Real time translation in a conference setting always amazes me. The translators in their claustrophobic boxes have to keep up with nervous, mumbly presenters whose language is often specialized or vague. I try to make it a point to thank whoever has the misfortune of translating me. But it is such a great service. Sometimes I think about how life-changing it would be to have this device all the time. I have, in fact, walked out of a conference hall with the headset on and momentarily forgotten that it is not a Universal Translator that will work anywhere. Darn.

The movie The Red Violin is the first I have seen that moves smoothly and rapidly between many different languages, five in this case. Just when you’ve disabled the subtitles in an English section you’re thrown back into German or Chinese and you have to turn them on again. Thankfully toggling DVD subtitling, especially on a laptop, is painless. (Though it would be nice to be able to say “if any language other than X is being spoken I need subtitles.”)

Which brings me to website design. Multilingual sites — which should be every site but for obvious practical reasons cannot be — must work just as the translator headset or as DVD subtitles work. There should be complete symmetry in all languages and minimal design variation so that a lateral flitting from one to the other is seamless in every regard, except that the language changes — just like switching channels or subtitles. Wikipedia famously achieves this. Eternal Egypt is based on this premise too. In effect what you create this way is a single site with multiple languages, rather than multiple language sites for the same content.