On the surface, it seems like almost every website can benefit from being multilingual. But it is especially so for organizations that serve the public.
When sharing important information, it needs to reach as many people as possible. Breaking down language barriers can play a vital role.
Fortunately, this is an area where WordPress excels. There are several plugins available to create multilingual websites. And WordPress core has been translated into over 180 languages. Together, they provide a strong foundation for this type of project.
This all sounds great. But it wasn’t until recently that I got to experience it firsthand. I found that, like learning a new language, there is a lot of information and concepts to absorb. And there were some ups and downs along the way.
With that, I’ve put together some ideas for building multilingual websites with WordPress. It is by no means a complete guide. Instead, it’s an attempt to pass on a few valuable lessons to fellow designers. On with us!
Create a Multilingual Plan
Before you can translate a website into multiple languages, it is important to establish the basic requirements of the project. This will help you create a plan for moving forward. Here are some key items to consider:
It starts with identifying what languages are needed. This may not be as obvious as you think. Thankfully, data can help you choose.
For example, browsing your e-commerce site’s customer list can provide some tips. If you find that a significant percentage of customers live in another country, it could be a solid indicator. Analytics also provides geographic and language data.
Without relevant data, it can be a difficult task for some organizations. If you are serving a specific geographic region, you might want to look at the additional languages that are commonly spoken.
Once you’ve established the language options you want to offer, you’ll be able to focus on the tools that will help you get the job done.
Technical and Content Matters
Now it’s time to think about what you want to transfer and choose a method to do so. Ideally, it’s all about what’s best for your users. Realistically, it may need to be balanced with your available resources.
Part of this balancing act is deciding which content to transfer. The more content you have, the more resources you will need. If you have a limited budget, it may mean that only the most important items are moved.
It is also worth mentioning that there is more to WordPress than the front end. If users need access to the backend (on a membership site, for example), that will need to be moved as well. While WordPress core is multilingual, that doesn’t cover themes and plugins. It is the responsibility of each theme and author to provide a translation plugin. Otherwise, you may have to do this yourself.
The method of implementation is also important. Translations can be done manually by one or more people, or through automated tools such as Google Translate. The latter usually requires a plugin that connects to an API. This will likely incur a cost but will probably be cheaper than hiring someone to do the translation by hand.
The disadvantages of automated translation are accuracy and readability. If you don’t speak the languages you’re translating (or don’t know someone who does), you have no way of knowing how accurate a tool is. And, even if it is quite accurate, it may not create a natural reading flow. Users may have difficulty understanding what you are trying to say.
Content changes and accumulates over time. Whether it’s a change to an existing page or a new blog post, translated versions need to be kept up to date. Otherwise, you run the risk of providing inaccurate or outdated information to some of your audience.
This applies to both resources and utility. An automated system can take care of things on the fly, while a manual method may involve a longer content preparation process. Again, you’ll need to decide what you can afford and what fits your workflow.
Building a Multilingual WordPress Site
In my case, there were a few challenges in putting together a multilingual site. Some were due to the chosen translation method (automatic), and others due to my lack of experience in this area.
Here are some highlights (and lows) of the process:
Transferring Custom Fields
These days, I build custom blocks for the Gutenberg block editor using Advanced Custom Fields. The translation plugin I used (WPML) has a plugin that works in conjunction with ACF to ensure that the content is translated.
It took a few tries to get this working correctly. One trick I learned is that you have to set your fields manually to translate or copy to other languages.
For example, a field containing a photo can be copied over (so that it is displayed for all languages), and text fields should be set to translate. A simple concept, but it still took me a while to get the hang of it.
RTL Design Tweaks
Languages such as Arabic are read from right to left (RTL). So, it takes some adjustments to make sure your theme displays properly in this format.
A carousel I built hid in Arabic. Although some plugins are responsible for this, mine was not. It took some custom CSS to fix the issue.
Besides, small things like icons that appear next to menu items also needed to be fixed. It’s a reminder that there are a lot of small details to think about.
Custom Job Questions
My project included some custom WordPress post questions placed in theme templates. After the initial translation process, I noticed that these questions were showing up all translations for all posts – not just the currently selected language.
Some research led me to discover the
suppress_filters query parameter. Fixing this to
false let WPML display the relevant posts for each language.
Multilingual Websites are within Everyone’s Reach
The great thing about this experience is that going multilingual is within everyone’s reach. The WordPress ecosystem offers plenty of options that run the gamut in terms of functionality and budget.
The key is to create a plan and make sure you make solid decisions. Determine the language(s) you want to offer, the best tools for the job, and how maintenance will be handled. Each of these items is critical to the overall success of the project.
It’s also worth understanding that some tweaks will need to be made along the way. Some are language specific, while others are based on the theme and plugins you use. It’s all part of the process.
I hope this guide has given you a head start on building a multilingual site with WordPress! For me, I know the experience will help make for a smoother ride in the future.