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Multilingual Website Best Practices for Schools
  • Marketing and Communications

This blog is from one of COBIS' Supporting Associates.

Written by Angelo Otterbein, Chief Innovation Officer and Debbie Eisenach, International Marketing Manager, Finalsite.

Ever played the game “Telephone” as a child? Whispering from one ear to the next as the original sentence slowly degrades into something nearly indistinguishable from where it began. There’s a similar game you can play on the Internet, called “Google Translate”. Not nearly as fun, interesting on the surface, and if you happen to study linguistics, an expedient resource to demonstrate just how complex our languages are.

What’s been interesting to watch over the last 10 years is just how much better Google Translate has become. Here’s a slightly edited clip from a COBIS school website:

“Standards of Excellence

We employ High Performance Learning into all that we do. Our achievements have been recognised with international awards, students entries to leading universities all over the world and alumni of whom we are extremely proud!”

Translated to German, then to Chinese, and then back:

“Standard of Excellence

We use high performance learning in everything we do. Our achievements are recognised by international awards, students from top universities around the world and our proud alumni!”

Bad? Not really. Actually, pretty good. But did anything get lost along the way? Yes, particularly the last clause that turns the phrase from “alumni of whom we are extremely proud” to “proud alumni”.

So while Google’s gotten better, when you consider the carefully crafted messaging and words you and your colleagues toil over day after day to communicate clearly and succinctly, it’s enough to keep you up at night. What to do? To some degree, it’s a balance of efficiency and accuracy. The more time you put into this problem, the better off you’ll be -- but a website is a big place and that isn’t always practical.

The good news is that as many schools and institutions have depended on Google Translate, our collective consciousness has gotten better at spotting a mistranslation from a good one. The free Google Translate Website Widget which, although not perfect, “works”. We emphasize “free” only because Google’s been a bit schizophrenic on this one, eliminating new access to the translator then re-enabling it for non-commercial use a year later. It comes with some risk, in other words, and while not perfect, this solution is easy and affordable for the bulk of a school website.

But then there are the unique cases, when a mistranslation could potentially cause a snag or complete misunderstanding. For example on one website, we found this note to current parents about lockers, with one particular difference noted.

Native English Version:

“Lockers are provided to hold the majority of students’ books. If students wish to lock their lockers they should obtain a ‘combination’ padlock and give the number to their form teacher.”

Re-translated to Spanish and German then back:

“Lockers are available for most student books. If students wish to lock their lockers, they must obtain a "combination lock" and give the number to their training teacher.

Google scored high here, making only a few assumptions in its rework of “majority” versus “most” -- but the final sentence presents a potential issue. A “Form Teacher” is a very different person than a “Training Teacher”.

Here’s another example of an English phrase translated into French using Google Translate.

English content: “Each year the parents of two grade levels are invited to attend either a Language Arts or Math Happening. These “Happenings” provide parents with an opportunity to participate in a hands-on learning experience affording them insight into their child’s daily learning.”

Google Translate (French): “Chaque année, les parents de deux niveaux scolaires sont invités à assister soit à un événement d'arts linguistiques ou de mathématiques. Ces « Happenings » offrent aux parents l'occasion de participer à une expérience d'apprentissage pratique leur donnant un aperçu de l'apprentissage quotidien de leur enfant.”

While this translation isn’t necessarily “wrong,” there are several phrases and different word choices that would improve the overall translation. For example, “Chaque année” is better swapped for “Tous les ans.” Additionally, the word “Happenings'' isn't even translated at all using Google! Native French speakers may be scratching their heads here.

From a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) standpoint, serving pages that are natively translated is a superior solution for ensuring Google (the Search Engine, not Translate) understands what your pages are saying and how relevant they are to the end user.

What next?

Since the practical matter of deploying a dual or multilingual website with true native translations can be considerable, it’s important to prioritize where to start. Some schools know straight away what the most common languages are that are spoken within their community.

Google Analytics can also show you what country your site visitors are coming from and what their browser language is. Combining those data points with which pages are most visited and how much time is spent on certain pages are important starting points. Once you’ve established the order in which to tackle translated pages, deploying the content in a way that’s easy to administer is next.

Mirroring Your Site with Each Language

For those schools who want translation without automated translation software, schools who use Finalsite’s Content Management System can create a completely mirrored site in one or more foreign languages, or just for certain pages.

For instance, Ermitage International School has two sets of pages in their sitemap to individually handle each page, then a toggle for users to navigate to one or the other. This allows for content specific to the language, as well as any unique layout treatments for individual pages.

This kind of translation can play out in terms of navigation, content and sitemap. What’s more, you can use a Personalization feature to show the right content based on where geographically a user is accessing the website, a nice touch.

Chadwick International School in South Korea has created a page on their site with accordians to help local families better understand the admissions process in this extensive FAQ section in English and Korean.

Tailored Translation

One significant problem with Google Translate is that you can’t correct inaccurate translations manually. Even if you see a glaring translation issue on your website, there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Unfortunately, this becomes particularly relevant for the very terms that often define a school culture, whether it’s the name of a mascot, a distinctive program, or acronyms. A simple example is the title “Director of Advancement” which translates, in some languages using Google Translate to “Director of Advance”. These nuances can either be trivial or can have a significant impact on what people perceive. As another example, if you prefer your school name never be translated, you can easily make that edit, or if you have some signature program that gets lost in translation, you can exclude that from being translated.

To address this, Finalsite identified Weglot, based in France, to help schools easily and more seamlessly translate their websites into more than 100 languages. While Weglot's translation API is automated, its accuracy is more reliable than other tools on the market.

Hangzhou International School translates into nine different languages using Weglot.

One of the most important features of the tool is that administrators can manually review and override incorrect translations through a simple editing interface. Any corrections will appear everywhere that a phrase or name pops up on your site. Weglot is the happy marriage of automated plus human translations: giving you the speed of automatic translation tools and the accuracy of the human touch.

Weglot's translation API has been well developed, and integrates into your school's website with support for more than 100 languages. This integration simplifies the translation process through automatic detection and translation of text content for a reliable and easy way to manage translations.

Key Takeaway

Google Translate has greatly improved over the years, and while it’s free it’s not without risk -- the technology may become limited or unavailable, and there’s no specific way to target or correct mis-translations that could be embarrassing or misleading. A robust CMS can allow you to create multiple natively-written pages with a “toggle". When combined with technologies like Weglot, which has a broad set of features and tools to address some of the common complaints with automated translation, you should be able to find a manageable path forward.