Website translation: choosing languages to go world-wide

Three quarters of internet users don’t speak English as their first language.

That’s the picture according to “best guess” statistics from Internet World Stats (see “Crunching the stats” below). This means a vast amount of potential traffic is being ignored by many site admins and developers.

But how do you get to grips with the “other” three quarters of the planet, and which languages should you choose?

Internet langauges worldwide

(click to enlarge)

Why translate?

Why translate at all? Website translation is a straightforward and cost-effective way to provide a company, charity or institution with a wider audience. A massive audience. Internet World Stats estimate it at over 1.5 billion of the net’s 2.1 billion users.

That wider audience is more likely to engage through their native language. Research has shown that the majority of consumers only buy from websites with information presented in their language (Common Sense Advisory: “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters”). The higher the value of the product or service, the more pronounced this effect becomes.

So there is a persuasive argument for translating websites, and it is transforming language use on the internet. For instance, a 2011 survey found multilingual content to be a booming area for travel organisations.

International content is also an area of growing focus. Three quarters of the survey say they are maintaining and increasing translation budgets for 2012. Half of the travel organisations surveyed currently operate a site in one language, a third operate sites in up to five languages and a fifth have sites in more than 5 languages. For 2012 that will increase – 26% said they plan to have up to 5 language sites and 17% plan to have more than 5 language sites.

We will look at the merits of machine translation, such as Google Translate, later in our series on multilingual website design. Machine translation can be very useful in getting the gist of something – but the content you publish should never be fuzzy, hard to understand or plain wrong. And for that you need the writing skills of a professional translator. The translation can often be carried out directly on source code files, such as html – and so requires minimal effort from the web developer.

Pie chart showing growth in languages of internet

(click to enlarge)

Choosing languages for translation: what’s your website for?

If the case for translation is clear, choosing which languages to translate into is not always so straightforward. Where should a website owner or developer start?

First, I would like to distinguish between looking at languages at home and further afield. Next week, I will discuss translating your website for non-English-speaking audiences within the UK (and North America). But for now, let’s consider giving an English website international appeal to attract readers and customers around the world.

To some extent, which languages are top of the list to translate into will vary from business to business. The people who know the business best are the people who run and work in it.

Start with three questions.

1 Where’s the demand?
If you have a site selling widgets and you know from experience that Germans love widgets, then translating into German would be an obvious choice.

2 What does your current visitor profile tell you?
If your website statistics show that you already get a high volume of visitors from Russia, then a translation into Russian may help to secure orders.

3 Where in the world are you happy to deliver?
If there is no way to ship your goods to Thailand, there is not much point translating your site into Thai.

If your business is targeting a particular country, UKTI has a useful country-by-country guide.

Choosing languages for translation: what’s the world speaking?

But the choice of language is not all about where your site is now: you might consider where you want to be. How do languages for website translation break down by global region and target markets?

Europe logoEurope (and beyond)

There are a lot of European languages, but a good place to start is FIGS – French, Italian, German, Spanish. As a bonus, European-style Spanish will still be understood in most of Latin America while French provides for many readers in western Africa and Québec. The Netherlands and Belgium are comparatively wealthy countries, making Dutch a good addition to French, while Poland is the EU’s 8th biggest economy (after Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Sweden). Smaller countries such as Slovenia are often neglected, but its two million inhabitants earn more per head than those in Greece or Portugal.

Americas logoThe Americas

English, Latin American Spanish, French and Brazilian Portuguese will cover your bases.

BRICS logoEmerging markets

The “hot” countries of the last few years are the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. Therefore languages to consider include Brazilian Portuguese, Russian and Simplified Chinese. In both India and South Africa there is a wide range of mother tongues but English is much used as the lingua franca. Spanish may also useful, as many Latin America economies have been performing strongly recently.

Luxury products logoLuxury products

This a target market that really does vary and requires some thought. The richest man in the world is a Mexican, so Spanish joins Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese as a good starting point. Research your particular product area, perhaps looking at the languages of any translations by competitors.

Biggest economies logoWorld’s biggest economies

The countries with the 10 largest economies in the world are US, China, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, UK, Russia, India and Italy. So English, Japanese, German, French, Portuguese, Russian and Italian would seem good choices. Spanish gets on the list too, through being a world language and the first language of 12% of the US’s population. Arabic is also worth considering, with the combined GDP of the Arab league being 3% of the globe’s total.

worldwide logoWorld Wide Web

Which languages reach the most internet users? Internet World Stats shows us the biggest languages are English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian and Korean. Combined, these ten languages hold 1.6 billion internet users, over four fifths of the total. Be a little careful though: several of these languages have regional variations (eg American or British English, Brazilian or Iberian Portuguese). Make sure you specify which variant you need before any translation is started – or ask for international versions where possible.

Crunching the stats

For those who like their statistics fully justified and explained, let’s look at the figures in a bit more depth. Internet World Stats’ latest snapshot of language was updated in May 2011, collating data published by Nielsen Online, International Telecommunications Union, GfK and other reliable sources. They have tried to analyse the figures by people’s primary or native language. It is this meta-analysis that produces the figure of 26.8% of internet users being primarily English speakers.

There are some provisos here, as Internet World Stats note:

Tallying the number of speakers of the world’s languages is an increasingly complex task, particularly with the push in many countries to teach English in their public schools. How many people can actually use the global language? David Graddol estimated a total of 750 million L1 (first or native language) plus L2 (second or nth language) speakers of English in his Future of English Report (pdf document) for the British Council. One of our subscribers, Martin Schell, has reviewed Prof. Braj Kachru’s new book Asian Englishes which claims that India and China combined have over half a billion “users” of English. Indeed, many people are bilingual or multilingual, but here we assign only one language per person in order to have all the language totals add up to the total world population (zero-sum approach).

A note about Chinese

Chinese is a family of language varieties which are mutually intelligible to different degrees. The official language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, often referred to simply as “China”) is Mandarin but many other varieties are spoken. Written Chinese uses either Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese characters. Text aimed at the PRC should use Simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well as longer established overseas Chinese communities. If you want to cover both groups well, you need to consider providing your text as both Simplified and Traditional Chinese.

Next time: Translating websites for non-English speakers in the UK

Reuse our graphics

You are welcome to reuse the graphics in this article on your website or blog so long as you credit this article with a link. You can do this with the following code for the map:

Internet langauges worldwide

And with this code for the pie charts:

Pie chart showing growth in languages of internet


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