Bilingual websites and multilingual projects in WordPress

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 a public body 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 European theatre project which I co-developed in WordPress for a client in London some years ago.

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 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. Regardless of the multilingual plugin you use 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 does require a whole load of configuration.

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss help on this!

@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.

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.

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.)

“Press release as blog post” drives me mad

MH at Syniadau says:

I have to admit to not being fond of the way that political parties interact with the media before a general election. Policy tends to get broken down into bite-sized chunks that will fit into a one column story or a two minute video clip on the news. There is no room for any detail.

Clywch, clywch! “Press release as blog post” drives me mad. Several times I’ve wanted to learn more and explore the detail – and been let down. By all the parties.

Boiling a complex issue down to a single press release with few or no links is too simplistic. It’s designed for newspapers, radio and TV, who have limited space. But news is, we have endless space on the web.

It also makes me think we’re stuck in familiar habits. Then just bolting on our digital media strategy.

Although I include party politics, this observation is applicable in many fields. We can do far better than this in Wales.

e.g. how about a manifesto wiki (or some kind of open collaborative platform) with deep levels of detail and relevant outbound links depending on how far you want to go down? People can ask questions, suggest improvements and help make it better and more accurate. It’s not expensive. Nobody in Wales is trying this at the moment.

(I know Hywel Williams AS tried something similar once with Wiki Deddfu, the technology was there but it lacked the investment of time and understanding of the human side. Also, it’s vanished from the web so we can’t learn the lessons and you can’t check if my analysis is correct.)

Corollary: it’s very hard to find a blog written by a PR company in Wales which is actually worth your time. Maybe it’s the curse of feeling you have to be “on message”. Comment if you know differently.

Hacio’r Iaith – what it is, why it is and what happened (monster post!)

A group of us did a free, open event in Aberystwyth on 30th January 2010 called Hacio’r Iaith. It was fun. I learned things. It was based on the BarCamp format. You can use the format to have a conference on any subject and many people do. Some people call it an unconference.

The reasons we organised an offline event should be obvious. A chance to shake hands and consume body aroma content, the only remaining experiences not yet available online.

Around 40 people came. That number seemed about right for a one-day event, I didn’t even get a chance to talk to everyone properly.

One of the main aims was to get people together to talk about shared interests, so on that basis it was almost bound to be a success after the second or third person said they’d come along. When you know people will get talking there is no need for anxiety, even if the wifi access goes down (it was fine actually), the food doesn’t arrive (it did and was splendid – thanks chefs and sponsors!) or the firewall doesn’t allow FTP access (unfortunately it didn’t, but that was a mere glitch and chance to learn something).

Keywords will be in bold here because this is getting long…

The offline component of the event is finished. For a few reasons it’s a pity you can’t access big chunks of the event now. You really had to be there maaan. Saying all that, it’s still open to an extent because we purposefully made it a hybrid of offline and online. Several web-based backchannels existed before and during the meet-up: the event wiki, the group blog, Twitter messages, videos on YouTube and photos/images on Flickr.

These backchannels persist afterwards, which increases the value of doing the event for years to come. That goes for potentially everyone on the web (especially now that Google Translate can get you the gist of the Welsh in several other languages).

These are some of the benefits of the social web. These benefits are seldom discussed by the mainstream media, incidentally!

I want other people to see all this stuff if they search for related things. I know there are other people who attended who want it to have an influence. On that note, not every problem is a problem of information. (That’s the second Neil Postman link in this post. Consider that chin thoroughly stroked.) But some problems are related to information. For instance, taking abundant information and converting it into something useful is something we can step up. It’s something that could benefit Wales, where I live and most of the attendees live.

I’d like to see more BarCamps, unconferences and so on happening in Wales. Incidentally that’s part of the reason why I’ve chosen to write this in English, to give the non-Welsh speaking people in Wales some access to the proceedings. And other people around the world who might be interested.

As far as I know, Hacio’r Iaith on Saturday was the first BarCamp-style event to be conducted in Cymraeg, the Welsh language. The subject matter? Web and technology as it relates to the Welsh language. Those things – language and subject matter – don’t necessarily follow. Naturally people discuss their language in their own language. But a group could organise a BarCamp about any subject and do it in the Welsh language. Absolutely any subject.

For nearly everyone who attended it’s their number one language for everything they do daily and has been for as long as they remember.

I can only talk about the sessions I attended. Everything is from my perspective!

The first session was about tools for Welsh learners, including a website and series of online lessons called Say Something In Welsh build with phpBB, an iPhone application called Learn Welsh and some ideas for mobile app “flashcards” suggested by a tutor. We talked about the conflicting difficulties of making apps available to all mobile users, even if they are web-based apps running on mobile. I asked Aran from Say Something In Welsh a question about open content and search engines. The site is a private “walled garden” for a number of reasons related to maintaining a community of learners, but it’s free to register to join. (UPDATE: See Aran’s comment below for more about this.)

I then stayed for the Metastwnsh podcast recording and live web stream. Metastwnsh is a web and technology blog with several contributors. There was some discussion of gadgets and some jokes. My favourite part was a discussion of how the language choice of our online posts and conversations can differ from that of our offline choice. In particular, Twitter was cited as an example of a tool which first language Welsh speakers sometimes opt to use in English, for many reasons – some understandable. It was suggested that perhaps in some cases they file it under an “English language part of their brain”, alluding to the possibility that bilingual people associate some spaces or platforms with specific languages. So the effect of the platform is not necessarily “neutral”, or doesn’t remain that way. (I’ve been building a list of Welsh speakers on Twitter, including learners. Every person who is on the list can see the list and access all the other members of the list. It’s a way of strengthening the network and thereby, potentially, the impulse to post in the Welsh language should people wish to do so. Linguistic diversity leads to other forms of diversity and improves the internet as a whole in my opinion.)

I popped next door to catch the very end of a presentation about Llen Natur, a website about wildlife and nature. It has a dictionary of species, maps and photos.

Free lunch was not something I had insisted on, especially as it increases the admin for such events. But Rhodri ap Dyfrig was convinced it was possible and fixed up catering and covered it with money from some of the sponsors. For me it was a valuable part of the event, meeting some very talented people I’d only previously known online.

It was my turn next – purely because I’d volunteered to speak, as had everyone. So the title was “FyWordPressCyntaf.com – does dim angen profiad o flaen llaw” (which translates as MyFirstWordPress.com – no previous experience necessary). I wanted to talk about WordPress as a blogging and general site CMS, downloadable from wordpress.org with no coding necessary. It gave me the chance to talk about free software (unambiguously rendered as meddalwedd rydd in Welsh, free software as in freedom) with a bit about how localised code and themes are available for Welsh (but, as I also added, we can always do with more). Unlike the audience, Welsh isn’t my first language so I had a job explaining some of the concepts. I achieved my main objective though, which was to get a bare bones installation of WordPress running to show how quick and easy it can be.

In hindsight it was a little ambitious to shoehorn the mash-up/hack session into the event plan. On the day I ended up putting my talk in the hack session, which came just to mean practical session. Even WordCamp, which I attended last year, was spread over two days – allowing space for team building, pre-planning and the hack session on the second day. At Hacio’r Iaith, I think the initiative and creativity of the attendees to do the hacks could have been there, as well as the capability. But in a day already packed with presentations and to some an unfamiliar format, it became too much to expect. Next time some more practical stuff would be good. I do think a dedicated hack event could work.

We had a quick discussion about making online how-to videos and what subjects to cover. There is plenty of room for how-to videos in Welsh, especially showing non-geeks and normal people how to get the best use of software and the web. The ideas we generated are available to take.

Finally I went to a session on the game Civilization IV and its unofficial Welsh translation, using game mods. Welsh translation of open source games like OpenTTD also came up. I’m not a big gamer but it gave me some ideas…

Video by Sioned Edwards