First Decision of a Multi-Lingual Website: Translation or Regional Adaption

So you are looking to publish your website in more than one language? Congratulations, you are going down a fun, but complex road. Multi-lingual websites present some great challenges both technically and strategically, with the first being what your goal actually is. This is what this article is all about.

Essentially it all boils down to what you want to do and how your business looks like. There are basically two options for a multi-lingual website: Translation or Regional Adaption.

Translation

This is perhaps the most simple way of localizing your website. You have content written in one language and you just want to simply translate it over to another language, say English to German.

An important note here is that we are strictly talking about translation here. This means that you are not allowed to adapt the content too much. Of course the translation should be contextual, but the idea is that it is the very same content being offered in two languages.

What we are doing is decoupling language with country. Just because I choose to read something in German doesn’t necessarily mean that the content should be German-specific. This would be doing translation wrong.

Rule of thumb for translation is therefore: The very same content translated to multiple languages.

Regional Adaption

If your website should be for multiple markets, for example by offering different content for the German market and the United States market, we are entering into what I call “regional adaption”.

What we are doing is essentially realizing that content need to be adapted to our specific markets instead of languages, as we know that we can’t infer a region based on language.

This means that we have a set of content for “Germany”, “United States” and “Canada” (for example) which is meaningfully different.

Why is this important?

Take Canada for example, a country with two official languages: English and French. Just because you read something in French doesn’t mean we can infer that you are in France (as is obvious with the Canada example). We need instead two levels: Country -> Language.

With regional adaption, this is possible. We have a first choice of country—a choice of which content is relevant for where I am. We then have a choice of language—which language do I today feel most comfortable in reading the site in.

Let’s restate it clearly: Language ≠ Country

In the increasingly global world, this is getting even more important and there is nothing more annoying as a website visitor than finding out that you get different information based on the language you view a site in. This is illustrated very clearly with the Canada example, but can easily be extended to countries such as Switzerland (speaking German, French and Italian in a lovely mix).

Conclusion: How do you decide?

The decision here is fairly easy, once you have decoupled language from country in your mind. If you need to offer different information based on geographical region, then regional adaption is how you need to think. If instead the information can be roughly the same across languages, then the simple translation will do.

Image by tristam sparks on Flickr.