Lost in Translation: Multilingual site issues

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Drupal is an ideal platform for creating multilingual sites. Here's why.
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Taoti Creative

Taoti is a creative agency hell-bent on using its almost 30 years in the game developing strategies, websites and apps to help organizations do what they do, but better. Reach…

As the number of people who are not proficient in English grows dramatically every year, we at Taoti are being asked more and more to create multilingual websites. Drupal is an ideal platform for creating multilingual sites – Drupal core provides the fundamentals, while extended functionality is added via actively maintained modules from the open source community.

If your site requires the interface to be displayed in multiple languages or if you need to customize the interface of a single language site, the first step is to enable the multilingual capabilities of Drupal.

Instead of supporting entirely separate language websites, you can also configure a Drupal site to allow your users to switch languages as they navigate a single site, and you can translate page content into multiple languages. The one thing Drupal can’t do for your multilingual site though is populate and maintain the content for you.

We’ve witnessed clients go through some pain points with multilingual sites over the years and discuss the following aspects of supporting a multilingual site to help you determine if translating your site is the best fit for your organization and audience:

1. Localization & Optimization
2. Design Considerations
3. Domains & Search Engines
4. Maintenance & Comparability
5. Integrated Operations & Marketing


Translating content is not a 1-to-1 process. If you decide to use software assisted translation, the translation should absolutely be reviewed by a qualified language professional before it is posted to the website to ensure that the translation correctly communicates the intended message. The localization aspect of language simply requires a professionally qualified native-speaking translator for each of your target markets. If you’re serious about addressing your international audience, then you have to consider dialects, too.

For example, many words mean different things in French (France), Canadian French and Swiss/Belgian French. ‘Lunch’ is déjeuner in France, but dîner in Switzerland and Belgium. And in France, dîner is the word for ‘evening meal’. Coche in Spain is the word for a ‘car’, while in many South American countries, it means a baby-stroller. Even then, a baby-stroller may be unfamiliar to UK readers, who’ll be more likely to use a ‘pushchair’ or ‘buggy’.

Additionally, English web content often includes abbreviations, acronyms and/or synonyms. Those terms must also be researched and translated locally to capture what your visitors will actually use to search for content on your website. In some cases, you may find that other languages do not have equivalent abbreviations or acronyms.


Length of words & readability

The length of words varies from language to language. Content written in one language may take up more or less space on the page than another language. The design of your website should take into account different length words used through the site.

Take Amazon as an example. The length of content in the search bar of the website varies between languages. The word ‘search’ takes up 10 characters in French but only two characters in Japanese. The word ‘basket’ takes up 6 characters in English but when translated to German takes up a massive 13 characters. Amazon has adapted the design of this area of their site pages, removing the wish list button from the search bar for those languages which use longer words such as German and Italian.

Lost in Translation: Multilingual site issues 1

It may not be possible to change the layout and design of your site to accommodate all of the potential variations, though. You can overcome these types of problems by using shorter words or phrases to fit into the space available on your page and making sure you have your content translated before making essential design decisions.

Additionally, different page layouts are often required for right-to-left languages, as most right-to-left languages should be right aligned rather than left aligned. This means the page layout will need to be adapted for these languages, essentially mirroring the layout of the left to right language pages. For example, the United Nations website adapts its layout for the Arabic language which is written from right-to-left. The whole layout of the page is reversed when compared to the English language version. These types of layout changes can be achieved using CSS; however, require a great amount of attention to detail in early planning and design phases.

Typeface & font sizes

When designing a multilingual website, it is important to realize that the typeface and font size you chose for your default language may not be suitable for all languages. Different languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic might be difficult to read at font sizes that are suitable for English, French and German languages.

For web pages displaying Chinese, Japanese or Arabic languages, the default font size will need to be increased so the text is legible on screen. This can be addressed using the CSS ‘lang’ pseudo class to set different font sizes and font families depending on the value of the ‘lang’ attribute.


It may be cheaper and more convenient to have a single domain for all your target countries, but from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, there’s an argument that says it’s best to have a dedicated top-level domain (TLD) for each of your target countries, (e.g. ‘’ for the UK or ‘.ch’ for Switzerland etc). Search engines use the top-level domain to help establish the ‘location‘ of the website (‘geo-targeting’), which will affect your position on country-specific search engines (,, etc)

If you want to go above and beyond, you might want to check that each of your domains is hosted on a server in your target country too, as search engines use this information to determine your website’s location.

The website address of the domain you purchase is important too as Google reads the words in the URL. So if your company produces software, for example, you may want to have the word ‘software’ in the URL, though this should be translated into the language of your target country.

Developing websites to support multiple languages is a challenging endeavor; if you choose to have one domain to host several multi-language versions of your site, ensure you create a different sub-domain for each language. So if, for example, your TLD is:, then the sub-domain for its German language version would be Conversely, the in-country domain would be:

If you’re using Drupal’s entity translation to create multiple translated versions of a single site page, your website will likely include your TLD followed by a country code and translated page title such as:


However grand intentions are at the start of a project, we see the burden and weight of maintaining multilingual websites fall on content managers and website editors. Assuming you have created multiple language versions of a site page, every update and edit becomes multiplied by that number as well.

We’re speaking from experience when we say that, even when companies have hundreds and thousands of employees, many internal web departments are surprisingly small, meaning that maintaining all of this translated content falls to a limited number of trained website editors.

It becomes critical to consider your messages as thoroughly as possible very early on so that resources are not wasted revising translations over and over.

If you’re going to put the resources into building a multilingual web presence, you’ll also want to ensure it provides a comparable user experience to the primary language site. This includes making key features available in all of your supported languages. And if your site includes a user-generated content component, support and encourage activity in all of those regions, as well.


A multilingual website will become stale and less valuable without a multilingual marketing strategy to support it. Develop and execute a targeted multilingual online marketing program including social media, and track results.

Many government agencies conduct dedicated online outreach for their multilingual sites including GobiernoUSA.govMedlinePlus en españ, and, among others. In addition, many of these sites are using social media tools to reach out to non-English speaking audiences: EPA’s blog Greenversations has regular bilingual entries; offers RSS and podcasts; and has a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

While we understand the importance of appealing to an international audience, we like to be realistic and prepare our clients for all that it entails. Before making a multilingual site a key feature of your web project or RFP, consider how your organization will be able to support the content and ask us how Drupal will provide the technology to make it possible.


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