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Designing for a Global Audience: Character Sets

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Providing multilingual Web content is one of the clearest ways you can demonstrate that worldwide visitors are welcome at your Web site. The current versions of popular Web browsers can readily recognize non-Roman languages such as Chinese or Japanese. The techniques described in this article will help you get started with viewing content in these languages by installing the fonts for these languages on your PC and configuring your browser for different languages on the Web.
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Your business may demand that you accommodate—or you may simply hope to attract—Web visitors from around the world. In order to meet the needs of so many non-native English speakers, you may want to offer content in multiple languages. To truly localize your site for country-specific audiences, you'll need to consider cultural preferences—such as how to display dates or currency information—as well as potential bandwidth limitations on your audience's part.

But how do you evolve your Web site to a multilingual, global presence—especially if your own foreign language skills haven't developed past that long-forgotten, high school French or Spanish class you took? The good news is that translating your content will probably pose the least-challenging part of customizing your site for users in different regions of the world, assuming that you can find native speakers to assist or outsource to a professional translation service. Addressing the technical difficulties of directing visitors to appropriate language-specific or country-specific content is what poses the real task at hand.

Even if you're unable to read your own translated content without the help of an interpreter, you'll be able to share it with your overseas audiences as long as you know how to tag your HTML pages appropriately. If your translated content will appear in a language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet—such as Japanese or Russian, for example—you must identify a specific character set in your pages to ensure they display appropriately online.

Getting Started

So, first things first. Let's make sure you can view Web pages in Japanese on your PC before you can plan to build your first Japanese Web site. A quick way to test your PC's language capabilities is to visit a multilingual Web site such as TheSims.com, shown in Figure 1a; use the "Want to change languages?" link at the bottom of the home page to change the language preference.

There's even a term in Japanese for the gibberish that may display in place of the intended Japanese characters onscreen: If the right character set isn't used, your page may "go mojibake" and show scrambled text, as shown in Figure 1b.

Figure 1a and Figure 1b Two views of a Japanese language Web page. Figure 1a displays the Japanese characters appropriately, whereas missing fonts in Figure 1b causes only gibberish to display.

If much of the text you're seeing has gone mojibake, you probably don't have a Japanese font installed. The current versions of both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape browsers readily let you view nearly any language, but you will still need to install the appropriate fonts first.

If you're a Macintosh user, you'll need to install the desired language kit as part of a custom installation of your system software. Language kits are included as freebies on your system software CD; just choose and install "Multilingual Support" from the custom install menu. Although it has not yet gained broad penetration, Mac OS X supports multiple languages natively.

If you're running Internet Explorer under Windows, Microsoft may automatically prompt you to download and install the appropriate font if you visit a foreign language Web site that contains content that requires a new font installation. Microsoft also offers its free language support packs at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/. Go to this site and choose "Product Updates" to find a list of International Language Support packs. After you download the desired pack, it will automatically install on your system.

If you're running Netscape under Windows, you can download fonts on an as-needed basis from Microsoft, and configure them for use in Netscape. See Alan Wood's Unicode Resources (http://www.hclrss.demon.co.uk/unicode/fonts.html) for a list of Windows fonts that can be used to ensure that text in languages that do not use the Roman alphabet display correctly. For example, you would select MS Gothic to display Japanese content. First, choose Preferences from the Edit menu. In the Appearances section, select Fonts and match the language with the appropriate font. Finally, select the option "Use my default fonts" to ensure that this font is always used for pages that display Japanese text.

Now, try returning to TheSims.com site; look for the "Want to change languages?" link to view the page in Korean, Thai, Japanese, and Traditional or Simplified Chinese. Internet Explorer can usually automatically configure the proper display of your text properly. If Navigator still has display problems, choose Character Set under the View menu, and make sure an appropriate local character set is specified. For example, select the Japanese (Auto-Detect) option to view Japanese text.

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