Design Principles: Building for Multiple Languages


Francesca JENNER

European Commission

One of the guiding principles behind our approach in creating a new website for people across Europe is clear: to make it as easy as possible for users to find the information they want.

And when it comes to language, that's not just about sticking to the web writing guidelines – our task is to construct a site that is adaptable to multiple languages.

Check the evidence

We've been carrying out detailed research through surveys and user testing, sifting through the information on the current Europa website, to find out which content is most important to people.

Through the survey responses of over 100,000 participants, we've already established that there are 6 'top tasks' people come to the website for.

We think it makes sense that this should form the basis of the content set for translation into the 24 EU languages – it's the most universal.

Targeted approach

For other kinds of content, we need to pause and really consider the context of the page and its audience before selecting languages, based on 3 key factors:
•who will use the information
•what the purpose is
•which languages people are likely to understand

The idea is to choose languages in a targeted way, to connect with our users.

Some content may be relevant to all EU citizens, while other content is specifically related to certain countries or regions, so it's useful to translate it into the language/s spoken there.

Fisheries policy is an obvious candidate for translation into the languages of Europe's coastal countries.

That's the rationale and we're trying to build flexibility into the design of the site.

Content blocks

We're constructing the website using 'content types'. This is a totally new approach and it means that any single web page is made up of different blocks of content.

The big advantage is that if we need to make a global change, then we only have to alter the content in a single place before it's updated on every page it appears. For example, if the name of a department changes, we only need to correct it once.

However, the main challenge with using content types, which we're figuring out a solution to at the moment, is to make sure all the different pieces of a page – labels, lists, etc. – match up in the same language.

Another related issue stems from the fact there are different forms of the same term in certain languages. Take the label 'Commissioner' – in English it's the same regardless of whether it's a man or a woman. We can even list several commissioners and still keep the singular label. But in Croatian you must choose from 4 different forms, depending on the gender and number of persons being talked about.

Automatic translation system

The actual process of translating a large website into multiple languages can be pretty complex, so we're working on an automated system to help simplify it.

Our aim is to be able to send content for translation through the CMS (content management system), the translators work on it, send it back, and with some clever coding, the translated content automatically knows where to display on the site.

The advantage of this is that it bypasses the need to manually copy and paste translated texts into the CMS.

Hopefully these technical developments will make the process of translating content into multiple languages smoother. But inevitably they also bring up new challenges that we tackle as we go.

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