In this guide, I’ll walk you through the process of making your WordPress sites multilingual. You will learn which plugins to install, how to configure them and how the content of your website is translated. This article was created in cooperation with WPML, currently the best known and in my opinion the best plugin for creating multilingual WP websites.
Before we start, let’s clear some doubts:
- Yes, you can easily have multiple languages on one WordPress site
- Yes, you can translate everything yourself and you can use automatic translation
- No, you don’t need to create multiple websites – one for each language is fine
1. Plugins to install for multilingual WordPress sites
For example, to be able to translate every part of your website, you need to license and install WPML. WPML is a modular plugin that allows you to install exactly the components you need to add multilingualism to WordPress sites. WordPress itself does not offer this feature.
Begin by installing the core WPML plugin. Most websites should also have WPML string translation and WPML translation management installed. You will receive all these plugins if you have booked the package with WPML. Depending on which theme and which plugins you use, you then have to install different WPML components (for shops, e.g. the WPML WooCommerce plugin or the extension for ACF).
WPML includes an automatic installation and update mechanism. All you have to do is install and register the core plugin. Then (in the WordPress admin) navigate to Plugins > Add > Commercial. Add new plugins there, depending on what you need exactly. There you will see the entire list of WPML components and you can select the ones your site needs. If you ever have questions about which plugins are necessary for your site, feel free to contact me.
2. Adding languages to WordPress
Without a “multilingual” plugin, WordPress only allows you to choose the main language of the website. With WPML you can add as many languages as you need to the same website.
Immediately after installing WPML, go to the WPML > Languages menu. First you choose the current language of the site.
Then you can use WPML’s setup wizard to choose the other languages you want the site to have. Choose as many as you like.
3. Choose how languages appear in the URLs
WPML adds language information to all URLs on your site. This allows translations to appear in unique URLs. For example, you have a URL for the German page and then the English URL for the translation into English.
For friendly URLs and good SEO I recommend you to use “languages in directories” or “languages in domains”. See the Language URL Options Guide for details.
4. Adding language switchers to your website
Language switches allow visitors to choose which language they want to read your website in. WPML allows you to add different types of language switchers to fit the design of any WordPress site. You can also determine the position and whether a dropdown, flags or just the names should be shown.
You can add language switchers to menus, as widgets, to pages and posts, and to the site footer. You can also create your own custom language switcher and add it to any PHP template.
5. Translate the content of the website
Now that your website has multiple languages and a nice language switcher, it’s time to start the real work. It’s time to translate the content.
WPML makes it easy to translate your website’s content. You can translate it yourself, use one of the many excellent translation services built into WPML, or use automatic translation.
If you translate yourself, I recommend using WPML’s Advanced Translation Editor. Here you can find a video with the description. Sometimes moving images are better than many words.
WPML’s Advanced Translation Editor includes everything you need for fast and accurate translation. You see the source text and the translation side by side. When you translate a sentence, you only see the text without the HTML code. This makes the translation easier. To apply HTML styling, use safe markers. That way, your translation can never destroy the site’s markup.
Translation services offer the highest quality with human translation and text checking. If you run a business website and want to present the most professional image possible, you should consider paying for a high-quality professional translation.
Automatic translation has made tremendous strides in recent years. Today automatic translation gives good results between many language pairs. Please remember that it is still automatic and needs to be checked. I recommend that you manually check everything that comes back from the automatic translation. If necessary, you can edit and improve the translation at any time.
With version 4.5 the Translate Everything workflow has arrived in WPML. It can be specified in advance whether new content should be translated automatically in the background and with which translation engine (e.g. DeepL or Google Translate or Azure). Billing is based on credits, which are already included in large numbers in the CMS and Agency plans. Alternatively, it can also be specified that only parts of the new content are to be translated. This in turn saves credits.
6. Translate taxonomies
WordPress uses taxonomies to organize content (e.g. posts and pages). WPML facilitates the translation of the taxonomies.
If you use WPML’s translation management, you don’t need to worry about translating the taxonomies. WPML attaches the terms of the taxonomy to the articles to be translated.
If you want, you can translate the taxonomy separately using WPML’s taxonomy translator. This image gives you a global picture of your site’s taxonomy and terms. You can translate any term into any language from one place. This is handy for making sure different terms are always translated in a consistent way.
7. Translate menus
WPML has a special tool that you can use to translate your website’s menus.
You can easily translate menus manually and sync menus automatically. This means that whenever you edit the menu in the site’s default language, WPML can immediately update the menus in all other languages.
8. Translate strings
Your WordPress site contains text that is not part of a post, page, or taxonomy. These texts can come from plugins, themes, and even WordPress itself (like the site slogan). With WPML’s string translation, you can find and translate all these texts.
When translating strings, WPML offers some handy tools that can help you:
- You can see where the strings come from and understand what they mean
- WPML can automatically register strings for translation
- You can export and import string translations as .po files
- You can even translate strings stored in the “Options”.
Although WPML’s string translation is a powerful plugin, it doesn’t add any load to your site. WPML stores all its translations in .mo files and does not access the database to load translations.
9. SEO for your multilingual content
A multilingual website is great, but it’s even better when that website delivers traffic. Luckily, WPML takes care of all the technical aspects, so your SEO work can focus mostly on strategy and content creation. All necessary language and content markups in the source code are taken over by WPML.
Read the full guide to multilingual SEO here to learn how it works and what to look out for.
10. The performance of a WPML website
If you want to know how to make your website fit for the Google Core Web Vitals, i.e. how to create a really fast multilingual WordPress website with WPML, then take a look at the 15-minute WPML tutorial. Here you will learn how to create lightning fast WPML websites with caching, themes, CDNs and a good host. WPML is not slow per se, but every plugin is an extra burden for WordPress websites, so is WPML. Therefore, it makes sense to take care of website speed.
With these instructions, you should be able to create your website multilingual with WPML. There are not many steps necessary to start the first translations. There are of course other translation plugins for WordPress. I made a comparison here. You can also find more information and options for automatic translations on my blog.
Appendix – What’s new in 2020?
A lot has changed in WordPress, Google and the translation industry. Now it’s even easier than it used to be to build and run multilingual WordPress sites. It’s also more important to get it right. The better you translate your site, the more chance you have of being successful.
WordPress in 2020 – the Gutenberg editor will become the standard
In early 2019, WordPress got a new editor called Gutenberg. After a rocky start, Gutenberg is now the de facto standard for new WordPress sites. According to Gutenstats, the Gutenberg editor is now responsible for more than 30 million websites (though of course this also has to do with the fact that Gutenberg is enabled by default).
The next step for the Gutenberg project is to support the entire site and not just the “content” area. So if you are building a multilingual WordPress site, Gutenberg compatibility should be at the top of the list to check. Unless you use other plugins for content creation. Like page builder. You can find an overview here.
Google in 2020 – Accurate and native translation becomes crucial for SEO
According to numerous studies (e.g. in searchenginejournal.com), Google now understands the content of your website more than ever. Google expects your content to be clear, accurate, and readable. For multilingual websites, this means an accurate and native language translation.
If you’ve gotten away with poorly translated content so far, it won’t work in the future.
Your translations have to be clear to people first. That means:
- Not just translation – but localization. You should translate the texts and adapt numbers, dates and even prices to the local language
- Accurate translation should have priority
- Clear language information on the page and in the URL, the reader should know what language they are in
Last version from January 7, 2022 by network user René Dasbeck