How to create a multilingual website using WordPress?

You have a website that uses WordPress and need to make it multilingual? Is this possible? The answer is yes!

However, this feature is not available by default in WordPress. First off, you’ll need to setup WordPress according to your needs in order to get there. As you may have guessed by now, there are many ways to do this, which is why the multilingual option is not part of the WordPress “core”. This article will highlight some possible ways to turn your website into a multilingual one. Let’s start looking at these approaches right now!

Translate words or contexts?

First of all, it’s important to be aware that a multilingual site does not necessarily mean that you have to translate only the words from one language to another. You also have to look at the context. This may seem strange at first glance, but it is crucial when it comes to choosing a solution.

The text translation method means that everything in a language is simply translated into another language. The website is therefore identical in every languages in terms of its copy. Only the words will change depending on the language chosen by the visitor.

The context-specific translation method takes into consideration not only the language of the words themselves, but also their context based on the localization. Cultural differences are usually observed. Suppose a Cuban hotel would like to make a French version of its website to attract international tourists. Content for French-Canada’s language could use harsh winters to convince visitors to select their establishment. On the other hand, the French language from France could not use the harsh winters since this is not their reality. The hotel could then bet on the beauty and quality of the beaches. This simple example clearly shows that translation goes beyond language.

Combining the two methods is definitely a good way to get the most out of your project!

Translation methods

By default, WordPress only allows the use of one language per website. That said, several options are available to allow a site to offer multiple languages. Here they are:

  1. Creating a network of websites (using a multisite installation);
  2. Using a language management plugin;
  3. A combination of plugin and network of websites.

All these solutions are valid and worthwhile. Each solution has its pros and cons. It all depends on what you want to achieve with your website.

Now let’s look at each of these solutions!

Creating a network of websites

This solution involves creating what is known in the industry as a ” network of websites ” (or a multisite installation). In essence, it’s about using WordPress and activating a feature that allows you to manage multiple websites from a single installation. This avoids the need to log in/out every time you want to switch from one site to another. With a single click, you can switch from one site to another. This allows you to create multiple websites regardless of their context. You have all the flexibility you need for each part of your website.

Pros:

  • A single WordPress install;
  • Single install of themes and plugins;
  • Single updates across all websites;
  • Allows translation of text and contexts.

Cons:

  • Impossible to automatically link a page to its equivalent in the other language;
  • Duplication of management for categorization features and inventory (e.g. blog categories, products for online businesses, etc);
  • Complicated user management.

Using a language management plugin

Plugins can also be used to manage multiple languages. There are many plugins that can fulfill this purpose. In the end, they all lead to the same outcome, but it is the way in which you get to the end result will differ.

We could explain in detail how every plugin works, but this article would be overly long. Therefore, here are some plugins you may want to consider:

WPML

This paid plugin is the most popular of all. WPML uses a policy of one post per language and translates via PO/MO file creation. It’s also the one that developers care about the most when coding in order to ensure the compatibility of their plugin with themes and other plugins. The company behind WPML also offers translation services to help you complete your project. It is a complete solution.

Polylang

The basic version of this plugin is free and it’s possible to purchase a license to get more options. This is an interesting solution that works very well. Its main problem is that many plugin developers put more effort into being compatible with WPML than with Polylang. As long as this remains an issue, you should be aware that developing a website can become frustrating when you want to use some specific plugin.

qTranslate X

This free plugin has often been mentioned alongside WPML. It is derived from the defunct qTranslate and mqTranslate. Just like its derivatives, this plugin was discontinued (in 2016) and should neither be considered nor kept on a site.

It has been retained in this article for historical reasons, but should not be used under any circumstances.

Combination of a multisite install and plugins

It’s also possible to combine a multisite install (network of websites) and use a plugin to provide an easy transition from one language to another. Allowing the visitor to switch, for example, from the English version of the Contact page to the French version in one click would be a benefit of this approach. Otherwise, you’d have to click on the French language before clicking on Contact. This eliminates unnecessary frustration. Some of the plugin that can help with the transition are:

Pros:

  • Same benefits as those in the “Creating a network of websites” section;
  • Ability to create a link between pages from one language to another.

Cons:

  • Same disadvantages as those in the “Creating a network of websites” section.

Conclusion

Coming to a clear and effective conclusion is not obvious here. Why? Because the solution you choose must be the best for your project.

Unfortunately, the answer will vary from one project to another depending on its size, complexity, functional requirements, budget and your current levels of knowledge.

Our experience has shown us that the use of a combination of a multisite install (network of websites) and a plugin is best in terms of website performance. However, you’ll have to forget about this solution if you want to effectively manage an online business and track inventory. A well-configured caching plugin can address performance gaps in many cases. For the majority of our multilingual projects, our team chooses WPML. We’ve used Polylang in a few simple projects and avoid qTranslate X because of its URL management, and especially for its irregular updates.

The best way to make the right choice is to properly review your needs and clearly list the features required for your project in the short and medium term. With this list in hand, it will be much easier to eliminate solutions that do not meet the criteria and choose the one that will allow you to carry out a project that lives up to your ambitions!

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