HSE University’s English website consistently tops the ranking of Russian universities’ English websites compiled annually by the Russian Council for International Affairs since 2015. This year, the website scored 99 points out of 108, outstripping the next university in the ranking by 16 points and even outperforming some international universities used as benchmarks. The website team talk about the key milestones in the development of the English website and the work they currently do.
I started working as a full-time editor and translator for the English version of HSE University website in 2009. Back then, I was the only full-time employee in the English website support unit. Our team has since grown to include four staff members and several freelancers.
In 2009, together with a native English-speaking editor, Paul Webb, we began to develop the English version of the HSE website. The Russian website was still evolving at the time—for example, not all departments even had a homepage in Russian—while the English version was only skeletal.
We had to start somewhere, so our first task was to create a decent university news feed in English, which hadn’t existed before.
We selected texts from the Russian news feed that were most relevant to an international audience and translated them. My first news item on the website was dated May 2009 and called ‘Canterbury Tales: The Way of Masters.’ It was about a joint MA programme of the HSE School of Russian Studies and the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Initially, we managed to publish one or two news articles a week, and eventually started doing it daily. Now, we translate and post around 60–70 news items a month.
After the main page and the news feed, we moved onto the staff directory, the menus, the site map, and the announcements section. Then, we proceeded to the big parts of the Moscow campus: the faculties and institutes. After that, we went about creating English versions of the pages about HSE laboratories, programmes, conferences, publications and working papers.
We also opened websites for the other HSE campuses in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Perm (by the way, the word ‘campus’ in this context was also the result of a long discussion—previously, they were called ‘branches’). The Russian version of the HSE website was expanding, and so was its English doppelganger.
A major field of work for us is the part of the website that is relevant to each HSE employee — their personal pages.
A personal page is a complex construction with information that is automatically uploaded from different databases. And to open an English version of a personal page, we need to translate those databases and keep them updated. Our early tasks back in the 2010s included translating such lists of terms as professions/degrees/specializations, as well as the names of HSE departments and subdepartments, HSE building addresses, positions and so on.
We had a lot of discussions on how to translate various post-Soviet educational realities into relevant and internationally comprehensible English-language terms.
A big challenge in 2010 was to translate the list of universities (mostly Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet, but also international) for the ‘degree’ field that appears on the pages of staff members. Today, if you want to find out what a Russian university calls itself in English, you simply open its website and check the English version. In rare cases when it doesn’t have an English website, you check its Charter, which must be published on the website (by law) and always contains an official English version of the university’s name. Back then, many universities didn’t even have a proper Russian website, let alone an English version, so we had to translate their names based on our own expertise.
There is a fact that has become a widely known joke, but I remember it from my work on the list of universities.
One of the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) is the Institute of Protein Research. In Russian, the word ‘protein’ is a homonym of the word ‘squirrel’ (belka), and on the RAS website, it was once called ‘The Squirrel Institute’—obviously, thanks to machine translation and the lack of an editor.
As the team was expanding, we faced the need to create a Russian/English glossary, which is the product of collaborative work involving everyone on the team and colleagues from other university departments. It has grown into an important internal communications tool and is now maintained by the Expert Translation Centre.
Eventually, we started to create original materials in English that were not translations from Russian.
One of the first such projects was the Life in Moscow website for our international colleagues and students coming to live in Moscow.
It features a lot of tips and information about Moscow transportation, facilities, and places of interest. We enjoy maintaining it, since many news items come from our own experiences: we visit an exhibition, go skating, attend a performance, hear an announcement on the radio, or talk to our friends, and then share this information with our readers.
I believe that HSE University is the best in Russia, and I think it is important that people around the world hear about it, come to study here and collaborate with our university. I truly hope that my work helps make that happen.
The ranking of Russian universities’ English websites assesses the availability of information on 16 key aspects of university life, including admissions, career services, research, partnerships, and others. We make sure that every degree programme and all major divisions in all four campuses have English websites.
We also try to encourage HSE University divisions to regularly update their English news feeds so that our international staff and students don't feel left out.
Moreover, we create landing pages for key university events, such as the Yasin International Conference, and various projects, like the Best Teacher voting. All this helps us maintain our leading position in the ranking.
But what’s much more important is that providing this wealth of information in English enables the university to attract international students.
Quite often, when we talk to international students, they say that they chose to apply to HSE University because, among other things, they liked the university website.
Many applicants say they were impressed by how well the information is presented on the website and how clear the texts are. Moreover, website audits done by international companies have praised the English on the website. This is always nice to hear, as it shows that our work has a tangible result.
The number of users accessing the site has almost doubled since 2017. Most traffic comes from search engines, which means that our site is well indexed by the major ones.
We get visitors from all over the world, with the top five countries being the USA, India, the UK, Germany, and China. Last month we even had users from Vatican City!
The quality of texts is very important to us, so in addition to working with freelance editors, since 2017, we have employed a native English speaker on a full-time basis to edit the texts that go on the main pages.
This July, Christopher Gribben, from the UK, joined our team—he was initially working remotely but has recently (fearlessly!) come to Russia and is getting settled in here in Moscow.
Our native-speaking editors not only work with texts, but also act as representatives of our audience and make sure that the information on the website is clear and not too culturally specific.
We also use feedback from our international students and staff when thinking of content to add. For example, a visiting professor once shared his tips on surviving the Moscow winter.
Out team works very closely with the PR Office, translating the news they write and creating our own. We regularly interview international students and staff members, as well as HSE University guests. For instance, we are currently doing a series of interviews with guest speakers of the Discussion Club on Economic Policy. We also attend events held in English. In addition to working with the website, we help our colleagues from the PR Office with English social media posts, press releases, videos, and brochures. So, our work is quite varied, which is a nice perk.
I started working at HSE University in 2013, and back in those days the English website looked completely different. My tasks were quite varied, starting from translating and editing news to interviewing HSE international students and staff. I also got engaged in posting the news on the site, though we had only few editing tools at the time.
Since then, a lot has changed—the entire website has been redesigned, creating new opportunities for web editing. The new layout was one of the reasons I got into the more tech part of editing. I still translate texts for news items and departments, but major part of my job is dedicated to posting news and announcements, creating new pages and websites for HSE events, special projects, and departments.
My work has become more versatile, however, the goal is still the same—to make HSE University website look engaging and user-friendly for the international community.
We strive to help international students and staff feel comfortable at the university and I like to think that our website is a mediator of sorts in this process.
I recall my interview with Mexican students about their traditional holiday, which became my chance to not only feel part of a different culture and talk to the students about it, but also to make the news item interactive—to better convey the essence of the event. Now that my job is more creative, I try to learn more about coding and photo editing as this really helps me in my everyday work.
I interview international staff and students, as well as invited professors. Besides, I talk to Russian-speaking HSE researchers who take part in various international events. So, I often hear very interesting stories. Just recently, I spoke to Professor Fürst from Postdam about her research on Soviet hippies and Flower Power, which she presented at an IGITI seminar. And an HSE student from India, Anshuman Sharma told me about his innovative method of learning Russian words. I also learnt from Professor Khokhlova that a room divider from the collection of Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (the Kunstkamera) in St. Petersburg is not an original work.
Right after the New Year holidays, we plan to post an exciting story about two students of HSE University Preparatory Year: Fernandez Harari Leticia Ines and Alejandro Perna met eight years ago in Argentina at a Russian language lesson. Love for the language and for each other has brought them to Moscow, where they plan to study in the HSE University’s Faculty of Humanities.