Make Your Website Multilingual in 5 Easy Steps

The starting website, Fast Smart Web Design

The starting website, Fast Smart Web Design, in English

On Staten Island, nearly every time I meet with food-pantry and soup-kitchen organizers, they mention that some new ethnic group has shown up at their doors. For example, the food program with which I’m associated expected to serve English and Spanish speakers. We do, but we also now serve Russian and Chinese speakers, and a nearby food pantry has had an influx of Albanians.

It’s hard, and expensive, to keep up with all the languages and cultures crossing our thresholds. How can you avoid spending money you don’t have on multiple translations of your materials, and yet help all the people who need your services?

There is a solution, and although it’s not perfect, it’s probably good enough: Follow a few rules for your text and then use Google Translate to create websites that can be translated on the fly into 54 different languages. (If you do mostly print materials, you can use the same techniques to translate your brochures into multiple languages. Just be sure to use a typeface like Lucida Sans Unicode that has letters in almost all known languages.)

Heres what to do:

  1. Change the text on your website so that it’s easy to translate. Use pictures and maps and reduce the text to captions wherever you can. Dont use synonyms—if client and customer mean the same thing, pick one term and stick with it. Spell out abbreviations—they dont get translated (and not everyone knows what they represent in English anyway). Check spelling and grammar carefully—errors dont translate well.
  2. Adjust the coding on your website, if necessary, so that multiple languages appear correctly. First, use Unicode or UTF-8 encoding rather than an alphabet-specific encoding (if you dont know what this means, your developer will). Unicode contains characters for nearly every alphabet and writing system in the world, so Hebrew, for example, will show up just as nicely as Korean or English. (For examples of what happens when you change encodings, see the SEO section of the Tug Pegasus case study.) Second, make sure that your tables and fonts are proportional (flowing) rather than fixed. In other words, use small rather than 12 pt fonts and use 80%instead of 600 pixels for table widths. The reason is that text in some languages takes up more space than English—Spanish and German, for example, take up about a third more space than English—and if widths are fixed, the text will run over the borders of the page.
    The website translated by Google into Hebrew

    The website translated by Google into Hebrew, with Unicode

    The website translated by Google into Hebrew, but using Western encoding

    The website translated into Hebrew but with the wrong encoding

  3. Test it in Google Translate. To check that your pages are structured correctly (see #2), put your website address in the box on and click Translate. Look for text overrunning the edges of the page or labels that no longer fit (this means that those elements are fixed instead of proportional), and check for weird symbols or boxes showing up instead of letters (wrong encoding). To check the text itself, copy a few English-language paragraphs into the box, translate it into the desired language, and then copy the translation into the box and return the text to English. Is it the same as what you started with? If not, change the text. Revise the text until there are no more obvious mistakes.
  4. Tell people that your site is translatable. You dont have to put up multiple versions of your website. Instead, you can let readers translate your site themselves using Google tools. Post messages in the target language on your home page explaining how to translate your site: “Go to Google Translate at, pick From: English as the starting language, pick To: your own language, put our URL  in the box, and press Translate.”
  5. Finally, and this is probably the most important step, ask a few clients who read the target language and can talk to you in your language what, if anything, is wrong with the translation. You don’t want strangers to start to giggle or, worse, get upset when they read the translation, and only native speakers will be able to catch the nuances that cause those sorts of problems.

Originally published in the December 2010 Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training  e-newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter, subscribe to the journal, and read all the other useful information at


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One Response to “Make Your Website Multilingual in 5 Easy Steps”

  1. Victor Stanwick Says:

    There’s a much easier way to translate web pages. Place the following code in the source code of your page where you would like a translate drop down box to appear:

    function googleTranslateElementInit() {
    new google.translate.TranslateElement({
    pageLanguage: ‘en’
    }, ‘google_translate_element’);

    This will allow your users to translate your entire web site into the language of their choice. There are dozens of languages available in this little drop down. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than trying to provide hard-coded translated web pages for every conceivable user.

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