¿Hablas español?

Summary:Raise your hand if your website is multilingual. My guess is you probably do not have your hand raised right now. In fact, you are probably thinking that it is hard enough providing new services and maintaining existing English language websites with your staff and budget.

Raise your hand if your website is multilingual. My guess is you probably do not have your hand raised right now. In fact, you are probably thinking that it is hard enough providing new services and maintaining existing English language websites with your staff and budget, let alone having to maintain a foreign language version.

Yet if you look at population trends across the US you will find ever-increasing numbers of people who do not speak Engligh or speak it as a second language. Now I do not want to get into a debate over whether or not immigrants should be forced to learn English or whether creating alternative language web sites is "catering" to a particular population, but the fact of the matter is that many of our taxpaying citizens cannot take advantage of our web services because they cannot read English. (For the record, I, unfortunately do not speak Spanish, as my parents chose to stress English in the household as opposed to their native Spanish and German. Just in case someone thinks I am on a bully pulpit here).

For those organizations that have deemed it a good idea to do website translation, many have run into the same problems:

  1. Translation services are expensive. Particularly if you are going to keep your foreign language website as current as your English language web site.
  2. Translation software is not quite there yet and a great deal of information can get lost in translation or garbled by software translation tools. So much so that depending on them solely for translation is an invitation for embarrassment.
  3. There is often more than one predominant foreign language in an area that justifies translation, so which do you choose? (Go back to No. 1 (expensive!) if you are asking why you have to choose).
  4. Maintaining multiple websites is time-consuming and you are short-staffed as it is.
  5. Your web staff is not multilingual either.

So what is the answer here? How can we make our websites accessible to all who need our information, or at least open to those who speak major languages in the US? I wish I could tell you I had the answer. But I don't have one. However I do have some suggestions on how we can move in the right direction.

Here goes:

First, we need to decouple web design from content creation. In far too many organizations, these two concepts are synonymous. Our web sites need to be designed in such a manner that content in any language can be plugged in as an object and the site will maintain its look and feel.

Secondly, we can say the same for our web applications. Areas in applications that contain text should be variables that can be filled with the appropriate language text without breaking the application.

Thirdly, when making the decision to make your web site multilingual, it is not an all-or-none proposition. Take those areas that are most informative/valuable and make those your top priorities for translation.

Fourth, I think we are failing to take advantage of our high schools, community colleges and universities in regards to bilingual students who could, as part of internships or coursework, provide translation services for us.

Fifth, I think there is money going untapped to assist with foreign language translation; we just lack the resources to sit down and go looking for it.

Lastly, it has to be a priority of senior management for this to happen, or the foreign language constituency needs to be vocal enough to make it an issue for them - or it won't get done.

If this is not an issue for you now, it may very well become so in the near future. Doing some of the things above (such as decoupling content from design) makes for a better and more maintainable website in the present and gets us better prepared to go multilingual. If you are having success (or not) in any of these areas, I would like to hear about it as I have many eager colleagues that might be able to benefit from your experiences. If you have discovered the magic translation bullet, please let me know!

Topics: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.