I'm currently laying the groundwork for internationalizing a web application. I'm torn between falling back to using asterisks or just the default English text for missing translations. Using asterisks, while annoying, would make it quite obvious that there is no text available, and would prompt the user, or ourselves, to fill it in. Using English when a user has explicitly selected an alternative language seems disrespectful of their wishes, but also gives them, if they're bilingual, something to work with. Are their any recommended approaches that apply generally, or is this heavily dependent on context?

  • 1. If you're able to detect an untranslated, why wouldn't you just make sure you complete all translations to begin with? 2. I assume that if you use a fallback language there may be circumstances where there is both [Swahili] and [English] on the same page? – tohster Mar 17 '15 at 14:46
  • 1. I have prior experience working on an internationalized application. It happens quite often that some translations lag behind feature development, especially for languages no one on the team speaks. We made a point of constantly keeping the translations up to date on those we did as we built the software, but with short release cycles, you're not always going to get professionals who are available to tweak things as you go. Ideal, but not realistic in all contexts. 2. Yeah, that would likely happen, and may be disorienting. But asterisks would probably be even more disorienting. – Okal Otieno Mar 17 '15 at 18:15


  • Asterisks can be really frustrating if there is no obvious meaning and there is no legend or interaction to reveal meaning.
  • Mixed languages on a page obviously causes confusion too. But at least with another language the intent is clear to the user even if the meaning isn't.


  • A fallback language makes sense. We just need to design to ensure that users understand why the translation is missing.
  • The fallback language should be differentiated from the normal language. This provides an acknowledgement to the user that we are aware of the dissonance.
  • The user should have ability to find out more about the untranslated word(s).

One resulting approach

This example is an Italian app translated into English, with one missing translation. Here are two possible layouts:

enter image description here

When a user clicks on the asterisk/info icon, she's presented with something like this:

enter image description here

This approach:

  • Clearly differentiates/acknowledges untranslated terms.
  • Provides users with a way to find out more.
  • Provides users with a stopgap solution (Google translate) until the term is fixed.
  • Communicates that you are going to fix the problem in the future.
  • Assures users that there is no impact on the performance on the app.
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  • 1
    This is fantastic. I think this might be the approach to take. Thank you. – Okal Otieno Mar 19 '15 at 5:18

Firstly, I would say it's really bad form to inflict your problems on the user - never mark the text just because it will make it obvious to you that something needs to be done.

When it comes to missing translations, I'd suggest that a real language fallback is always preferable to a non-language fallback - At least it may be translated by the user if they wish. Whereas a non-language fallback does not allow user translation.

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  • Fair points, all. Not fully convinced a real language, which could be gibberish to a user, is any better than, you know, actual gibberish. But you make a good point that they can run this through a translator, which isn't an option with asterisks, or whatever other mark. – Okal Otieno Mar 17 '15 at 13:50

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