WordPress translation plugins: issues to consider

According to a 2021 study published in Search Engine Journal, WordPress powers almost 40% of all websites. If you count only those websites that use a content management system (CMS), WordPress market share is 64.1%. When clients come to us for website translation, there’s a good chance they are using WordPress. However, WordPress is not, in itself, a multilingual CMS. Instead, users must choose from a variety of free and paid plugins to manage multilingual website content. One of the most popular is WPML (WordPress MultiLingual). Others include TranslatePress, Polylang, and G-translate.

Which WordPress translation plugin you choose depends on your needs. Will you create a relatively static multilingual website or do you foresee frequent changes and updates? Do you publish blog posts frequently, and will these be translated as well? Will the site include an e-commerce store? Do you want to use separate domains or subdomains to store the translated content? Will you need multilingual versions of the CMS itself? Each of these will impact your choice.

Automated translation: pro or con?

A number of WordPress translation plugins can connect via API to an automatic translation engine such as Microsoft Azure, Google Translate, or DeepL. This tactic offers a partial and inexpensive WordPress translation solution. However, the following caveats remain:

  • Automated translation has improved significantly, but it’s still subject to error, especially when translating between two languages with different rules of syntax.
  • Automated translation works best with technical content. Client-facing content is especially ill-suited for automated translation because it needs to be lively and engaging.

To ensure quality content, a linguist would need to review and partially rewrite the translations. For some language pairs, for example English into Japanese or Korean, this can get costly. You may pay as much for review as you would have paid for human translation.

Licensing or “Translation as a Service”?

Some plugins provide bare-bones free version (which may not be SEO compatible) and all come with tiered pricing, depending on the features you need. However, make sure you are clear about how the pricing works. For some (G-Translate for example) you pay to maintain the translated site. If you stop paying, you lose the translations. For others, you purchase a license. With WPML, if you update your site and decide to switch to a different plugin, you can export the translated content you already have. TranslatePress, on the other hand, does not currently offer an export feature, but plans to add one.

Are you serious about international search engine optimization (ISEO)?

If sales rely heavily on organic or paid search tactics to reach a particular region, you need to make sure your site follows good SEO practices for the target languages (International Search Engine Optimization, or ISEO). These include professional-quality writing, proper use of keywords and key phrases (including translation for URLs and meta-content), hreflang tags, and internal linking between posts and between pages. Not all available plugins offer ISEO support. Some only present your translations “on the fly,” via machine translation, meaning your translated content won’t be indexed by search engines at all.

However, SEO may not be an essential element of your marketing strategy. For example, audiences for highly technical B2B products and services may be accustomed to searching in English. Once the site appears, being able to choose an alternate language may increase sales, regardless of SEO. In this case, an “on the fly” plugin may be fine.

How can an LSP help?

Website translation lays the foundation for your overall localization program. For efficient and effective website translation, you cannot rely solely on technology: you need humans in the loop. Unless you already have a localization department within your company, the best way to ensure ongoing quality and consistency is to work with a language services partner (LSP).

An LSP helps maintain consistency and quality

Some translation plugins, for example TranslatePress, advertise the benefits of translating “in context.” This means that translators can type their translations directly into the CMS editor and see how they look on the target page before hitting “publish.” That sounds handy. However, think for a moment about the process of writing English-language website content. Would you have your copywriter type directly into the CMS editor? You probably worked through several drafts before publishing. Marketing content in any language requires more than one pair of eyes. In this case you might need an import/export function so that text can be edited and finalized outside of the CMS.

Importing content, rather than translating in context, provides a second benefit. LSPs strongly recommend that content be translated using computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools.  These tools export the content from the CMS in a compatible format, then load it into the tool for translation and editing. CAT tools resemble technical writing tools, benefiting the client by ensuring consistency and reducing cost and turnaround time. In addition, they use termbases to control use of approved terminology and include built-in spellcheck and automated quality assurance. CAT tools also store matched pairs of source-target text in a translation memory. After an update, the translation team can use the translation memory to isolate the changes and auto-complete unchanged content.

If you have a small site without a lot of technical complexity, using TranslatePress or WPML and entering translations directly into the CMS will be fine. But with more complex and / or technical content, you need the option of exporting CAT-compatible files. This becomes especially important for health and life sciences where regulations require uniformity across all public-facing content. TranslatePress does not offer compatibility with external CAT tools. For these commercial sites, WPML is clearly the better choice.

An LSP provides language support for all content as your global business grows

Translating your website expands the market for your goods and services. This will likely grow your need for multilingual content: product descriptions, packaging, user manuals, terms of service, contracts, employee communication, training, RFPs, and more.  By using the same termbase and translation memory for all your content, the translation team ensures consistency across all media platforms.

Ask your LSP to recommend a WordPress translation plugin

These are only a few of the issues that will impact the choice of a WordPress translation plugin. Even after choosing a plugin, some level of localization engineering may be required to build a professional, effective multilingual site. Remember, plugins are necessary but not sufficient building blocks for multilingual websites. To create compelling multilingual web content that connects, talk to an ISO 17100-certified professional language services partner. Your language partner can help you choose the solution that fits your budget as well as your needs.