Speaking in Tongues

The unique challenges of multilingual design
The first thing that any visitor to Wales notices is that there are two languages on the signposts. After centuries spent sidelined in favour of English, the Welsh language renaissance started in the 1960s and has had an inspiring revival since.

From Welsh-medium education strategies to equal treatment of Welsh and English in government affairs, the restoration of Cymraeg has been an astonishing success – the 2001 census showed the first increase in Welsh speakers for a hundred years, with numbers rising by nearly 80,000 people.

With 20% of the population now using Welsh on a daily basis, bilingual design is more important than ever. But giving Welsh its pride of place in public life, like with any multi-language marketing project, has its own particular challenges. Designing for two languages might seem simple – the designer works in whatever language they’re more comfortable in, then finds a handy translator, perhaps? Unfortunately, things aren’t that easy.

Take logos – they need to present a company’s name twice, sometimes with words of very different lengths, in the right, branded manner, so that it looks like a unified whole. It’s a challenge!

“It’s only words…”

Welsh and English are good examples of the linguistic requirements of visual design. Responsive design for bilingual sites can be tricky, especially where the languages you work with have different sentence construction and different average word length. Many words in Welsh are longer than their English equivalents, so designers need to make sure that links, buttons and banners look good on responsive sites.

As Welsh words are longer, you need to make sure that the primary navigation of the website – menu titles and buttons, for example – are easy to read. But as well as making sure that Welsh isn’t too squashed in, you also need to balance the fact that there shouldn’t be too much white space with the shorter English words. In this case, the fine details become essential, because you will need to refine designs based on the actual words that need to be put into them. It gets even more detailed if you’re working with languages like Hebrew and Arabic, which you read from the opposite direction to English, so the designs need to follow completely different principles.

It’s a lot easier if you’re able to work with the actual content of both languages, but that means that the content must be written before the designs can be produced, which isn’t always possible – projects evolve as you work on them!

Maintaining multilingual sites

Once you’ve designed the site, you need to know what domain to put it on. This raises the question whether you should have two sites on one domain, or keep them separate? It can depend on whether the domain name in question works in both Welsh and English, or whether it needs translation.

For some organisations, it’s easy. Mudiad Meithrin, as a Welsh-language early years education provider, don’t need to translate their domain from Welsh. Their English translation is hosted on the same domain as their Welsh site, which makes navigating the site easier. But public sector organisations in Wales are required to treat the Welsh language on equal terms with English, so this can mean that separate domains are a necessity. Cardiff University maintain their English and Welsh-speaking sites on separate domains, Cardiff.ac.uk and Caerdydd.ac.uk, to ensure that they’re giving equal weighting to both languages.

Now that .wales and .cymru are domain options, Welsh organisations might also want to consider whether they think it’s necessary to have either or both options for their web presence.

This is where multilingual SEO comes into play. Keeping both websites on the same domain, in theory, keeps all of your traffic in one place, so it might be better for your SEO. It might also seem that because over 50% of the internet is written in English, non-English results might get pushed further down the search rankings. But this isn’t the case. Local traffic is likely to be much more important to the organisation, as searches often target local areas to find new users. Plus, the smaller pool of search results for Welsh-language sites will make it much easier for a site to be found, rather than being hidden among all of the English-speaking results.

Another issue, which is thankfully rare when designing for Welsh and English, is that some fonts don’t accurately represent all of the alphabetical characters required by other languages. A lot of websites will take advantage of the wealth of fonts available on the internet to make their text that bit more branded, but it isn’t always possible in multilingual design. English and Welsh both use what’s called the Latin alphabet, so the Welsh ŷ and ŵ are reasonably well-supported.

When you’re using some of the quirkier fonts for web design, though, it’s common to find that European letters like ń and ƶ aren’t included. And that’s before we’ve even got to non-Latin alphabets like Russian or Georgian!

Multilingual design can multiply the number of things to take care of on a project, but that’s no reason to prevent you from wanting a website that speaks more than one language! Celebrate the diversity of the internet – as long as your alphabet choices will let you.

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