The 3 Top Ways to Translate a Website (+ Pros and Cons)

Ready to translate your website into multiple languages? You can choose from three types of translation: Machine translation, professional translators, or localization software. We’ll walk through the pros and cons of each.


What does your digital storefront look like to someone who doesn’t speak your language?

When choosing between similar products, 75% of the population will select whichever one provides them with information in their native language.

But only 40% of companies translate their website into multiple languages. For eCommerce businesses and beyond, that’s a huge missed opportunity.

It can be daunting to look at hundreds of web pages, blog posts, or FAQs on your website and know you need to translate them all. Add that to the fact that it takes almost 52 different languages to reach most of the global audience, and that’s a lot of translated content.

Your target audience may already be using built-in web browser plugins in Google Chrome or Safari, but that’s not a user experience you can control. You also can’t rely on your multilingual employees to “check something over” if you have a few hundred pages, to say nothing of the various dialects and market-specific nuances that you’ll miss.

The good news? You have options when it comes to website translation.

At Smartling, we hear this question all the time…

What’s the best way to translate a website?

There’s no one way to translate your website effectively — most companies use a combination of three different methods based on their localization strategy and the business goals of the web pages in question:

  1. Machine translation uses software like Google Translate to automatically translate content from the source language to the target language.
  2. Professional translators study for years to perfect fluency in multiple languages and manually translate one language to another.
  3. When you blend machine and human translation, you get the best of the both worlds. Localization software like Smartling uses online tools and automation to go one step beyond translation — making your content feel like it was created in your target market and allowing you to achieve both cost efficienty and the same level of translation quality.

Once you’ve prepared your website for translation, you can choose which method works best for you. We’ll unpack into each one.

Machine translation gives you fast, simple translations

Machine translation (MT) is a great first step for companies just beginning their localization efforts. Working with machine translation can accelerate your international expansion, especially if you focus on one or two markets with relatively straightforward translation needs.

Machine translation offers several advantages:

  • Speed: Most machine translation tools deliver results in minutes or seconds — much faster than a professional translator ever could. If you’re looking to ship something quickly, the automatic translation that software offers gives you real-time results.
  • Cost: Compared to using professional translation, MT often costs much less.
  • Consistency: Machine translation delivers the same result every time. This works great for phrases you use throughout your website, like navigation, slogans, or CTAs.

While software like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, machine translation still can’t pick up on localized nuances, use slang, or provide the sense of voice and personality you may be looking for.

When it comes to accuracy, MT is not perfect just yet — so it’s important to think of machine translation as a starting point.

Use machine translation for:

  • Simple, fast translations: Just make sure you have a human QA before you ship.
  • Retranslation: If you’re swapping out one or two words that don’t change the fundamental meaning of the sentence, machine translation can be a cheaper option than re-submitting the entire string.
  • Temporary or pre-translation: Translating into other languages from English often impacts text length, making it challenging for mobile optimization and layout. Machine translation can give you a sense of what the text will look like in a more complicated language (we’re looking at you, German).

Machine translation is only the beginning of translating your website effectively. To have your products and services resonate in foreign markets, you need to add another layer of localization — one that’s done best with human translation.

Professional translators offer detailed, thorough translations

If you want high-quality translations, professional translators will deliver. As native or fluent speakers, linguists offer a specialized experience for one or two of your target languages. Build a network of professional translators based on your target languages.

Professional translators offer several advantages:

  • Quality: There’s no substitute for human translation. Professional translators are your best bet for high-quality website translation that feels true to your brand and resonates with your audience.
  • Workflow: You can work with freelance translators or hire them through an agency. Either way, the more you work with a given translator, the better they understand your business and your audience, and the easier it will be to slot them into your localization workflow. Done right, they can become an effective extension of your team.
  • Specialization: Translators often specialize in a given market, region, or dialect. If you have a niche audience or want to drill down on a specific market, hire a professional. Translators may also specialize in a given type of content for add-on services. So if you’re looking at transcription and subtitling, voiceover, or international SEO, human translation is the way to go.

The biggest drawback to professional translators? Cost and scale. According to the American Translator’s Association, the minimum rate for translation should be 12 cents a word. But pricing depends on experience level, services offered, and project scope — the more complex or high quality you want your translations to be, the more they will cost. Nevertheless, professional translators represent an investment into the future of your website performance, and hiring the best translators will be worthwhile as you expand into new markets.

Use professional translators for:

  • Complex or detailed translation for website content: If you want to make an argument effectively, persuade someone to buy your product, translate a blog or other long-form content, or otherwise write at a complex level in other languages, use human translators.
  • Transcreation: Many professional translators go beyond word-for-word swaps. Transcreation is the process of translating the meaning, style, and tone of your content (such as sarcasm or humor, which can often get lost in translation — literally). The final product is effectively written in the desired language with the source language as a guide.
  • Post-editing: If you’re using AI-based machine translation throughout your website, check it over with a linguist, especially for important pages. Post-editing gives you the ability to create high-quality translations quickly at a lower cost.

A professional translator is the best of the best for website translation, but they’re only one person. That’s why Smartling works with a network of translators worldwide who specialize in making sure your translations are accurate and aligning your messaging to sound like it was written in each original language.

Localization software gives you the best of human and machine translation

Localization takes translation one step further, adapting your website entirely for a new region, so your website feels familiar to your audience, even in a new language. Localization represents the entire user experience for someone reading your website in a foreign language. This includes everything from content layout (including right-to-left for languages like Hebrew or Arabic) to color choices (red represents good luck in China but mourning in South Africa).

Localization software offers several advantages:

  1. Scalability: If you need to translate hundreds of entire web pages at a time, engaging with localization software and services like Smartling gives you the opportunity.
  2. Productivity: Smartling automatically integrates with your content management system (like WordPress), so anytime there are updates or new content, it’s automatically parsed into strings and sent to a translator. Your assigned translators complete the work, tracking their progress and communicating directly with you throughout in case there are any questions.
  3. Quality Management: With localization services, you also get an automated level of quality assurance. Robust translation memory, glossaries and style guides, and visual context give translators more information so they can deliver high-quality translations the first time.

With localization software, you get the best of machine translation and professional translators. Smartling’s suite of translation management technology, API and integrations, CAT tool features, and language services eliminate manual translation efforts, provide black-box project management, and increase translation quality while lowering your costs. Learn more about Smartling’s translation services here.

Which website translation method should you choose?

With Smartling, you don’t have to. All-in-one localization services like Smartling give you one comprehensive solution for all of your translation needs with the flexibility to include human translation, machine translation, or both. Our white-glove project management and automation make localization easy.

Try Smartling today.