Translating WordPress, and why it matters

Today, I spoke at CMS Africa in Kigali, Rwanda. This was my fourth consecutive attendance. CMS Africa is my favourite conference each year because it brings together a lot of things I like and love; it’s in Africa, it focuses on open source, and it transcends the boundaries of individual CMSs.

This year, I chose to encourage the attendees to get involved with translating WordPress into African languages. Swahili currently stands at 68% translated and in doing so is the most completely translated Bantu language. I think that this should change and I hope it will. I’d love to see a few African languages at 100% at the next CMS Africa.

Why do translations matter?

Because languages do. There are few things as comfortable as the safety of your own native language. Having lived in South Africa for almost five years now and being married to a native English speaker, I still enjoy the comfort of reading news and sports in Dutch.

In the talk, I connected languages to understanding memes. The recent South African meme with Maimane being jealous of a white man looking lovingly at Ramaphosa is difficult to understand for anyone who doesn’t understand South African politics.

It’s similar for languages; in order to become fluent in a language, you don’t just need an extensive vocabulary; you also a shared understanding of the intricacies of that language.

For example, the West-Flemish “kjir ne ki were” simply means “go back.” But if you say that to pretty much any West-Flemish person it’ll put a smile on their face. That’s because we often say it in a joking way. You will not get this if you haven’t been born as a West-Flemish person or you’ve lived there for a long time.

Similarly, I loved attending Black Panther premiere in South Africa, because the language of Wakanda is based on isiXhosa. The cheering and joy when T’Challa spoke Xhosa was enticing and I felt privileged to watch the movie with a majority Xhosa audience. Anyone part of a smaller language group will be able to relate to the joy of mainstream movies using your native tongue in a positive way.

Languages for the web (and its development)

When people are visiting your site, it is nice to (re)create that sense of familiarity for them; it’ll make that they feel at home on your homepage – pun intended. Localisation is also great for conversion; generic sites that try to target the whole world in one go generally aren’t as successful as those that target a specific audience. For example, when we translated a Japanese WooCommerce marketing email that was sent to people based in Japan, our conversion rates were extremely high.

In the same vein, being able to learn a content management system – like WordPress – in your native tongue takes away an unnecessary challenge. Learning something new in a language that you do not master, is a lot more difficult than being able to focus on the content of the course. For example, even though my French is quite fluent, it would be very challenging for me to learn JavaScript in French; it would make it way more difficult than necessary. Learning it in Dutch or English, both languages that I’ve very comfortable with, makes the learning process a lot easier.

Translating WordPress

WordPress core

As I indicated above, no Bantu languages have a full translation of WordPress core available and I truly hope this will change for the above-mentioned reasons. We cannot rely on Google Translate – how helpful it may be sometimes for translating languages. For example, when I looked what the meaning of my Nigerian colleague’s name was, Google translate returned “olumide oluseyi alabi” as “helicopter olives” rather than as “the Lord has done it.”

My colleagues name Olumide Oluseyi Alabi was translated to "Helicopter Olives" rather than "the Lord has done it"

For Kinyarwanda, Google Translate isn’t even available. Getting involved with translating core, plugins and themes, is done through the polyglots site of WordPress.

First, a locale needs to be created if it doesn’t exist yet. Next, read the translator handbook. Then, if they aren’t available, find a general translation editor who can overview the translation project, and then start translating. There are around 6,000 strings (units of text) to translate WordPress core, so it’s not a small endeavour to translate WordPress. However, it’s definitely worth it.

Some relevant links:

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DIY translations

If all of the above is too daunting, or you want a more specific translation, you can always go for more custom approaches.

For example, to translate a small string of text in WordPress, you could use the free Say What? plugin. It could be used to translate the “add to cart” button text in WooCommerce to something customers are more familiar with so they are even more inclined to make a purchase.

Translating "add to cart" to the isiXhosa "Thenga ngoku!" (or: "Buy now!") could maybe convince your Xhosa visitors to purchase that product.
Translating “add to cart” to the isiXhosa “Thenga ngoku!” (or: “Buy now!”) could maybe convince your Xhosa visitors to purchase that product.

Alternatively, and a bit more technical, you can use the Poedit app to translate the .pot files that holds translations. My colleague Nicola wrote a good intro to using Poedit.

Finally, if you’re looking to set up different languages on your site, I’d highly recommend using MultilingualPress, a free plugin that converts your WordPress network installation into a closely knit web of the same site in different languages.

My slides

Yes, I used the example of the meme to goof around a bit about the other CMSs represented like Joomla, Drupal, TYPO3 and Magento. Representatives of those CMSs were great sports about it.