Options for Building a Multilingual WordPress Website with Translations

A look at different approaches to translate your website's content into different languages

July 28, 2023

Working with clients that have a large range of stakeholder groups and often provide services around the world, a common question we receive is how to best translate a website into multiple languages. 

While the details can shape the answer, in nearly every scenario, having a single site and domain that can be translated into different languages is preferable vs. having multiple websites and domains for each language or country/region.  The single domain approach allows you to consolidate search engine capital, build brand equity on the primary domain, and likely manage everything on the same Content Management System platform.  Even with the translation happening on the “same” website and platform, there are still a number of decisions to be made around how to best structure the translations based on your own goals, capabilities, budget, and more. 

When this question is posed to me, below are the three options and scenarios that I typically take people through.  Each works well and really comes down to what your answers around goals, capabilities, and budget.  The options below are ordered from easiest to most complex, in terms of internal effort, development work, and budget.

Automated Website Translations

The first option is an automated translation.  This takes all the pressure off of you and uses a third-party service to do the translation. 

In the past, many clients used Google Translate, but they have shut down their free model (well, largely shut it down – it’s open for free to some specific nonprofit groups).  You can see a legacy example of Google Translate being used on this nonprofit website design for a historic location in North Carolina: Tryon Palace

There is now an option to pay for Google Translate or to look at other companies, like DeepL, that enable automated translations right in the browser.  These translations are done on-site and automatically through machine learning.  They’re easy to install and fast for users.

However, the truth is that nearly all browsers now automatically translate content for visitors based on their browser settings with machine learning.  So, if you are an English speaker and go to a Korean site, you'll be presented with an option to translate it from the browser into Korean, using machine learning technology just like the above services leverage.  The same would be true of a Spanish speaker, who has their browser settings on Spanish, who visits your pages in English.  They'd be prompted with an option and then the translation would happen automatically. 

Due to this feature being built into the browser, we recommend just relying on the browser translation for most of our clients who want a full translation across their site done by machine learning. 

The pros to this approach is that it's just taken care of and there's no additional cost and it’s pretty solid.  The cons are that it's a machine/AI translating the text and while that can be very good for a bulk of text, it will almost certainly not be 100% correct and will miss small turns of phrase and more.  Additionally, it will only translate what it can (i.e., not PDFs you link to) and will provide all users the same experience, which isn’t always ideal.  So, for clients where accuracy is really important or they want to tailor content based on audience, this is not a great fit.

With this option, you do not need the translation toggle on your site, since the browser will handle it, but some feel that is an important optic to have.  The translation toggles and scripts can hinder performance of sites due to being another element to load in, which also makes the case for allowing the browser to handle it on its own. 

So, if you were fine with machine learning translations from the start by installing one of those services and don’t have budget or capability or need to do manual translations, I anticipate the browser translations will work just as well for you. 

Curated and Select Website Translation

The second option is a select translation.  In this approach, website owners will translate just a few pages or maybe even just a single page into popular languages.  Visitors who select that language will be taken to a section of the site or page that is in that language and generally just gives an overview of the organization, important information, and then encourages the visitor to reach out for more detailed information. 

This approach allows you to tailor the translation, have things crafted by a native speaker, and reduces the onus of needing to translate a lot of content.  The downside is it's a limited translation and won't be persistent for all pages across the site and more of just a central hub.  This option adds a little to cost, depending on the extent of the section from a technical standpoint (e.g., does it need its own navigation) and the depth of the translation from a content standpoint.

For organizations that may lack the resources or desire to translate a robust site and keep it up to date (because don’t forget about content updates!), but really need a precise and tailored translation for some core content, this option is a great fit.  It enables you to serve specific content to visitors who want to opt in to that language without creating a new organizational problem to solve.

Manually Translating a Website in WordPress

The third option is a manually, fully translated site.  An example of a project we did that incorporated this full translation approach is: buildon.org

In this approach, we will install a plugin, almost always the WordPress Multilingual plugin WPML, which that gives the option to translate every page on the site into multiple languages.  WPML will duplicate the blocks setup on the English site for the different languages and allow you to fill them in with the content in the other language. 

For any page that has translated content, there will be a Translation toggle for visitors to use and get that language's version of the page.  For pages you don't translate, those options won't be available!  So, the translation tool will be smart and only offer translated content for pages that actually have it. 

You can see on BuildOn that it's present on a page like https://www.buildon.org/our-work/buildon-global, but not on an older Story like https://www.buildon.org/get-involved/get-updates/igniting-a-cycle-of-change. 

Additionally, WPML offers an automated translation feature that leverages some of the platforms mentioned above like DeepL or Google Translate and can be helpful if you want to use WPML to translate or do a blended model where you manually translate some pages and then use that feature for other pages.  They also have a handy calculator to let you see how much it will cost to translate different amounts of content.

This approach is the most custom and curated, as you can not only choose what to translate on the site and how to frame it in the native language, but you can also adjust content and layout on a page by page basis (you don't need to use all the blocks, for example).  It also is the most labor intensive for administrators and is generally a good fit for clients who have staff or access to native speakers.  Not only is there the time for administrators, but compared to the other options, WPML also takes some time to setup and configure and test for the development team, but it's not a huge lift.


So, you have options!  One reassuring takeaway should be that even if you do nothing, the browser will automatically translate for most visitors to their language settings.  So, they are getting an experience in their own language.  From there, you can make decisions around just how much you want to customize things and the level of effort you’re able to put in to the content.  Happy Translating!

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