Translating Websites: A Quick Primer

  • Time to read: 5 min.

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Translating websites is both similar to and different from traditional document translation.

If you’ve never translated a website, or you’re relatively new to translating HTML documents, the differences can cause a few headaches, especially if you’re not too sure of what to expect to begin with.

Those headaches are OK, though, because translating websites can be an important stream of income for any translator.

Here’s why.

When translating websites, you’re not only translating some company’s website and that’s it, you’re done, and time to find another client.

Sure, sometimes that could be the case but more often than not, a company’s website is constantly being changed and updated.

If your client (the company) wants their content to have an international reach, you’ll be much more likely to make that client a long-term customer, especially because that client will want his updated content (think blog posts, videos, press releases) to be translated as well.

And traditional websites aren’t the only HTML files that need to be translated. Online newsletters, emails, and sales information also needs the skills of a qualified translator, which is where you come in.

So when I talk about website translation, I’m really talking about all these things mentioned above. Be sure and keep that in mind.

Website Translation
Traditional Translation

First of all, the similarities. Translating websites is first and foremost translation in the most traditional sense of the word (like translating books).

Usually a webpage contains a block or two of words, and it is the translator’s job to get the meaning across in whatever language the client requests. It doesn’t matter what kind of medium you are translating, the content is the most important, and content is content is content, whether it’s on a website, in a print journal, or in an email.

Now, what about the differences?

File Format

The first major difference between regular document translation and translating websites is that webpages are usually HTML files.

If a client gives you a bunch of HTML files and asks you to translate them, it is up to you to figure out what part of the file is the HTML and what part is the actual text to be translated.

If you’ve never looked at an HTML file before in your life, it can be daunting trying to figure out which information you’re supposed to be translating. It’s not impossible but it can be difficult.

The good thing is, though, that once you figure it out, you’ll be able to find the content in practically any HTML file.

Layout: Design

Another thing that can make life difficult for you as a website translator is layout.

Websites are about content, for sure, but a lot of time the presentation of that content is extremely important as well.

This can lead to you having to come up with some creative solutions in your finished translation document.

For example, we all know that a block of text in one language will not be the same size physically as that of its corresponding translation. If you don’t take that into consideration when working on the layout, the client won’t be happy with your work.

In my experience, the client usually fixes the layout on his or her end; however, there are times when the client might want you to take care of that as a translator. Of course, you should charge an additional fee for this service, since it’s not actually part of the work of translating websites.

Layout: Linking

If you are going to be doing the layout, though, you’ll need to understand how linking works in HTML. Again, it’s not complicated, but it is important to get it right in the translation.

For example, do you know the difference between absolute and relative links? If not, you should probably learn it really soon if you’re going to be translating HTML documents or webfiles.

Layout: Images

Another important thing to keep in mind when translating a webpage is how to best deal with images that contain embedded text.

The client might want to have the text in the images translated and you’ll have to deal with those separately.

Sometimes there may not be very many images and the client won’t want them translated.

If the client does want you to translate them, however, you’ll have to find someone with a photo program like Photoshop so that the pictures can be manipulated the right way. Using a built-in paint-style program isn’t going to cut it.


Finally, with website translations, it’s likely that you’ll be dealing with additional people that have a stake in the finished product.

Not only will you need to worry about the owner of the content, but you’ll also have to interface directly with the website designer/manager.

This could lead to frustration on your end (and theirs) as you try to deal with inevitable issues that arise, and knowing who it is that you need to talk to about different pain points that you come across.

One of the things to help mitigate this is to save all your questions and ask them at once. This saves the constant back-and-forth that can happen and slow down the actual translation work.

Like any translation, though, the main thing to remember with website translation is that good communication with the client can definitely lead to a good experience for both you and the client.

Don’t be afraid bring up any issues that can lead to a better end product. Your reputation as a translation is at stake and nothing can ruin that faster than a bad experience with a client.

FAQ – Translating Websites: A Primer

Can any translator do website translation?

No, not every translator is cut out for the task. It definitely helps to have some technical knowledge and be comfortable working with HTML documents and webfiles. In addition, a certain level of creativity is often required in order to best deal with the layout issues that can arise.

Do I need to know how to code in order to translate websites?

No, you don’t need to know how to code in order to translate websites. However, it can be helpful to have at least a basic understanding of HTML in order to best deal with the layout issues that can come up.

What are some of the challenges that I might face when translating websites?

Some of the challenges that you might face when translating websites include dealing with layout issues, linked content, and images. It’s also likely that you’ll be working with additional people involved in the project, which can lead to frustration if there are communication issues. Also, languages like Chinese can be a challenge in translating websites.

How do I make sure that the client is happy with the final product?

The best way to make sure that the client is happy with the final product is to have good communication throughout the project. This includes asking questions when you’re unsure about something and keeping the client updated on your progress. Saving all your questions for the end is not likely to lead to a good experience for either you or the client.