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Internationalization: Making your WordPress site Multilingual

The decision to create a website in more than one language is an important one, regardless of the framework in which your website is programmed. If you use WordPress, several options already exist as plugins or plugin collections that can make the task easier and save a lot of time. Each of them is worth considering, and each provides a different set of features depending on the desired goals and objectives of the site. Careful planning and experimentation is a must to make the right decision.

Localizing WordPress itself

The WordPress installation itself can be localized to dozens of languages. If you download WordPress from the home page, the default is English, however by following the WordPress in your Language page on the Codex, you can install your preferred locale for the WordPress backend. Read more about Translating WordPress.

Presumably your website is already started in your default language, you then have to decide how you want to do your translations. Several different options exist, and choosing the best one depends on what you want to achieve, and how much time and money you want to spend on the accuracy and completeness of translations.

Client-Side Translation Plugins

The simplest way to translate your WordPress content to multiple languages is to integrate the Google Translation API V2, a Javascript-based, client-side implementation that provides machine language translation (Google translates your site content automatically) of pages and posts on your website, on-demand. The Google AJAX Translation plugin provides a good starting point.

» See an example

You can see a demo of how this works by visiting the Why Service With Us page at DickHannah.com. Choose Spanish in the upper right-hand corner dropdown menu.

Pros: It’s a quick way for a visitor in a different language to get a decent idea of what the page text is about without leaving the site, so if you decide to do nothing else, at least this provides a minimum level of translation service to your foreign visitors without too much effort on the part of the website owner, developers and translators. Also, you can provide any of Google’s languages without added cost.

Cons: Google Translator API, as of Version 2, is a paid service only ($20/mo. for up to 50M characters). Other downsides: one is that you’ll have Google Translate branding above your site, for translated documents. Another is that machine translations (yes, even Google’s translations) are not always accurate. You have to use Google’s Translation Editor to make any edits to it’s translated version of your page content.

A Word of Caution

The most important argument against automated translation is an SEO one: it is considered by Search Engines, at least by Google and probably the rest of the major ones, as low quality content or spammy. Matt Cutts discusses if translated content causes a duplicate content issue. For this reason, we typically recommend against using automated translations in a serious International SEO Strategy.

Server-Side Translation Plugins

For website owners desiring more control over their website content in alternate languages, a more robust, server-server side approach is more often required. Luckily, WordPress plugins provide a means by which millions of website owners can take advantage of the collaboration of open source software. In theory, these plugins should handle common website translation challenges, but in practice, they may not provide exactly the features you need or want for your site. Plan on creating a development WordPress install and experimenting with each to see if it meets your needs.

Some multi-lingual WordPress plugins, including one called Multilingual Press, assume that you are going to be running one site per language, and are designed to work with WordPress Multisite, to link posts together across two or more sites in the multi-site network via trackbacks. If you already have two or more websites in multiple languages, particularly managed by different groups of people in the respective country, this may be the easiest route. Be careful of duplicate content issues though; you don’t want to copy your English content to the Spanish and French sites without translating them first.

» See an example

You can check out a custom WordPress Multisite implementation in three languages at Lollapalooza, Lollapalooza Chile and Lollapalooza Brasil.

The most advanced multi-lingual WordPress plugins are designed to work completely within the backend of your WordPress install on one URL only. One such collection of plugins comes from WPML.org, a company which specializes in multilingual WordPress plugins.  These plugins give the webmaster several new admin tools and options to create copies of pages and posts in other languages. On the frontend, these plugins provide a means to the user to switch to the alternate language version of a page or post, and some simple theme and template calls to easily re-purpose the existing theme with translated text content.

Pros: Plugins that add features to the WordPress administration site make it very powerful for webmasters to develop alternate language versions of pages and posts, with the highest quality of site integration and greatest degree of customization and flexibility.  No branding from Google or other provider. Once your content is translated (by you, manually) you don’t have to pay for usage. Languages can be organized in directories-by-language like mysite.com/ru/, mysite.com/fr/, mysite.com/cn/, mysite.com/de/ making a clear separation between them what gives some other SEO advantages to compete in different regions or countries.

Cons: The most powerful translation plugins, such as those from WPML, are not free, but annually licensed, and you have to pay for your own translations to be done, and managed in the WP-Admin backend.

Detecing the User’s Language

Other translation-related plugins you might want to investigate are WordPress plugins to automatically detect the user’s location or locale information, and automatically redirect to a particular page, post or website URL, set a cookie, or other programming hooks to be used later or as desired.

More Multilingual WordPress Plugin Options

After WMPL, the second most popular plugin for multilingual WordPress is qTranslate  with one main advantage over the first one: it is free. In case you want to investigate some others, here are some:

You can also do a search at the WP plugin directory — stick to the Highest Rated plugins. Some are not intended to solve multilingual issues completely, but they are compatible with the most popular ones mentioned before and may provide you with alternate ideas for your own custom implementation.

More information on multilingual WordPress can be found directly from the Multilingual WordPress section on the Codex.

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