency, AI or In-house?

Next you’ll need to decide who or what is going to create the many pages of contextually relevant and appropriately translated web copy? There are three main options, each with their own list of pros & cons




  • Complete control over the translation process

  • No agency fees

  • Guaranteed accuracy & contextual relevance

  • No separate bespoke translation packages/platforms required

  • Internal translation resource required (existing employees or dedicated staff)

  • Increased workload for technical/website teams

  • Need to create internal workflows/processes to coordinate copywriting, translation and upload to website(s)

Translation Agency

  • Convenient

  • Less internal resource required

  • External accountability

  • Quicker turnaround times

  • Less internal technical resource required

  • Most expensive option

  • Requirement to learn new processes, systems and/or software

  • Less internal control/oversight

  • Technical integration of separate bespoke translation platform

  • Vendor management required

AI (Google/Deepl/Azure etc)

  • Low cost

  • Immediate translations

  • Complete internal control over process

  • No separate bespoke platforms/packages required

  • Increased workload for technical teams compared to agency solutions

  • More internal workflows/processes

  • Less accurate than alternative options

  • Extensive internal review and amendment process/resource needed

Take stock of your images, videos and devices

This one is simple on the surface, but can cause headaches if you don’t get it right. Many websites use stock assets (photos & videos) and visual devices to augment their messaging, brand and tone-of-voice. If yours is one of them, think about cultural and political sensitivity. Clothing, animals, locations, events, treatments and symbols can have different cultural, religious or spiritual connotations around the world. Make sure you do your research to ensure you’re applying images, videos and themes appropriately. Harvest considerable feedback before making any firm decisions.

Look hard at the “Long Languages”

In day-to-day conversation, the longest English word you might encounter would be about 20 letters. That’s because English doesn’t normally use Agglutinative constructions – where multiple words are shunted together into one new (and super long) word. Regular business terms in other languages include realisationsvinstbeskattning (Swedish for ‘Capital Gains Tax’), anticonstitucionalissimamente (Portuguese for ‘Unconstitutionally’) and prawicowonacjonalistyczny (Polish for ‘Right Wing Nationalistic’). Unless you have hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism (a love of very long words), you’re likely to get very frustrated when it comes to website responsiveness. Once you start looking at your web copy looks like on mobile phones in Finnish, for example, you’ll fully understand how important it is to plan for translating into the long languages.

What happens where?

How your organisation operates in different countries, regions or markets can have a direct bearing on how you create and maintain your global website ecosystem. If your messaging, solutions or products differ across languages, continents and borders, you’ll need a complex plan in place to begin with. Then consider that each language/territory might have its own separate site. So there’ll be one process for making global changes across all sites, and another for local changes on individual sites – which will all need to be tracked, recorded and QA’d. If all of your international sites are somehow connected together then a different set of variables and factors come into play because changing one element on one page in one language might affect the same element on that same page in other languages. Therefore it’s likely you won’t be able to roll out any local or global changes until you have everything pre-translated into the relevant languages and reviewed. How challenging that will be depends on your entire translation, review & upload processes. This part is likely to be the most laborious lift in terms of maintaining a truly international web ecosystem in the longer term.

It's simply not possible to plan for every single eventuality but the more you’re aware of, the less pain (and wasted time & money) you’ll experience in the long term.

Look out for part 2 of this article where we’ll continue to highlight the challenges you’ll face when expanding and enhancing websites into different languages, countries and territories.

We might have got it all wrong. Or perhaps there's something we missed. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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