Bilingual and multilingual WordPress websites

WordPress translation system listing various languages

People often ask me about the best way to create and manage a truly bilingual or multilingual website. This is a common need in many contexts around the world.

Usually any given website, or section of a website, is on a spectrum of multilingual availability.

For example – and to take an extreme case- Wikipedia’s various language projects all have the same underlying software but are maintained completely separately by their communities, albeit with a certain amount of adaptation and translation flowing between them.

At the other end of the spectrum is an organisation which publishes two or more language versions of every piece of content.

Translation is sometimes seen as a way of fulfilling this requirement, increasingly with a translation memory. Saying that translation is certainly not the only way and may not even be always the best way.

Somewhere in between is a sort of hybrid website which publishes all ‘publicity’ material multilingually but gives the blog(s) and ‘human voice’ content for each language its own independent life. Let me know if you’ve seen an example of this being done successfully though.

My personal record, if I can put it that way, is a website serving four languages – German, Norwegian, English and Dutch, for a now defunct European theatre project which I co-developed in WordPress for a client in London some years ago.

Let this suffice to demonstrate that many models and forms of multilingualism are technically possible and implemented around the world.

It often pains me to see organisations offering a below par experience of multilingualism. This should be core to any discussion of user experience, and worth investing in to get right. There are plenty of examples of excellent practice, and there is help available!

Outside the world of organisations I’ve just added some new functionality and a new work section to my own website, morris.cymru.

This website originally started under another name in 2008 for various musings and thoughts. Over time I’ve switched languages a bit (English and Welsh), and also gradually had a need to share more work-oriented stuff and freelance projects.

I have retained my nine years of blog post archives, and have added code and settings to recover gracefully when a historical blog post is available in one language and not another.

Here is the technical background. I use WordPress.org and regardless of the plugin used you need language files for WordPress core, the theme, plugins as well as text for widgets, menus, categories, and more. The QTranslate X plugin, which is in my opinion currently the best (apart from the erroneous use of flags for languages), automates much of this searching for language files, when they are available. This plugin requires a whole load of configuration, so be warned.

@Wicipedia, an automatic Twitter bot

Check out @wicipedia which is an automatic Twitter bot I thoroughly enjoyed making.

This work was commissioned by Wikimedia UK as a means of increasing engagement with Wicipedia Cymraeg, the Welsh-language version of Wikipedia.

It is an automated Twitter account sharing:

  • ‘on this day’ historical events,
  • links to recent new articles within certain criteria of ‘interestingness’,
  • ideas for articles that anybody can create about notable women in order to contribute to fair gender representation on Wicipedia.

You’ll see all of these types of tweets on the account itself.

If you’re curious the account is run by a custom PHP script which runs on a server and performs calls to the Wikipedia API and Twitter API.

Björk pic by deep schismic (CC BY)

Scheduling tweets in bulk in advance (my way)

I’ve created my own system to tweet a row from this spreadsheet every day.

The name of the Twitter account is @fideobobdydd, a way of sharing high quality videos in Welsh from various genres. Social media like Twitter have the potential to find audiences for videos and vice-versa, when algorithmic search and recommendation sometimes (feel like they) put content in Welsh at a disadvantage. This is what I’d like to investigate, anyway.

At the moment it tweets once per day at a set time. It’s a proof of concept which could easily be extended or adapted.

Why create a system? I’ve tried Hootsuite, Buffer and similar systems but on the whole these are too cumbersome for me. On the spreadhset I can see half a month and move things around quickly. Working with others is easy because the spreadsheet is on Google Drive.

I doubt that Hootsuite as a company is losing sleep over it. It’s just my homebaked solution to a particular problem. 🙂

It would be possible to add other sources rather than relying on manual input of videos. At the moment if there is a gap on any given day, there is no tweet. I could create a long list of videos to post randomly as well as the spreadsheet list, or syndicate videos from a list of favourites or YouTube playlist, and so on. Of course other platforms like Facebook Video are also possible.

Here’s some technical info. This is a PHP script which talks to the Twitter API. Rather than use the Google Drive API I have done a speedier implementation of retrieving the content as CSV.

Diolch i Nwdls am y (cy)syniad gwreiddiol o Fideo Bob Dydd.

Rough notes on using social media in one’s second language

My emphasis on this blog has changed over the years. It’s interesting to read back over old posts where I documented my progress with Welsh. Later on I was pretty uninhibited about blogging through the medium of Welsh on here, as a means of practising and as a method of seeing more stuff in Welsh online. Although very beneficial for me I guess it’s uncommon to practise like that in public. There were/are quite a few non-standard grammatical formations in my posts as well. Or, in other words, mistakes.

A few people have asked me recently about my experiences using social media in Welsh as a second language – especially blogging. Someone was asking me today about the experience and challenges as part of her research project.

So here’s a copy of some notes I sent as I figured they might be of interest to people who read this blog.

In hindsight it took me a while to get to a standard where I thought I had anything to say. There are blogs out there where people practise the very basics – which is obviously fine – but I think I wanted to do something more expressive. I think writing to be understood (which was an aim) is a challenge. There were a whole load of things to accomplish before even considering that as an option. I think I considered it for a fair while before actually doing it.

That said, as opposed to blogging, tweeting in Welsh was something I started quite early on I think. You could liken it to a child gaining confidence in learning to speak (or walk, etc.).

The first thing I tried on a computer was emailing in Welsh – even just greetings and valediction around an email in English. I made loads of mistakes with that but it was a key learning experience.

One thing to mention is that Facebook is not always the friendliest place for practising Welsh. It’s common to receive comments from ‘friends’ who are not comfortable with seeing Welsh being used. For example people have said things like ‘did a cat walk on your keyboard?’, ‘that’s easy for you to say’ and also some quite blatant expressions of disdain/displeasure at seeing Welsh being used. It’s funny how very few people say ‘I don’t understand your message, would you be able to give me a translation or a summary in English please?’, which is surely a more courteous way of answering. I’ve heard that that these attitudes cause problems for people who are learning, particularly the more timid. I’m a pretty confident person but even I sometimes feel a bit gun shy about using Welsh on Facebook. Interface is irrelevant here – it’s about existing friend group and expectations. Maybe this point counters the hypothesis that fluent Welsh users are judgmental about informal Welsh and bratiaith. That is, in my experience by contrast it has been the non-Welsh speakers who cause problems.

Twitter is better for confidence because it’s not predominently based on offline relationships for many people. There is a lot of freedom and variation in the way it’s used. There is a more of a sense that people can experiment, be individual and also that those who don’t appreciate it should just unfollow. And then blogging offers the best feeling of a space you control yourself where anything goes, at least in my experience.

These notes are incomplete and are based on personal experiences rather than data.

Global Voices: imaging the Welsh-language web

I’ve written an article for Global Voices about the Welsh-language web:

[…] Recent research presented by the BBC at a media conference shows that of the time spent on the web by the average Welsh speaker, only 1% is on Welsh language content. We can assume that most of the remaining 99% of the time is taken up by English-language content. There are several factors behind these percentages, which form a contemporary story of linguistic domain loss.

Although the Welsh language web is large from an individual user’s perspective, it has relatively few resources available when compared with other languages. Even the Basque language, which statistically is in a comparable situation to Welsh in its homeland, is much more privileged on the web in its number and diversity of established websites and levels of participation.

Wales has comparatively fewer institutions that would view an increase in quality web content as an important part of their mission. There is perhaps an excessive reliance on voluntary efforts. Yet the cumulative amount of spare time at the disposal of volunteers, what the American writer Clay Shirky refers to as cognitive surplus, is also small. […]

Read more.

Standing on Isaac Newton’s shoulders without a copyright licence

Cambridge Digital Library launched an online collection of Isaac Newton’s papers this week. All I saw was praise for the project and lots of it. I think that’s appropriate, it’s a good project. But what about the rights?

As far as I can see, the Library are the custodians of the papers as precious three-century-old artefacts and that’s it. Newton’s intellectual legacy, ethically and legally, belongs to everyone. You don’t have to ask or pay to adapt a Shakespeare script (say) and perform it. You can do a low-budget production in a village hall or you can make a multi-million pound movie out of it. You could combine it with a poem from Dafydd ap Gwilym, if you want to. That’s the beauty of the public domain. It belongs to nobody – and everybody.

The same freedom applies to Isaac Newton’s works – or should. But I went to Principia and clicked the download image link and a licensing notice popped up. I don’t care if it’s Creative Commons, that’s not public domain.

I’m sharing the email below because I’m not a legal expert and maybe somebody out there can help me understand this. It bothers me when institutions seemingly ignore the public domain and try to enclose it. It’s a pity that the public domain can’t muster a front as big as that of the content industries.

Dear Cambridge University Library

Congratulations on your successful launch of the Cambridge Digital Library and the digital versions of Isaac Newton’s papers.

While I am grateful and pleased that you have released Newton’s works online, I note that you appear to claim ownership of copyright in the scanned images of these works. I also note that you are attempting to apply a Creative Commons licence which appears to contravene copyright law, as would any licence applied to work in the public domain.

I quote from the terms and conditions of your website:

The University is the owner or the licensee of all intellectual property rights in the site and in the material appearing on the site. The material includes but is not limited to works such as images, artwork, text, data, files, audio/visual clips, illustrations, designs and documentation (the ‘Content’) and the collection, arrangement and assembly of the Content. Those works are protected by copyright laws and treaties around the world. All such rights are reserved.

Copyright law began with the Statute of Anne towards the end of Newton’s life. It has now been superseded by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which states that written works (with very few exceptions) pass into the public domain 70 years from the year of the author’s death. In his case if we were to apply current copyright law the works would have passed into public domain on 1st January 1798.

I am sure you would not want to be seen to be attempting to restrict the use of works in the public domain, as if that were possible. If so please could you reword these statements on your website to clarify humanity’s common inheritance of Newton’s legacy.

Many thanks

Carl Morris

I’m waiting for a reply from the librarians.

If you were to re-use one of Newton’s papers –  say, print up a bunch of t-shirts with his writing on and sell them – I don’t think there would be enough to make a case if the Library were to dispute it. It seems they just took some scans of the pages without adding anything novel. I don’t want to be an arse and say I’m ungrateful for all the work they did in preserving the documents and digitising them. But let’s be clearer about the rights and freedoms here. Correct me if I’m wrong.

And if someone trying to own Newton’s stuff doesn’t sound bizarre enough for you have a look at the Crown’s perpetual ownership of the King James Bible.

UPDATE 22/12/2011: So, more people are talking about this…

UPDATE 6/2/2012: No reply to my email from Cambridge Digital Library as yet.

The 24/7 digital café for Welsh learners

I’ve been thinking about this idea for Welsh learners and I can’t get it out of my head.

What if there were a way to fire up Skype now and have a spoken conversation in Welsh with somebody?

At the moment you could fire up Skype for a chat (substitute Google+ Hangouts for Skype if you prefer) but what if you don’t know any other Welsh speakers? What if you do know some but they’re not online right now? What if the timezone you’re in doesn’t help? What if you’re a bit shy and you’d rather start practising at home before venturing out?

The core of the idea is a way to solve those problems, a 24/7 digital café if you like. You would visit this site and declare: I am online at (say) 7PM on Monday night GMT and then people could meet you online for a chat at that time.

You could also also list your skill level if desired, and your interests like mountaineering or literature or Hollywood or cooking or whatever.

In the short term it could start with a few conversations here and there. The aim is to have people having Welsh conversations 24/7 so there are always people online to chat with. If you didn’t have such a great chat then you bid the person hwyl fawr and then move on. It’s a bit like Chatroulette but less random.

The speaking and listening part is important. I know there are people on IRC channels (text-based chat) and there are blog posts and other articles you could read in Welsh online. You could start your own blog. But this is about speaking and listening.

People around Wales and beyond who are learning the Welsh language usually do so by means of courses – some of which are predominantly online like BBC’s or SaySomethingInWelsh, some of which are predominantly offline like those of Acen or Cymraeg i Oedolion and some of which are probably a bit of both.

But a course on its own is not enough to learn. You need to practise. You need to make heaps of mistakes in a variety of registers and contexts. You need to talk about things you care about and move beyond hoffi coffi and dw i’n dod o

Has this idea been/being tried? What about other languages? I’d welcome comments from anyone.

Is anyone interested in being part of some tests? Are any of the above companies/institutions interested in being part of something like this?

Comments are open.

Professional trolls and how to avoid them

The online connotation of the word troll, someone who invades an online space and provokes with offensive comments, is as old as the World Wide Web itself. You can also trawl archives of Usenet and other online spaces which pre-date the web and find examples of trolling.

In the old days it was merely a taunt related to your chosen programming language or maybe some highly opinionated nonsense with a needless bit of Hitler comparison thrown in.

Today, if the troll has something to gain beyond just the thrill of getting a rise out of people then they will graduate to their own website or blog and perfect the fine arts of linkbait and flamebait. They will learn how to create feedback loops of notoriety.

My main point in publishing this blog post is to suggest to you that newspaper columnists themselves can be highly effective trolls. Not only do newspapers allow trolls to visit and leave comments, they actively recruit them and pay them to write columns.

For some of the newer gossip sites in the USA instead of a flat fee they actually pay writers according to the page views they can rack up through deliberately being controversial. This could be a way some mainstream news outlets are heading. The structure of incentives leads to particular forms of coverage and opinion. And these are very often ugly forms.

We assume repeatedly, colleagues and friends, that a newspaper is a fountain of public good and decency – and then every time we become distressed and angry and shocked when the fountain shoots out cascades of poop.

Yesterday I began to see a particular columnist not as a writer but as a mega-troll when I saw his Twitter bio which read, of all the things it could have said about his work, ‘I’m right about everything’.

Don’t bother searching for who that is.

This particular columnist (please, resist the urge to search) has reached a new level of expertise in trolling which deserves some kind of industry guild with its own crest of excellence. These professional mega-trolls, instead of operating at a forum level as before or even an individual website level, have mastered the art of controversy at a web level, provoking a swelling of rage in the form of comments, complaints, tweets, trending topics, well meaning righteous blog posts – and inbound traffic.

I’m resisting the urge to name any particular newspapers here for reasons that are hopefully becoming obvious.

Today I received an invitation to a Facebook campaign urging me not to buy newspapers which publish bigoted views about a particular linguistic group. I am sure that every person who joined will refrain from buying such papers at the stands. So we’ve got the paper-based boycott thing worked out just fine. We’ve long known that paper newspapers provoke controversy in order to sell copies. Knowing that and resisting them is not the challenge.

Now what if the offending newspaper is digital? Newspapers in digital form have effectively unlimited copies and they don’t even charge for access a lot of the time. Many of the hurdles, the protective barriers if you like, have gone. What’s more the paper in its online form is unbundled – you might never consider going near the paper version but I bet you’ve seen occasional articles online.

If you visit a newspaper website which is free-to-access then you are playing your part in boosting the fortunes of the company behind it. All it takes is a click. You get extra points for clicking on other articles. Or rather, they get the points. Everything is tracked and analysed and ultimately used to determine ad prices and sell ads. Usually it’s the high traffic newspapers that are making the biggest success of online. Notice I said ‘high traffic’ and not ‘popular’ newspapers, because how they are esteemed is of almost no importance in this – even to them.

Once you’ve read it and been offended why not send it to a few friends? You could email it but then if you share the link on your favourite social network service or your blog, you could also help them to increase their search ranking. Well done, you helped the poop and pollution to rise to the top.

You may, like me, have done these things. The desire to vent disagreement and frustration is… just… too… strong not to post. But it’s exactly what they want you to do.

If you post things online you’ll know that another thing everybody likes to receive is a good comment. It’s one of the nicest things you can give online. Now if you find a quality blog post or article and you leave a good comment then you bring insight to the conversation and increase the value of the page, which also gives the author a little bit of encouragement. This even applies if you disagree with them, as long as its amicable. These are the kinds of things that make commenting worth doing.

The outcome for an offending newspaper column is no different: leave a comment there and you increase its value in a similar fashion, whether you’re intending to help them or not. But if it’s a flamebait piece there’s no guarantee the author will even read your comment, no matter how witty or insightful you’ve been. Either way, in this situation, you are working for free to create content for them and even to bring repeat visits from people who’ve already been suckered into participating. Maybe we should all save our best for websites and other things that are more worthwhile.

So how do we (the nice people) get to resist and take back control of our bits of the web?

Do you remember the end bit in the original 1960 film of Village of the Damned when the hero has to free the village from the curse of the freaky evil schoolchildren who can read minds? I need you to stay with me here, especially if you post links online for others to see. The eventual hero Gordon needs to keep his mind blank somehow and manages to focus his entire thought process on a mental image of a brick wall. If his brain even flinches and lets out a smidgen of the plan then the ghastly children can outwit him, control him and thereby bring about a nasty accident.

We need to be like Gordon and mentally brick-wall those ghastly columnists. Every tweet and link and reference is a flinch of weakness.

A lot of people say to me, ‘Carl’ they say, for that is my name. They say how about going to the Press Complaints Commission, they’ll sort it out somehow. If you’re unfamiliar with them the PCC are an entirely voluntary member organisation made up of – and funded by – newspapers and magazines. This is the same organisation that did zilch about phone hacking but will somehow restore us to the fountain of purity and goodness supposedly.

Dear friends, no. There can be huge value in complaining in the right place particularly if laws are being broken. But the main point I’m making is a different one and is about the freedom and power we have. We’re the ones who give our attention to these websites. And we’re the ones who can withdraw that attention. We create the environment in which they flourish by allowing ourselves to be baited by the provocation and to be pimped to the advertisers.

I don’t know who said it first but if you’re not paying for it then you are the product. We’re the ones who renew the legitimacy of these sites by handing over the precious currency of attention which they can convert into advertising money every day.

Today the owners of a caching service called istyosty had to take the service offline. Because of a legal threat it is no longer able to rehost copies of articles from two well known tabloid newspapers for the purposes of criticism. Nobody is preventing the actual criticism from taking place but large numbers of people, for reasons I’ve already described, wanted to avoid directly linking to them and bestowing link juice and kudos on them.

Despite thinking of a name and idea for a caching service myself (which was built by somebody else and at the time of writing is still servicing links), I don’t see caching as the long-term solution to our problem.

The problem is that any form of attention – talking about these articles and acknowledging their presence – is beneficial to the offending newspaper companies in some way. I think they may even have been foolish to threaten istyosty over the copyright. The tiny damage from lost traffic here is just a form of progressive taxation which might expand slightly as the overall traffic shoots up, but not enough to sting. It could even contribute to the overall success of each article for all we know.

One solution I am trying is to use software add-ons to remove the risk of ever visiting these sites by accident. For me it’s a question of balancing the good articles with the bad, I’m very open to all kinds of opinion and debate but I draw the line at trolling.

Please note that I am not talking about every writer I disagree with or even about legitimite articles which may even be factually wrong. I am talking specifically about the mega-trolls, the ones I don’t ever need to see or discuss.

So I’ve installed a Firefox browser add-on called BlockSite. There are equivalents for other browsers. It can be massively tempting to think that I could turn it off and follow some of these scandalous links. But then it’s a good feeling to be able to brick-wall them. I’ve reduced my support of these particular sites to zero and I don’t feel I’m missing anything. I’m now enjoying and learning from the many other websites and media outlets which deserve my valuable attention.

Why are Facebook and Twitter killing their RSS feeds?

Just seen this excellent piece by Clare White about the virtues of RSS particularly now that Facebook and Twitter seem to be quietly killing their RSS feeds.

I was going to leave a comment but instead opted to write here. White says:

At risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I don’t know why Twitter and Facebook would restrict the free flow of headlines via RSS. Sure, in Twitter’s case the headline is basically the whole tweet and it may be about attracting people to their website where they can see advertising, but this risks alienating many users. RSS remains the best way for content to be shared and fed through to multiple platforms.

Facebook are trying to compete with the open web and offer the whole experience there. Facebook.com is a – pretty seductive but ultimately inferior – second web.

Facebook the company are happy to use the architecture of the web but would much rather you experience it in their garden. That’s why they don’t want to offer RSS.

I have friends who land on Facebook as their default home page and largely equate Facebook with the web. That’s perfect. For Facebook. More generally I think people undervalue RSS because they haven’t tried it or they’ve been lured away by RSS-lite systems like the Twitter or Facebook feeds. That goes for tech journalists too, the people who should be highlighting how important this is.

Where Facebook does play with the open web – identity system, like buttons, comment system and so on – it’s in an attempt to make websites and their visitors more dependent on Facebook. And to bridge people into their experience.

I don’t know exactly what Twitter are planning but I know they were a promising start-up with a variety of monetisation options they could have chosen but are now essentially an advertising company, as Facebook are. So probably the same.

White also highlights the tension between the “privacy settings” and the open web:

Twitter cited security concerns, but Twitter is a tool for sharing content with the option of setting updates to private if you want to. In the same way, there is no particular reason why RSS shouldn’t also be available from Facebook pages and groups unless they are explicitly set to private. It’s an important part of web literacy to understand that if you wouldn’t share something in earshot of people you don’t know in real life, you shouldn’t share it online. That still leaves a lot that we want to share.

The designers of these systems often make the mistake, or perpetuate the untruth, that privacy is merely a set of software options. Privacy on the web is really about us, the users, understanding what we’re getting into and being in true control of our information sharing. By this definition, Facebook in particular fail big time with their privacy offering. Of course, their interests are not aligned with your interests in controlling your privacy. It benefits the company if there is personal information on there which has been posted in trust.

Thing is, if Facebook and Twitter were totally public it probably would have been better for people’s privacy.

(Diolch Rhys am y dolen.)