Lost in Translation: What I learned by Contributing to the Polyglots Team

I’m going to tell you why you should care about WordPress Translations, even if you don’t speak any other languages besides English.

Today WordPress powers 26% of the Internet. It is now a teenager and has been growing constantly over the past 13 years. It was created here in the U.S., so it’s “native” language is English. But for a CMS to grow globally, English is not enough.

So how many languages does WordPress speak?

WordPress speaks more than 100 languages and is learning new languages every day by it’s amazing community, the Polyglots. It has 162 locales, and 56 locales are translated at 100%. That means that every string in WordPress, the dashboard and default themes are fully translated.

What is a locale?

From a geographical perspective, a locale is a place. But from a software perspective it is an ID, that is used to define a language and the place that language is spoken at. It also specifies other things, like the text direction, dates and numbers, the currency, and much more. All those things are different for different languages and different places.

Just imagine you’re traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language. Not even a hello or thank you. I travel a lot, so I like to always have at least a few phrases on hand in the local language. But those phrases only get you so far until you feel like you’re lost in translation.

On feeling lost in translation

Last year I spent a month in Portugal, exploring Lisbon and making new friends in the local WordPress community. Lisbon is a colorful and vibrant city, laced with tiny streets and hills. One day my phone got stolen, right in front of me. I was super upset, because I lost all the photos I’ve taken that day. But I don’t usually dwell on things I lose for very long. I mean, it’s just a phone, right? Not really. I realized that, after I got lost that day on my way home.

To me, my phone is the most essential tool while traveling. It’s not JUST a phone. I use the maps app constantly to navigate through foreign streets. I use Google Translate every day, when I don’t understand a menu at a restaurant or to translate any other important information I come across. I don’t speak any Portuguese. I do speak some Spanish, but the two languages are so different, it didn’t help me. And of course, my phone keeps me connected to the people I love. But without it, I felt completely lost. I literally got lost in the tiny streets of Lisbon all the time. I had to rely on the kindness of strangers, who often didn’t speak any English. It was a daily struggle to navigate the city without my phone.

Now imagine a scenario online. You’re a web designer and you just landed this amazing gig with a well-known company based in Brazil. It’s your biggest project of the year. A membership site with an e-commerce component, and it’s fun too. This will look great on your portfolio and you make good money. Of course they want the website to be in Portuguese. So you start building it. You use plugins to add a lot of the functionality, until you realize that your top 3 most essential plugins are not fully translated into Portuguese. Text that the plugins output on the back- and front-end of the site are still partially English. The client is not happy, he expects the site to be fully translated as promised. Now you have a big problem! You have no choice but to hire a translator to translate the missing strings, and you end up losing money on the project.

So what can we do? We need to translate all the things to make the internet accessible for everyone all over the world!

translate WordPress

Let’s look at three ways you can help translate WordPress and grow your themes and plugins globally.

Help translate WordPress

As I mentioned earlier, WordPress speaks over 100 languages. The top languages in WordPress are English, Japanese, German, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese. This list is based on downloads and how many people use these language packs in their active installs. All these languages are supported by the Polyglots team–the community team that translates WordPress.

WordPress top languages

In 2014 international downloads surpassed English downloads for the first time. That means more people downloaded WordPress in other languages than they did in English. Since WordPress 4.0 it is now easier than ever to install WordPress in any language. You can now simply select the language for your website during the installation of WordPress.

How great is that! Because now people all over the world can use WordPress in their native language with one click! Great! Our work is done! Right?! Well, hold on. First of all, not all locales are fully translated. And it’s not just WordPress that needs to speak the language you chose for your site, but also all the plugins and themes that you want to use.

If you speak any other language besides English, you can help translate WordPress too! Here is how:

Login to your WordPress.org account–if you don’t have one, create an account. Go to translate.wordpress.org, which runs on GlotPress, the Translation Manager for WordPress. There you can find a list of all active locales. Search for and pick the language you speak.

There are several languages that have multiple variants based on location, with a locale dedicated to each of them. English for example has 5 locales, American English is the default language (Howdy!), but there are also adapted versions of the original for Canadia, the UK,, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. These versions have different spellings, currency, etc, and they too need help from the Polyglots community. Spanish has 8 locales, amongst them adapted versions for Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, and Colombia.

English locales in WordPress

Once you’ve selected your language, you can then select which project you’d like to translate. If your locale still needs help completing translation for WordPress Core, you should work on that first. You can also help translate the themes and plugins you love and use every day. Once you’ve decided on a project, click “Translate Project”. Each project has sub-projects, select the one that has untranslated strings and start translating those strings. Then just submit the translation for each string. Done! You’ve now contributed to WordPress!

The goal of the Polyglots team is it to release quality and consistent translations. There is nothing worse than a translations that make no sense. To ensure good quality we have GTEs and PTEs that will validate and approve your translations. GTEs are Global Translation Editors, the people who are responsible for the overall quality of a specific locale. PTEs are Project Translation Editors, the people who are responsible for a specific project like a plugin or theme.

Once the strings you have translated are approved, they will be available to everyone using that locale!

All locales have a local version of WordPress.org in that language. There you can learn more about the local community. More and more locales are also creating style guide to ensure consistency while translating. You can find all polyglot teams and links to the local .org sites at Make.wordpress.org/polyglots/teams

You can also join the Slack channel for #Polyglots on Making WordPress. There is always someone around in case you have any questions, or want to connect to other Polyglots.

Grow themes and plugins through translation

Do you have a theme or plugin in the WordPress repository? There are more then 4,000 themes and 45,000 plugins in the repo – and all free to use. And around some of these, profitable businesses have been created. Themes and plugins play an important role in the growth of WordPress. So how can you grow your themes and plugins with WordPress?

First let’s talk a little bit about terminology. Maybe you have seen these abbreviations before: I18N and L10N? These two terms are very often used when it comes to translating software.
I18N is the abbreviation of Internationalization and it means creating translatable software–it’s a developer term. It means, the developer has to code the software in a way that makes it easy for translators to translate.
L10N is short for Localization and means to translate the software. But not just that. It also means applying all the cultural differences that are location dependent. Principles like choosing the right symbols, date and number formats, measurement systems, currency, etc.

If you want your themes and plugins to grow globally you need to make them accessible in all languages.

The first and most important step is to make your product translatable. There is very detailed documentation on how to do that in the theme handbook and plugin handbook. Just go there to find everything you need to know. Once your product is internationalized, that means it will automatically be available on Translate.WordPress.org and the Polyglots team can start translating it.

You’re a developer and you think you’ve bot I18N all figured out? Alex Kirk wrote a test on WordPress I18N, go check it out and test your I18N skills.

So all plugins and themes can be translated directly on translate.wordpress.org, but some plugins have chosen to create their own community of volunteer translators, specifically for their plugins. A good example of this is Yoast. They have setup their own copy of GlotPress and invite volunteers to translate their plugins there. They have been doing this for several years now with a lot of success.

Yoast is based out of The Netherlands, a non-english speaking country, so maybe because of that, they have always had a big interest in making their plugins available to other languages. Many of their employees come from all over the world and are very active in the Polyglots community. They help translate WordPress and connect to others around the globe to invite them to translate their plugins as well.

Another way in which Yoast is actively encouraging new translators to join them, is through an i18n module they added to the dashboard of their plugins. If you’re using any of the their plugins on a WordPress install with a language that the plugin hasn’t been fully translated to, the module invites you to help translate the missing strings. Yoast has even open sourced the code for the module. Just go to their Github repo and you can use it on your own plugin.

Find PTEs for your themes or plugins

Connecting to the Polyglots community is a great way to get more people involved in translating your themes and plugins.

This year in April the first Global WordPress Translation Day happened. It was a 24 hour online event, organized by the community for the community. The goal of the event was to get more people involved in translating WordPress and connecting communities all around the world. The 24 hour live stream had a different session every hour, with an introduction to WordPress translations in different languages, as well as other relevant community and developer topics.

1,300 people signed up for the event. And even though Global WordPress Translation Day was an online event, many Polyglot communities organized local contributor days focused on translation, 39 local events on 4 continents to be exact. The event was a huge success! Almost 450 people submitted translations that day, amongst them more than 150 new contributors.

Global WordPress Translation Day

I happened to be in Sofia, Bulgaria that day, visiting my friend Petya Raykovska, the European Polyglots Lead. It was a day filled with fun and smiles. We watched the buzzing social stream, made new friends, and translated together. I’ve contributed to WordPress translations before that day, but sometimes translating can feel a little isolated. That day I realized I was part of an incredible and huge community. You can check out all the videos of the Global WordPress Translation Day on WordPress.tv.

There is another Global WordPress Translation Day in the planning, which will happen in November of this years. Check the website and follow the Polyglots on Twitter for more info.

During Translation Day something cool happened. I got a ping on Slack from an old friend, Michael Torbert, who happens to be the plugin author of one of the big SEO plugins: All In One SEO. He asked me if I wanted to become a PTE for German translations for his plugin. That means I can submit and approve my own strings right away, it also means that I can approve translations other people submitted. I was excited for the opportunity.

I have since also become a Project Translation Editor for John Blackbourn’s plugin User Switching, which now has been translated from 12% to 100% in both formal and informal German.

Grow your WordPress plugins and themes globally

To grow your theme or plugin in new markets, you should actively find reliable and good native-speaking translators and ask them if they’d like to be PTEs. Contact the people who already translate a lot of strings for your plugin. You can also ask your users to help with L10N. Your users are your best translators, because they already know and love your product. Surveys show, that if a user invests in your product, like translating it, they feel as if it is their own. And they want it to succeed as much as you do.

English is the global language. We are privileged, because we all speak English. And it would be easy to say that everyone should just learn English, but that would also be selfish. With great privilege comes great responsibility.

Even if we don’t speak any other languages, it’s our duty to make it as easy as possible to translate our plugins and themes. It’s our responsibility to help make WordPress as accessible as possible for all languages.

Get involved in the Polyglots community by translating WordPress, making your themes and plugins translatable, and growing them globally to make WordPress accessibly to the rest of the world!

Get involved in the Polyglots community

I gave a talk on this topic at WordCamp Nola on August 13th, 2016. You can find my slides here.