When we talk about multilingual websites, we tend to focus on technique. As WordPress developers we ask, “Which of the multilingual plugins has the best approach? How can we improve on them?” Clients start by asking, “Can you make my website multilingual? How do I translate my content?”
Whichever side of the process we’re on, we spend more time talking about the how than the why.
We may not agree on the best approach to multilingualism, and although one approach might be better suited than another for a specific project or client, ultimately we know that technique isn’t really a problem.
Yes, a website can be multilingual. But should it be?
Why we think we need a multilingual website
I began specializing in multilingual websites because I was an expat. As a native English speaker in France, French clients tend to be naturally confident in my abilities, and other expats gravitate toward me for similar reasons. Have tech and language skills, will travel (or rather, will work).
However, it’s rare for the requests I get for multilingual functionality to be accompanied by any market research. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that as a French company or someone based in France, you should have a French language version of your website. And if you are to have any reach outside of France, or cater to the large non-French speaking population here, whether through tourism or expat and immigrant communities, that you need at least an English version too.
There is also a law in France requiring that any technical, legal or advertising materials published by companies or furnished to their employees be in French, or have French translations provided. Look at any billboard in the Paris metro with a big headline in English, and you’ll notice a small asterisk on the bottom or off to the side with its translation in French.
We often think we need a multilingual website not based on hard facts about our customers, but out of a sense of legal or cultural obligation1. I myself am guilty of this, and would venture to guess that these kinds of assumptions are not unique to France.
What it takes to run a multilingual website
Beyond the technical ramifications of a content management system like WordPress, creating and maintaining a multilingual website takes a lot of work.
Wait, let’s back up for a minute.
Do you know what the single most underestimated aspect of every web project is? Writing content. Whether it’s writing copy for static pages, furnishing legal disclaimers or writing product descriptions, it is consistently what clients put off ’til last. They spend a lot of time preoccupied with the things they think they understand less and feel less in control about—like design and development—and assume that providing content is the easiest thing they have to do.
But writing is technical. It requires time, thought, patience, practice and lots of rewriting. Copywriting is a profession.
Creating and maintaining a website in just one language is a lot of work. Now let’s take this already challenging task and multiply it by the number of languages we want to offer on our site. Because unless you are satisfied with a Google translation of your site’s content, you will have to put in almost the same resources to making sure that the copy for each language is not just a correct translation, but a well-adapted and culturally relevant interpretation.
In the same way that people underestimate the work it takes to write good copy, so too do they underestimate the work that it takes to translate. Translation is a profession.
Depending on the type of site that you’re running, the kind of content that needs to be added to it over time and the frequency of those updates, managing multiple languages means dedicating time and resources to that process.
Who really needs a multilingual website?
From 2011 to 2014, about 3 out of every 4 project requests I received were for a site in at least two languages. In 2015 I had exactly zero requests for translation capability. Zero. What’s more, clients starting contacting me to ask if I could remove the multilingual aspect of their websites.
Why this trend away from multilingual?
In his book, The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss expounds on the 80-20 rule, explaining how he applied it to his own business in order to take an honest look at where he was spending the bulk of his time and effort, versus where the bulk of his revenue was coming from. The exercise revealed that about 80% of his profit was coming from around 20% of his clients. And inversely, 80% of his time and energy was being sunk into unprofitable and unfulfilling customers.
Of the three clients who recently converted from a bilingual to a single-language site, two of them run portfolio sites with active blogs, the other runs an e-commerce shop. All three of these business owners came to the conclusion, after investing time and money into translations for several years, that their customer base was not as deeply rooted in the second language as they initially thought. They realized that the time and effort they were putting into translating their site was not serving their actual client base nor converting to sales.
A website is an extension of your business, if not the business itself. Who are your clients? Which ones are bringing in the bulk of your business? Which ones actually convert and which languages do they speak? What are your actual legal obligations? Does all of your content need to be translated, or just some of it? What does it cost you to maintain your website in one language? What extra investment does it take to maintain additional languages?
In upcoming articles I’ll discuss my own move from a bilingual to a single-language site, and show some creative non-traditional examples of multilingual publishing. I’ll also reveal what happened when I asked three multilingual plugin authors what they would change in WordPress to make their lives easier (their unanimous reply kinda blew my mind).
1. Note that a sense of legal obligation and actual legal obligation are not the same thing smile