Ever wonder why the street names in Israel are frequently so crazily misspelled? I’m talking Zionist icons like Ahad Ha’am and Jabotinsky. How could they get it wrong? My first job in Israel was at the Jerusalem Municipality Spokesperson’s Office and involved (among other things) translating press releases. Frequently, the press release mentioned a name, in Hebrew – perhaps there was a new street named after someone who had made a contribution to the development of the city, or perhaps a donor from abroad was spearheading a new project. It was still the pre-Internet era and I was frequently at a loss as to how to spell the person’s name in English. Amazingly, my Israeli colleagues didn’t understand the problem. My boss’ response was generally, “Just spell it how it sounds.”
Living in a multilingual society, we’ve all encountered translations that range from the amusing to the ridiculous. Sometimes I chalk it up to the more flexible approach to spelling that’s inherent to Hebrew. (All those extra “vavim.”) But even if you have an awareness of the complexities of translation, anyone putting together a website with content in multiple languages is likely to come across some interesting challenges. Here are some suggestions about localization that I’ve shared with my clients in helping them get multilingual websites successfully off the ground. I used to think these points were obvious, but by now I’ve worked with businesses who did it all backwards, and suffered the consequences. Conclusion: Following these pointers saves a lot of time, and helps to create a better end product.
- Translate with care. If you translate a site, it may be necessary to shrink or expand the translated text to meet the design needs of your site. English text can be as much as 30% longer than Hebrew texts − just as an example. It may be better to hire a marketing writer for each language translation rather than using a professional translator, since you will want to maintain the feel of the source text while simultaneously shrinking or expanding the length of the translation, to make it fit.
- Go easy on your readers. Don’t frustrate your visitors − make it easy for them to find what they want. his is true of a site in any single language, but it’s harder to keep in mind when you’re working in a language you don’t understand. The BBC is a classic example of implementing this type of thinking: Knowing the needs of their readers, they’ve put the weather forecast on the top right corner of their home page. Frequently, all a visitor needs is your contact information; put that on your home page.
- Tell your story. This one comes straight from social media guru Kimanzi Constable (see www.kimanziconstable.com), who gave a great session at WordCamp Jerusalem. Make sure you’re providing clear messaging. Anyone who visits the site should easily understand what services you offer. The About page is usually the most visited page on a site (besides the home page), so be sure it does a good job of telling your company’s story, explains why you’re the best, and prominently displays your contact details.
- Choose your template first. If you’re creating a site from scratch, select your template before you start writing. This way, you create content that matches the design of the page, optimizing the look and feel of the site. For example, the template determines how much text is needed for the home page and what is visible above the fold.
- SEO comes last. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of SEO. But I personally find it impossible to write new content very well, while trying to use SEO terms. Instead, I suggest first putting together solid content, and integrating SEO terms afterward by massaging and playing with the text. For multilingual sites, optimizaton strategies need to be adapted and tested in each language.
- QA your site. Your programmer or graphic designer won’t pick up on errors in the French or German. Have a native speaker check the content has been integrated successfully. Sometimes, copy/paste leads to some interesting errors. Hyperlinks and any right-to-left issues are also potential pitfalls. Graphics and logos raise interesting challenges, as well, as you may discover embedded, English-language text that wasn’t noticed in the development stage.