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!

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

Where is my mind? (Books, blogs and networks)

One of my new year’s resolutions is to read more books.

Like old books, unfashionable novels and books which challenge my assumptions.

The benefits of books are clearer, now that we also consume digital text and hypertext. I’m not talking about how the smell of the paper is wonderful or anything like that. It’s about the relationship between the author and the reader. The author can write with the assurance that you’re on board. It’s possible for him or her to explore the diverse ideas that make up a theme, with a high degree of subtlety. These are the joys and rewards of commitment.

This renewed interest in books is going to require time from somewhere. I’ve always loved books but lately I’ve been distracted by the glow of the screen. So for me, this means reducing the amount of time I spend in my feed reader. This trade-off between book reading time and blog reading time is purely one which I have constructed for my own purposes. I try never to complain about not having time to pursue my interests. I make time for the things I value.

Blogs and books are totally different media, clearly. They are not in opposition. They can complement each other. Web log culture, relatively young, should be learning more from books. Not only the facts on the pages and not only the histories they present, but how to explore a theme.

I love blogging dearly. I love reading blogs and I am excited about the potential of blogging. I’ll continue to encourage others to blog about subjects they care about – in languages they care about. There are not enough blogs.

Part of the attraction of blogging, for me, is being able to put a page on the web quickly. But for the art of blogging to develop, that is only part of it. It has to be about the blog over time.

Let’s look at reading. When I show people a feed reader for the first time (almost invariably Google Reader), they often recoil in horror at the thought of another inbox – and who can blame them? Some of this stuff is time-limited and should just flow past, not accumulate (Dave Winer highlights the “inbox” shortcoming of Google Reader).

But my favourite blogs are the ones where I DO want to read everything.

I’m not looking at any proper research here, but I wonder if feed readers are declining. That’s a pity. Whether or not that’s true, they certainly need a boost. Good feed readers help the art of blogging.

If people aren’t using feed readers then it follows that they are peck-pecking haphazardly at links to individual posts received via Twitter, Facebook, email, search results and so on. I’ve done it. This is what people presumably mean when they refer to the “death of RSS”. As a technology, RSS is no more dead than HTML of course and to claim otherwise would be silly. But people seem happy to peck and let others throw the odd link to a snippet or giblet their way. Either that or they are “subscribing” to their favourite blogs by repeated visits in the web browser, rather than with feeds. Or, of course, they are not reading blogs at all.

Right now, in early 2010, as well as a devaluing of feed readers it feels as if other forces are converging to unbundle blogs. Rather than whole bundles, they are viewed as loose collections of individual posts. Attention spans and loyalty to specific blogs could be at an all-time low. This is akin to books losing their spines and pages fluttering away on a breeze. Gone is the continuity. Each post now has to fight for your attention. Granted, the edges of a blog are always more fluid than that of a book.

But following a particular blogger over a period of time is part of what makes the medium good (and fun).

The popular blogs exert an influence on expectations and practice. Some of the most popular and influential blogs are banner ad-supported. These blogs have an intrinsic problem of course – they need to pull the maximum number of eyeballs. This results in tabloidisation, Gawkerization or Techcrunching, if you will. How embarrassing. Most likely this does not align with our own interests for reading a blog, certainly not our long-term interests. Typically we need truth, insight, fairness and all the good stuff.

Instead, every single post has to hustle for attention. Crafted blog post titles become more important than they need to be, that’s one sign. In the text, you can sense the desparation to create a Digg firework which will shoot to the top. You know what I mean.

A common hustle is to present any given story as some kind of conflict or controversy. If you’re interested, read a recent Giles Bowkett post where he simultaneously mimics this and criticises it. The title of the post is Blogs are Godless Communist Bullshit – and the urge to click that title is strong, for reasons he explains.

This is not an exclusively online phenomenon, it’s also discernable in mainstream media. But it’s exaggerated and accelerated in its online form. How? Inbound links and SEO rapidly solidify the attention flows. This leads to more popularity. And Google search is merely a popularity filter. It filters what comes to your attention on the basis of popularity, along keyword lines. That’s very useful but not always in our long-term interests.

Everything that is wrong with the most popular blogs (and news sites, for that matter) can be traced back to this lust for eyeballs. Baseless gossip, sexism, lies, slander, unpleasantness, bullying, you name it. Bad science. Churnalism. Lazy writing and endless lists. The set-up creates the wrong motivations for these bloggers. They influence other bloggers with their woeful example. All but the strong are infested by mediocrity. Stay strong.

Blogs don’t tend to identify their own shortcomings. Techcrunch, for instance, won’t tell you that it does not deal with useful startup or business news that falls outside the venture capital system. “Everything on TechCrunch revolves around the venture capital system”, as another Giles Bowkett gem suggests.

More and better blogs will dissipate some of the influence of the crap. I think a good feed reader which doesn’t frighten normal people would help too. Maybe we could then cultivate our attention spans and intolerance of cheap firework tactics.

I wonder about the concept of a “blogosphere” and the limits to its explaining power. The blogosphere is a subset of the web. In a sense, the web is a network of pages and people. In another sense it is a network of ideas.

Networks have become very interesting in the last few years.

Networks of people make up societies.

Networks of machines make up the world wide web.

Networks of neurons make up brains.

It’s fun to get reductionist and attempt to draw parallels here. For example, Kevin Kelly is fond of saying that the internet is ONE HUGE MIND. It’s a web of machines and people. So we’re just nodes in the network. His enthusiasm is scary and funny. He also has a notion that human beings are the sex organs of technology. At a restaurant he might be the one to inform you that the beef tongue on your plate is getting ready to taste you in revenge. Like me, he’s a theist and a Christian so I obviously find that side interesting.

The blogosphere that I am conscious of is what I read and what’s in my feed reader, a subset of the whole blogosphere. Maybe we are dealing with a number of smaller, only sometimes overlapping blogospheres. How small and how overlapping? The flows of influence are hard to measure. You can look directly at outbound links but it’s harder to see contextual density. Which bloggers watch the same television programmes and which ones read each other?

My own blog is influenced by patterns in things I read, including hundreds of blogs I’ve read that you can’t see. They reinforce pathways in my brain.

By the way, this is why a regular subscription to a daily newspaper can be destructive, when people choose poorly. OK, I’ll name one: the Daily Mail. It tends to appeal to people’s innate selfishness, the same selfishness which is in all of us. Daily Mail writers know their market very well and taken regularly and uncritically the paper can amplify this selfishness. I think it will handle the unbundling of news very deftly too, the online headlines are some of the most sensational around.

Bringing this full circle, the best opponents to these negative media are healthy networks. See above.

So I’ll carry on blogging and attempting to grow the good network by telling people how fantastic WordPress is. But I’m also taking control of my own mental sphere and stirring some books into it, sometimes deliberately choosing things outside my immediate interests. Some excellent books throughout history have never been mentioned or discussed in a single blog post yet. I’ll link to them and dig them where I can.

Do You Use WordPress? Cardiff welcomes WordCamp in July 2009

WordPress has become the platform of choice for many people, for conventional blogs and also as a fully-fledged, customisable CMS.

It’s a seriously good piece of software. If you don’t care about the technical reasons, it’s very easy to use. In my opinion, that’s what a blog should be – as simple as possible so you can jot out your thoughts freely and unencumbered. It’s for normal people. But if you want something customisable and extensible, it allows that too.

This blog is powered by WordPress – as is Sleeveface.

If you’re not familiar with it and you want to test it out you could start with the hosted version – just open an account at WordPress.com

And so to WordCamp.

WordCamp is an annual event for people interested in WordPress, whether they be developers, designers, bloggers, users or half-curious bystanders.

This year’s UK edition of WordCamp will be held in Cardiff on 18th and 19th July. It’s just recently been announced but already you can signal your interest in attending.

The whole thing is run by volunteers so the ticket price will be low, just to cover costs. The ethos of the event is fairly in keeping with WordPress as a piece of open source software. People are happy to contribute their time, energy and skills to the effort because they will all get more value back.

Cymry! This is a massive opportunity for WordPress enthusiasts in Cardiff and wider Wales to exchange notes and learn stuff, not only with each other but with other people from many parts of the world.

Personally I’m really keen to see usage of the Welsh language – on the event website, press relations and around the site. So I’ll be working with other volunteers to make this happen. I’m also working on a group effort to get the WordPress 2.7 software available in Welsh, as well as the extra stuff that comes on the hosted version at WordPress.com.

So this spring will be translation-a-go-go for me. What do I get? I get good practice with the language, chats and co-operation with other people and the chance to watch a significant part of the Welsh language online world bloom and flourish. Plus there are a couple of projects I’d like to start which would be aided greatly by this…

With WordCamp coming, I might have said that an up-to-date WordPress in Welsh will be good timing. But it’s actually been a long time since the software was last translated. I know there are people who want to see this and use it. It just needs a smidgen of activation energy.