The design and build of the Go Tambopata website is finished! You can read a little bit more about it on the Go Tambopata project page. It’s a pretty big site, with a lot of content – in both English and Spanish, which means it won’t be launched until the summer. Even then, that will only be the first stage, with more content to come. I think it’s going to be a useful resource for people looking for travel information and tips on visiting the area.

While awaiting news of the launch date, I thought it might be fun to share a couple of the challenges, discussions and outcomes related to the fact Go Tambopata is written in two different languages.

English and Spanish, Inglés y Español

Quite often, when you encounter a multi-lingual website, you’re able to change the language of the content, but the headings, menus and other options remain in the default language, which can make it difficult to find what you’re looking for. Another common problem is that you might find what you’re looking for in the default language of the website, but when you opt to change languages, you get sent to the homepage (even if that’s not how you entered the site in the first place) and then you have to find the correct page all over again.

Obviously, the client and I were keen to avoid creating such problems for people visiting the site. To allow it to function completely in both English and Spanish, the pages are created in both languages and these are linked together in the content management system (CMS). There are two sets of page templates, one for each language, which means when you select the Spanish option, the menus and labels will also switch to Spanish, as well as the URLs – not just the content in the body of the page. The templates also allow other elements of the site to be correctly translated and localised – everything from Twitter and Facebook plugins, Google Maps, the advertising, localised versions of outbound links, and alt text for screen readers can be presented in the selected language.

There are three places where Go Tambopata defaults to English:

  • The homepage at .com is in English, and the Spanish version is at .com/es/. As it’s a website for tourist information, trying to detect a language is not necessarily a useful feature. It’s possible somebody accessing the site in South America on a Spanish-language computer is an English-speaking traveller in an internet cafe. The site assumes English, and provides an easy obvious way to swap to Spanish.
  • The header and footer on the search results page is in English, but the results are in both languages. This is because it’s not always possible to work out whether somebody searching for the name of a hostel, which happens to be in Spanish, would like the results displayed in English, for example. It’s possible to switch to have the header and footer displayed in Spanish on the search results page, but the results will always be in both languages.
  • Similarly, if somebody types in an incorrect URL, you can only guess which language their misspelling occurred in! The 404 error page also defaults to an English header and footer, but the apology and instructions for locating the correct page are displayed in English and Spanish simultaneously.

Little things to look out for when designing and building a bilingual site:

Article–noun agreement:
The Spanish language likes to assign a gender to its nouns in a curious way. English does not. Working with two languages made me appreciate just how lazy (meaning efficient!) it’s possible to be when creating page templates in English. When your template needs to dynamically display text from elsewhere, you can just write The [Dynamic Word/s] and happily move on. Spanish page templates are a bit tricksier because depending whether Dynamic Word/s is/are masculine or feminine, singular or plural, The has a number of choices: el/la/los/las.

Only a couple of things ended up being translated in a slightly different way, so that the article (The) and the noun (Dynamic Word) would agree – these things were typically mid-sentence.

Though Spanish doesn’t have the reputation German does for having typically longer words than English, I had to make sure the page templates would cater for both languages regardless of the length of text content. While Where to Sleep and Dónde Dormir are a pretty similar length, page titles such as Jungle Nightwalks and Caminatas Nocturnas por la Selva show just how varied the text length can be.

Britain vs America

Amusingly, this was the subject of most discussion! The owner of the Go Tambopata website speaks (and therefore writes) British English and European Spanish. Due to the location of the Tambopata Reserve, it should come as no surprise that a large percentage of the tourists are either from North or South America.

We discussed at some length whether the site should be written in American English instead of British English, and whether that had implications for an expectation of South American Spanish, rather than the Spanish as spoken in Spain.

Who cares?! Here are some thoughts on why it’s important:

  • Would the site miss out on search traffic for any regional spellings of important keywords?
  • How are the British/American differences in spelling and semantics perceived – does it look like an error and affect the credibility of the site?
  • Does it appear insincere if you try and write for an American user but don’t quite catch all the British tell-signs (for example, colour/color or ºC/ºF)?
  • What’s the expectation of the audience? If you could tell it was written by a European would you consider the content might not be relevant to you as an American?
  • Given the ubiquity of American English on the internet is there a place for British English on a site which isn’t specifically targeted at British people?

In the end, partly because the Olympics was on at the time, patriotism and nationalistic pride got the better of us and the site is written in British English. American English was up for discussion right up until I unleashed a tiny Union Flag icon, which denotes which language can be selected – it seems just a text label would have been fine, but the idea of looking at the Stars and Stripes was a step too far – images are an evocative thing!

The language choice will be under review and up for discussion once again when the site is live though… and I’ll post an update as soon as it is.