GNU Gettext may be the de facto solution for internationalizing software, but every time I work with it, I find myself asking the same questions:
- Why, in this age of virtual machines and dynamic, interpreted languages, do I still have to compile
.mofiles before I can use my translations?
- I can reconfigure my web application, modify its database, and clear its caches whenever I want, so why do I have to do a code push and restart the entire runtime just so that “Login” can be correctly translated to “Anmelden”? Try explaining that to a business guy.
- To translate new messages in my application, I have to run a series of arcane commands before the changed text is available to be translated. Specifically, the process involves generating
.potfiles, then updating
.pofiles from them. Why isn’t this automatic?
- Why is it still possible for bad translations to cause a crash? Translators do the weirdest things when presented with formatting directives in their translations… I’ve seen
#0, but the most common is to just remove the weird formatting directives entirely. And they all cause string formatting code to crash.
- Why isn’t there a better option for translating HTML? Translators shouldn’t be expected to understand that in
Click <a href="..." class="link">Here!</a>, “Click” and “Here!” should be translated, but “class” and “link” should not be. And they certainly can’t be expected to understand that if their language swaps the order of “Click” and “Here”, the
<a>tag should move along with “Here”.
- Why isn’t there something better than the convention to assign the
gettextfunction to the identifier
_, and then wrap all your strings in
_()? Not only is this phenomenally ugly, but one misplaced parenthesis breaks it:
_("That username %s is already taken" % username)
- Why is support for languages that have more than two plural forms still an awful, confusing, fragile hack? Plural support was clearly designed by someone who thought that all languages were like English in having merely singular and plural. I’ve seen too many
.pofiles for singular/dual/plural languages, where the translator obviously did not understand that
msgstris the singular,
msgstrthe dual, and
- Why, in this age of distributed version control, experimental merge algorithms, and eventually consistent noSQL databases, is the task of merging several half-translated
.pofiles from several different sources still a nightmarish manual process?
- Why, if I decide I need an Oxford comma or a capital letter in my English message, do I risk breaking all of the translations for that message?
There are libraries that allow you to use
.po files directly, and I’m sure you can hack up some dynamic translation reloading code. Eliminating the ugliness of
_() in code, and avoiding incorrectly placed parentheses after it, could be done with a library that inspects the parse tree and monkeypatches the native string class. Checking for consistency of formatting directives is not that hard. A better HTML translation technique would take some work, but it’s not impossible. The confusion around plural forms is just a user-interface issue. Merging translated messages may not be fully automatable, but at least it could be made a lot more user-friendly. And the last point can be avoided by using message keys, but that hack shouldn’t be necessary.
Gettext is behind the times. Or is it? Half of me expects someone to tell me that all these projects I’ve worked on are just ignoring features of Gettext that would solve these problems. And the other half of me expects someone to tell me I should be using some next-generation Gettext replacement that doesn’t have enough Google juice for me to find. (Let me know on Twitter: @glyphobet.)
GNU Gettext is is based on Sun’s Gettext, whose API was designed in the early ’90s. Hackers, it’s 2012. Technology has moved forward and left Gettext behind. It is time to rethink, redesign, or replace it.