Multilingual Sites – the untranslatable

There are several reasons why some contents can not be translated:

specific terms
specific languages (english, russian, latin)
multimedia – pictures, video, audio
you would not understand it anyway: “is your birthday calendar really the high priority content for the intranet-homepage?”
Hierarchical terms that denominate positions that do not exist in other countries, popular terms that are hard to understand for non native speakers and even harder to translate – both are great in creating identity, they are entertaining and they are good means of communication.
But they are also tools to exclude others: That’s our thing, we say that, you don’t have to bother. You can no and should not get rid of this on a local level, but you can not use it if acting internationally; you have to neutralize yourself (one common way: just talk broken english – as I am doing it here – nothing will be perfect;; everybody will understand… )

Sometimes, it’s not the language, but the attitude that can’t be translated.
The further east I go the more I am impressed by how important birthdays and namedays are in many cee-cultures. – That must be highly fertile area for any social media services, but it’s very hard to integrate warmest wishes into business-style intranets as we know them. As prime content on the portal homepage, notabene.

A third quite special case are pictures, video- and audiofiles. Metadata can either be translated or use common language so that it’s easier to argue about, captions and other supporting texts are also easy to translate.
Pictures should be general, but actually they are not. Pictures tell a lot about tradition, power and personal views, and that is closely related to local views and traditions. A western CEO may want to visualize cooperation, openness and friendliness, an eastern CEO may rather want to represent strength, wealth and power. Western users will understand the strength-image as something oldfashioned, maybe even threatening. Eastern users may interpret open friendliness as weakness.
A universal picture language will end up being just boring. So this has to be handled somewhere else, it’s a mainly cultural and political matter where official media can only support.

Videos strongly transport values and identity. Use them only, if your plan is really clear – or if your actors are great. Information-driven videos that contain a lot of explanations can synchronised; vox pops or interviews should never be completely synchronised. That will just destroy their actual value.
To summarize: I feel more and more that multilingual sites are not a matter of translation, workflows, contentmanagement or menus, but they interfere a lot with cultural and political values in the enterprise, they have a high impact on information architecture – and they are one of the big cost drivers for portals.

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