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The Translator's View

Introduction 0

GNU is going international! The Translation Project is a way to get maintainers, translators and users all together, so GNU will gradually become able to speak many native languages.

The GNU gettext tool set contains everything maintainers need for internationalizing their packages for messages. It also contains quite useful tools for helping translators at localizing messages to their native language, once a package has already been internationalized.

To achieve the Translation Project, we need many interested people who like their own language and write it well, and who are also able to synergize with other translators speaking the same language. If you'd like to volunteer to work at translating messages, please send mail to your translating team.

Each team has its own mailing list, courtesy of Linux International. You may reach your translating team at the address `ll@li.org', replacing ll by the two-letter ISO 639 code for your language. Language codes are not the same as country codes given in ISO 3166. The following translating teams exist:

Chinese zh, Czech cs, Danish da, Dutch nl, Esperanto eo, Finnish fi, French fr, Irish ga, German de, Greek el, Italian it, Japanese ja, Indonesian in, Norwegian no, Polish pl, Portuguese pt, Russian ru, Spanish es, Swedish sv and Turkish tr.

For example, you may reach the Chinese translating team by writing to `zh@li.org'. When you become a member of the translating team for your own language, you may subscribe to its list. For example, Swedish people can send a message to `sv-request@li.org', having this message body:


Keep in mind that team members should be interested in working at translations, or at solving translational difficulties, rather than merely lurking around. If your team does not exist yet and you want to start one, please write to `gnu-translation@prep.ai.mit.edu'; you will then reach the GNU coordinator for all translator teams.

A handful of GNU packages have already been adapted and provided with message translations for several languages. Translation teams have begun to organize, using these packages as a starting point. But there are many more packages and many languages for which we have no volunteer translators. If you would like to volunteer to work at translating messages, please send mail to `gnu-translation@prep.ai.mit.edu' indicating what language(s) you can work on.

Introduction 1

This is now official, GNU is going international! Here is the announcement submitted for the January 1995 GNU Bulletin:

A handful of GNU packages have already been adapted and provided with message translations for several languages. Translation teams have begun to organize, using these packages as a starting point. But there are many more packages and many languages for which we have no volunteer translators. If you'd like to volunteer to work at translating messages, please send mail to `gnu-translation@prep.ai.mit.edu' indicating what language(s) you can work on.

This document should answer many questions for those who are curious about the process or would like to contribute. Please at least skim over it, hoping to cut down a little of the high volume of e-mail generated by this collective effort towards GNU internationalization.

Most free programming which is widely shared is done in English, and currently, English is used as the main communicating language between national communities collaborating to the GNU project. This very document is written in English. This will not change in the foreseeable future.

However, there is a strong appetite from national communities for having more software able to write using national language and habits, and there is an on-going effort to modify GNU software in such a way that it becomes able to do so. The experiments driven so far raised an enthusiastic response from pretesters, so we believe that GNU internationalization is dedicated to succeed.

For suggestion clarifications, additions or corrections to this document, please e-mail to `gnu-translation@prep.ai.mit.edu'.


Facing this internationalization effort, a few users expressed their concerns. Some of these doubts are presented and discussed, here.


On a larger scale, the true solution would be to organize some kind of fairly precise set up in which volunteers could participate. I gave some thought to this idea lately, and realize there will be some touchy points. I thought of writing to Richard Stallman to launch such a project, but feel it might be good to shake out the ideas between ourselves first. Most probably that Linux International has some experience in the field already, or would like to orchestrate the volunteer work, maybe. Food for thought, in any case!

I guess we have to setup something early, somehow, that will help many possible contributors of the same language to interlock and avoid work duplication, and further be put in contact for solving together problems particular to their tongue (in most languages, there are many difficulties peculiar to translating technical English). My Swedish contributor acknowledged these difficulties, and I'm well aware of them for French.

This is surely not a technical issue, but we should manage so the effort of locale contributors be maximally useful, despite the national team layer interface between contributors and maintainers.

The Translation Project needs some setup for coordinating language coordinators. Localizing evolving programs will surely become a permanent and continuous activity in the free software community, once well started. The setup should be minimally completed and tested before GNU gettext becomes an official reality. The e-mail address `translation@iro.umontreal.ca' has been setup for receiving offers from volunteers and general e-mail on these topics. This address reaches the Translation Project coordinator.

Central Coordination

I also think GNU will need sooner than it thinks, that someone setup a way to organize and coordinate these groups. Some kind of group of groups. My opinion is that it would be good that GNU delegates this task to a small group of collaborating volunteers, shortly. Perhaps in `gnu.announce' a list of this national committee's can be published.

My role as coordinator would simply be to refer to Ulrich any German speaking volunteer interested to localization of free software packages, and maybe helping national groups to initially organize, while maintaining national registries for until national groups are ready to take over. In fact, the coordinator should ease volunteers to get in contact with one another for creating national teams, which should then select one coordinator per language, or country (regionalized language). If well done, the coordination should be useful without being an overwhelming task, the time to put delegations in place.

National Teams

I suggest we look for volunteer coordinators/editors for individual languages. These people will scan contributions of translation files for various programs, for their own languages, and will ensure high and uniform standards of diction.

From my current experience with other people in these days, those who provide localizations are very enthusiastic about the process, and are more interested in the localization process than in the program they localize, and want to do many programs, not just one. This seems to confirm that having a coordinator/editor for each language is a good idea.

We need to choose someone who is good at writing clear and concise prose in the language in question. That is hard--we can't check it ourselves. So we need to ask a few people to judge each others' writing and select the one who is best.

I announce my prerelease to a few dozen people, and you would not believe all the discussions it generated already. I shudder to think what will happen when this will be launched, for true, officially, world wide. Who am I to arbitrate between two Czekolsovak users contradicting each other, for example?

I assume that your German is not much better than my French so that I would not be able to judge about these formulations. What I would suggest is that for each language there is a group for people who maintain the PO files and judge about changes. I suspect there will be cultural differences between how such groups of people will behave. Some will have relaxed ways, reach consensus easily, and have anyone of the group relate to the maintainers, while others will fight to death, organize heavy administrations up to national standards, and use strict channels.

The German team is putting out a good example. Right now, they are maybe half a dozen people revising translations of each other and discussing the linguistic issues. I do not even have all the names. Ulrich Drepper is taking care of coordinating the German team. He subscribed to all my pretest lists, so I do not even have to warn him specifically of incoming releases.

I'm sure, that is a good idea to get teams for each language working on translations. That will make the translations better and more consistent.


Taking French for example, there are a few sub-cultures around computers which developed diverging vocabularies. Picking volunteers here and there without addressing this problem in an organized way, soon in the project, might produce a distasteful mix of internationalized programs, and possibly trigger endless quarrels among those who really care.

Keeping some kind of unity in the way French localization of internationalized programs is achieved is a difficult (and delicate) job. Knowing the latin character of French people (:-), if we take this the wrong way, we could end up nowhere, or spoil a lot of energies. Maybe we should begin to address this problem seriously before GNU gettext become officially published. And I suspect that this means soon!

Organizational Ideas

I expect the next big changes after the official release. Please note that I use the German translation of the short GPL message. We need to set a few good examples before the localization goes out for true in the free software community. Here are a few points to discuss:

Mailing Lists

If we get any inquiries about GNU gettext, send them on to:


The `*-pretest' lists are quite useful to me, maybe the idea could be generalized to many GNU, and non-GNU packages. But each maintainer his/her way!

Fran@,{c}ois, we have a mechanism in place here at `gnu.ai.mit.edu' to track teams, support mailing lists for them and log members. We have a slight preference that you use it. If this is OK with you, I can get you clued in.

Things are changing! A few years ago, when Daniel Fekete and I asked for a mailing list for GNU localization, nested at the FSF, we were politely invited to organize it anywhere else, and so did we. For communicating with my pretesters, I later made a handful of mailing lists located at iro.umontreal.ca and administrated by majordomo. These lists have been very dependable so far...

I suspect that the German team will organize itself a mailing list located in Germany, and so forth for other countries. But before they organize for true, it could surely be useful to offer mailing lists located at the FSF to each national team. So yes, please explain me how I should proceed to create and handle them.

We should create temporary mailing lists, one per country, to help people organize. Temporary, because once regrouped and structured, it would be fair the volunteers from country bring back their list in there and manage it as they want. My feeling is that, in the long run, each team should run its own list, from within their country. There also should be some central list to which all teams could subscribe as they see fit, as long as each team is represented in it.

Information Flow

There will surely be some discussion about this messages after the packages are finally released. If people now send you some proposals for better messages, how do you proceed? Jim, please note that right now, as I put forward nearly a dozen of localizable programs, I receive both the translations and the coordination concerns about them.

If I put one of my things to pretest, Ulrich receives the announcement and passes it on to the German team, who make last minute revisions. Then he submits the translation files to me as the maintainer. For free packages I do not maintain, I would not even hear about it. This scheme could be made to work for the whole Translation Project, I think. For security reasons, maybe Ulrich (national coordinators, in fact) should update central registry kept at the Translation Project (Jim, me, or Len's recruits) once in a while.

In December/January, I was aggressively ready to internationalize all of GNU, giving myself the duty of one small GNU package per week or so, taking many weeks or months for bigger packages. But it does not work this way. I first did all the things I'm responsible for. I've nothing against some missionary work on other maintainers, but I'm also loosing a lot of energy over it--same debates over again.

And when the first localized packages are released we'll get a lot of responses about ugly translations :-). Surely, and we need to have beforehand a fairly good idea about how to handle the information flow between the national teams and the package maintainers.

Please start saving somewhere a quick history of each PO file. I know for sure that the file format will change, allowing for comments. It would be nice that each file has a kind of log, and references for those who want to submit comments or gripes, or otherwise contribute. I sent a proposal for a fast and flexible format, but it is not receiving acceptance yet by the GNU deciders. I'll tell you when I have more information about this.

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