Best Practices for a Multilingual Website/Database

By Urmi Parekh (MA student in English at Northeastern University).

In Spring 2022, I undertook an environmental scan on preferred practices for multilingual interfaces, in order to gain some insight for creating a multilingual/translingual database for Boston’s Chinatown via the BRC’s Chinatown Collections project.

The important starting points were to learn more about the community’s history and the development of Chinatown. I read about Chinatown’s history using the sources below — while not all of the links focus on the history of Chinatown, they helped in giving a broader understanding about the community in current times.

Learning more about the community helped recognize what seem to be their preferred languages: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and English. I also looked at websites that cater to a multilingual audience – these included official Chinese government websites like the Embassy of People’s Republic of China in the USA as well as Chinese community websites in the USA. Understanding the design of these websites helped identify various approaches to the digital needs of the community, which we will use as a starting point for focus groups happening with the residents of Boston’s Chinatown.

Synthesis of Best Practices

The next step was to figure out the existing best practices for a translingual website. Some general best practices are:

  • Implement Multilingual Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to Rank Your Site in Different Languages.
    • Comprehensive translations – this includes not just your text, but also URL slugs and SEO metadata.
    • Multilingual XML sitemap – this helps Google find all of your content in each language.
    • hreflang attribute– this helps Google understand which version of your website to deliver in different languages.
  • Use an Optimized Multilingual URL Structure. 3 main strategies:
    • Subfolders – for example, for your main language and for your Spanish translations.
    • Subdomains – for example, for your main language and for your Spanish translations.
    • Separate domains – for example, for your main language and for your Spanish translations.
  • Pay Attention to Page Load Times – this is especially important for multilingual sites because some multilingual solutions can slow down your site by adding extra file size and unnecessary database queries.
  • Add a User-Friendly Language Switcher
    • One way to make your language switcher accessible is to use a floating language switcher that’s always present in the bottom corner of your site. Or, you can also add your language switcher to your navigation menu or sidebar.
    • Display the language in its local format
    • Don’t rely on language flags alone
  • Automatically Detect Visitors’ Languages. 2 ways to do this:
    • Their browser language, which is the preferred language a visitor has chosen. (preferred over the other- because the location does not necessarily define the language one may speak).
    • Their IP address, which is their geographic location.
  • Pay Attention to Design and Layout in Different Languages. Different languages take up different amounts of space. So, it is important to be mindful about the layout’s consistency in different languages.
  • For audio or video content, it is important to have audio translations or subtitles in relevant languages, if not both.
  • Date formats, captchas in relevant language, relevant currencies are a few other things to be mindful about.

Translation Layout

Some translation designs I found during my research were:

  • Side-by-side translation, where the page is divided into two, one part for each language displayed in side-by-side columns



    简体中文 (using Google translate)

  • Translation within the paragraph, with sentences following each other directly


    简体中文 (using Google translate), English

  • Translation of the whole page, with the option to select the preferred language

On an instinctive level, some advantages of the above designs are:

  • Side by side translation and translation within the paragraph helps pinpoint the translation of specific words.
  • Translating the whole page helps have a language indicator (making it more accessible for screen readers) and keep a consistent flow of information.

Out of a sample of 13 websites – encompassing one large government entity and other big and small scale community organizations – 10 showed the title in Chinese as well as English. (All the Chinese Embassy websites that I looked at – within and outside the US – used both the languages in their title). 3 of them used a bilingual format for the important headings and content of the website, with translation either within the paragraph or side by side. 4 used a monolingual format with the option to translate the whole page into Simplified Chinese or English. The remaining had a monolingual format with no translation available. I was unsure whether these websites were in English because they were made that way, or was it because my laptop’s default language is English. In a non-English default language, would the website still appear in English? One of them was only in Chinese, with a few posts in English.

As someone who does not speak Chinese, I could recognize the accessibility issues I faced when looking at websites that did not have translations available. This only amplified the importance of this research, because it will help us create a more accessible and easily navigable website.


Chinatown/Boston History

  • Lee, Tunney (Project Director); Chang, David; Imai, Randall; Wyss, Jonathan; Sandefer, Kelly; Chinese Historical Society of New England; Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center; UMass Boston Institute for Asian American Studies. 2012 — Chinatown Atlas. Formerly at MIT, now hosted at the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE).
  • Liu, Michael. 2020. Forever Struggle: Activism, Identity, and Survival in Boston’s Chinatown, 1880–2018. University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Xie, Lily; Bi, Crystal; Asian Community Development Center. 2019 — Chinatown Story Cart.
  • Yee, Cynthia. 2018 — Hudson Street Chronicles.
  • Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections. 2018 — Boston’s Asian American Community History. Northeastern University Library.
  • Johnson, Marilynn S. (Project Director); Levenson, Deborah T. (Project Historian & Writer); Graver, Elizabeth (Editorial Contributor); Rheem, Sol (K-12 Curriculum Developer); Lyons, Kelly (Graduate Researcher); Davis, Samuel (Graduate Researcher); Webster, Madeline (Graduate Researcher); Judah, Amanda (Undergraduate Researcher.) 2016 — Global Boston, Immigrant Places. Boston College.
  • Nevins, Joseph; Moodliar, Suren; Macrakis, Eleni. 2020. A People’s Guide to Greater Boston. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Developing Multilingual Websites: Plugin Backgrounders

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