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GNU gettext

The facilities in GNU gettext focus on messages; strings printed by a program, either directly or via formatting with printf or sprintf.1

When using GNU gettext, each application has its own text domain. This is a unique name, such as kpilot or gawk, that identifies the application. A complete application may have multiple components--programs written in C or C++, as well as scripts written in sh or awk. All of the components use the same text domain.

To make the discussion concrete, assume we're writing an application named guide. Internationalization consists of the following steps, in this order:

  1. The programmer goes through the source for all of guide's components and marks each string that is a candidate for translation. For example, "`-F': option required" is a good candidate for translation. A table with strings of option names is not (e.g., gawk's --profile option should remain the same, no matter what the local language).
  2. The programmer indicates the application's text domain ("guide") to the gettext library, by calling the textdomain function.
  3. Messages from the application are extracted from the source code and collected into a portable object file (guide.po), which lists the strings and their translations. The translations are initially empty. The original (usually English) messages serve as the key for lookup of the translations.
  4. For each language with a translator, guide.po is copied and translations are created and shipped with the application.
  5. Each language's .po file is converted into a binary message object (.mo) file. A message object file contains the original messages and their translations in a binary format that allows fast lookup of translations at runtime.
  6. When guide is built and installed, the binary translation files are installed in a standard place.
  7. For testing and development, it is possible to tell gettext to use .mo files in a different directory than the standard one by using the bindtextdomain function.
  8. At runtime, guide looks up each string via a call to gettext. The returned string is the translated string if available, or the original string if not.
  9. If necessary, it is possible to access messages from a different text domain than the one belonging to the application, without having to switch the application's default text domain back and forth.

In C (or C++), the string marking and dynamic translation lookup are accomplished by wrapping each string in a call to gettext:

printf(gettext("Don't Panic!\n"));

The tools that extract messages from source code pull out all strings enclosed in calls to gettext.

The GNU gettext developers, recognizing that typing gettext over and over again is both painful and ugly to look at, use the macro _ (an underscore) to make things easier:

/* In the standard header file: */
#define _(str) gettext(str)

/* In the program text: */
printf(_("Don't Panic!\n"));

This reduces the typing overhead to just three extra characters per string and is considerably easier to read as well. There are locale categories for different types of locale-related information. The defined locale categories that gettext knows about are:

Text messages. This is the default category for gettext operations, but it is possible to supply a different one explicitly, if necessary. (It is almost never necessary to supply a different category.)
Text-collation information; i.e., how different characters and/or groups of characters sort in a given language.
Character-type information (alphabetic, digit, upper- or lowercase, and so on). This information is accessed via the POSIX character classes in regular expressions, such as /[[:alnum:]]/ (see Regular Expression Operators).
Monetary information, such as the currency symbol, and whether the symbol goes before or after a number.
Numeric information, such as which characters to use for the decimal point and the thousands separator.2
Response information, such as how "yes" and "no" appear in the local language, and possibly other information as well.
Time- and date-related information, such as 12- or 24-hour clock, month printed before or after day in a date, local month abbreviations, and so on.
All of the above. (Not too useful in the context of gettext.)


  1. For some operating systems, the gawk port doesn't support GNU gettext. This applies most notably to the PC operating systems. As such, these features are not available if you are using one of those operating systems. Sorry.

  2. Americans use a comma every three decimal places and a period for the decimal point, while many Europeans do exactly the opposite: 1,234.56 versus 1.234,56.