What is a good website? Part II - Writing for multilingual websites

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 21:57

While in part I we reviewed several factors needed when setting up a new website, Part II gives recommendations when writing content for multi-lingual websites.
Not only are factors like web design and user experience essential to consider, but the images and languages that inform and communicate content as well as the users’ cultural background also play an essential role.

Visual communication across cultures can be very different and generate different reactions

Are cultures able to respond in the same way to images and language on a website if these are dictated by the website creator? Iconicity, or the vocabulary of images, differs from culture to culture. With increasing globalization websites need to communicate both visually and linguistically to appeal to their diverse communities. Communicating with images may be understood very differently from one culture to another. A fish for the Koreans symbolizes prosperity, yet this symbolism is mostly lost on Westerners. Colours have different significance and even placement of text on a page can lead to interest or rejection. There is a funny story of an advertisement showing dirty clothing going through the washing process and coming out whiter than white. For left-to-right readers this would be a logical process, but if your language flows from right to left then this sends a completely different message about the product.

"Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave"

Readers want content that is stimulating and informative. The source or original language text provides the orientation for translators and proof readers. If text is too complex and poorly worded it not only discourages, but it increases the challenge of transporting the message clearly into the target language. Accuracy and consistency of terminology and corporate wording especially for slogans need to be carefully considered. “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave” was certainly not the intended Mandarin translation of “Pepsi brings you back to life”. When the slogan relies on a pun or alliteration (repetition of sounds) this is certainly a challenge for a translator and a special approach is required. For their Persian advertising Philips’ “Simple and Simplicity” was kept in English as the Persian translation “Discover the power of simplicity” was unable to convey the same marketing qualities. For this reason transcreation instead of translation is a recommendable strategy.

Today’s readers want to get the message quickly

… and will only search for more information if it is interesting or appeals to their emotions. Getting to the point with an entertaining message focusing on the benefits is appreciated by Americans. Just a few words with images implicitly suggesting pleasure or usefulness is valued by the French. The Germans expect detailed facts and figures with background information. And, don’t forget your SEO in all of your website languages! Experienced translation consultants who understand these differences can offer valuable advice if consulted well in advance.

Spelling, grammar and idioms

… are choices to make especially for languages that are similar e.g. for Spanish or English. Is it flavour or flavor? Is it a rubber or an eraser? The difference has a significant impact on the reader and may be embarrassing (a rubber in US English is understood to be a condom). On the other hand intentional spelling or mispronunciation can be an advantage and amuse the reader. Berlitz’s video clip about the German coast guard who misunderstood the call for help “We’re sinking, we’re sinking” as “We’re thinking, we’re thinking” went viral and was a great success.


Localization experts can save a company a lot of trouble especially in the automotive industry where a few notable blunders have been made. A well-known car manufacturer introduced one of its early SUVs to Spanish-speaking countries and North America and had to change the name Pajero to Montero. In Spanish, the word Pajero is very derogative. Additionally, the model was re-named Shogun for the UK market.

Consistency of content in different languages and sensitivity to imagery is important for website content, but it also means accommodating different cultural norms and belief systems. Get a marketing specialist support you by designing the right process, language and content across your multi-lingual website.

Contact Merle & Sheppard: we can support with our expertise in the translation, transcreation and localization of your website content.

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