I see more and more articles, workshops and webinars on how to translate websites. What strikes me is that most of these only focus on the technical part of translating a website: how to edit HTML files, how to make sure the website will be found by search engines, etcetera. Although these are obviously very important aspects of translating a website, I miss one other essential aspect: creative writing. It is all very well to get your website ranked number one in Google, but if the website itself puts off visitors because it is badly written, the whole website becomes pointless. It is important to keep in mind that, in the end, websites are written/translated for human visitors, not just for search engines.

A business website serves as an online business card. It is all about first impressions. And first impressions on the web last only a couple of seconds: if you don’t manage to engage the visitor within these few seconds, he or she will move on. Text is an important part of this first impression: website content shouldn’t be just grammatically correct without any spelling mistakes, it should also be well-written and engaging. It should draw visitors in, encourage them to continue reading. Here are a couple of tips to achieve this.

Headings should be catchy
Make sure headings stand out and arouse the reader’s interest. This means that a literal translation of the heading in the source text may not work, especially not if the resulting translation is too long or misses out on puns or a play of words in the original heading. In many cases, headings should really be treated as taglines and should be transcreated rather than translated.

Don’t make texts too long
People who are looking for information on the internet don’t want to have to go through pages of text. They want to be able to quickly decide whether the website they’ve found contains the information they are looking for. As a translator you don’t usually have much influence on the total length of the text, but you can at least try to make your translation easy to read or scan and keep it as concise as possible.

Choose the right style and use it consistently
The source text will already give you an indication of how formal or informal your translation should be, but since every language has its own style, it is best to discuss with the end client which style works best for their target audience. Some languages, such as Spanish, French, German and Dutch, have a formal and an informal form of “you”. Again, discuss with the client which one they prefer. However, just because the client prefers the formal version, that doesn’t automatically mean the style of the text has to be formal too. In Dutch, for example, it’s perfectly fine to use the formal “you”, but still keep the text relatively informal and playful. Also, make sure you use the same style consistently throughout the whole website.

Create different websites for different language variations
Many languages are spoken in more than one country and each country may have its own version of the language. Depending on how different the variations of the language are, it may not be a good idea to create just one website for all countries. For example the Dutch language used in the Netherlands and Belgium is officialy the same language, but in practice they are very different. Some words or phrases used by the Dutch sound awkward to Belgian readers and vice versa. So it’s much better to have separate language versions for Belgium and the Netherlands.

Be aware of cultural references
Website texts may contain references which only make sense to readers of the source text, for example, a reference to a local holiday or tradition. Always check whether this reference makes sense to readers of the translation as well and if not, find a solution: replace it with a local reference, come up with a completely different solution or maybe just leave it out.

Write for human beings, not for search engines
There are plenty of SEO experts around who can give you excellent advice on how to get your website ranked high on Google. However, these experts sometimes tend to focus on SEO too much and forget that the text is ultimately read by human beings. They will, for example, advise you to use specific keywords as much as possible in your text, but who wants to read a text which keeps repeating the same word or product name over and over again? The best solution is to compromise: try and use the keywords you are given as much as possible while still keeping the text readable.

Write appealing texts
This is especially important for websites which sell a product or service. You want to advertise this product or service, so make sure your text is appealing and easy to read. You are trying to convince people to buy this product or service, so tell them why they should pull out their wallet, in their language. Just because it is written text, it doesn’t have to read like an academic paper.


The power of simple words by Terin Izil (lesson) and Sunni Brown (animation), TED-Ed Lesson.