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2 PO Files and PO Mode Basics

The GNU gettext toolset helps programmers and translators at producing, updating and using translation files, mainly those PO files which are textual, editable files. This chapter stresses the format of PO files, and contains a PO mode starter. PO mode description is spread throughout this manual instead of being concentrated in one place. Here we present only the basics of PO mode.

2.1 Completing GNU gettext Installation

Once you have received, unpacked, configured and compiled the GNU gettext distribution, the `make install´ command puts in place the programs xgettext, msgfmt, gettext, and msgmerge, as well as their available message catalogs. To top off a comfortable installation, you might also want to make the PO mode available to your Emacs users.

During the installation of the PO mode, you might want to modify your file `.emacs´, once and for all, so it contains a few lines looking like:

(setq auto-mode-alist
      (cons '("\\.po\\'\\|\\.po\\." . po-mode) auto-mode-alist))
(autoload 'po-mode "po-mode" "Major mode for translators to edit PO files" t)

Later, whenever you edit some `.po´ file, or any file having the string `.po.´ within its name, Emacs loads `po-mode.elc´ (or `po-mode.el´) as needed, and automatically activates PO mode commands for the associated buffer. The string PO appears in the mode line for any buffer for which PO mode is active. Many PO files may be active at once in a single Emacs session.

If you are using Emacs version 20 or newer, and have already installed the appropriate international fonts on your system, you may also tell Emacs how to determine automatically the coding system of every PO file. This will often (but not always) cause the necessary fonts to be loaded and used for displaying the translations on your Emacs screen. For this to happen, add the lines:

(modify-coding-system-alist 'file "\\.po\\'\\|\\.po\\."
(autoload 'po-find-file-coding-system "po-mode")

to your `.emacs´ file. If, with this, you still see boxes instead of international characters, try a different font set (via Shift Mouse button 1).

2.2 The Format of PO Files

A PO file is made up of many entries, each entry holding the relation between an original untranslated string and its corresponding translation. All entries in a given PO file usually pertain to a single project, and all translations are expressed in a single target language. One PO file entry has the following schematic structure:

#  translator-comments
#. automatic-comments
#: reference...
#, flag...
msgid untranslated-string
msgstr translated-string

The general structure of a PO file should be well understood by the translator. When using PO mode, very little has to be known about the format details, as PO mode takes care of them for her.

A simple entry can look like this:

#: lib/error.c:116
msgid "Unknown system error"
msgstr "Error desconegut del sistema"

Entries begin with some optional white space. Usually, when generated through GNU gettext tools, there is exactly one blank line between entries. Then comments follow, on lines all starting with the character #. There are two kinds of comments: those which have some white space immediately following the #, which comments are created and maintained exclusively by the translator, and those which have some non-white character just after the #, which comments are created and maintained automatically by GNU gettext tools. All comments, of either kind, are optional.

After white space and comments, entries show two strings, namely first the untranslated string as it appears in the original program sources, and then, the translation of this string. The original string is introduced by the keyword msgid, and the translation, by msgstr. The two strings, untranslated and translated, are quoted in various ways in the PO file, using " delimiters and \ escapes, but the translator does not really have to pay attention to the precise quoting format, as PO mode fully takes care of quoting for her.

The msgid strings, as well as automatic comments, are produced and managed by other GNU gettext tools, and PO mode does not provide means for the translator to alter these. The most she can do is merely deleting them, and only by deleting the whole entry. On the other hand, the msgstr string, as well as translator comments, are really meant for the translator, and PO mode gives her the full control she needs.

The comment lines beginning with #, are special because they are not completely ignored by the programs as comments generally are. The comma separated list of flags is used by the msgfmt program to give the user some better diagnostic messages. Currently there are two forms of flags defined:

This flag can be generated by the msgmerge program or it can be inserted by the translator herself. It shows that the msgstr string might not be a correct translation (anymore). Only the translator can judge if the translation requires further modification, or is acceptable as is. Once satisfied with the translation, she then removes this fuzzy attribute. The msgmerge program inserts this when it combined the msgid and msgstr entries after fuzzy search only. See section 6.3 Fuzzy Entries.
These flags should not be added by a human. Instead only the xgettext program adds them. In an automated PO file processing system as proposed here the user changes would be thrown away again as soon as the xgettext program generates a new template file. In case the c-format flag is given for a string the msgfmt does some more tests to check to validity of the translation. See section 8.1 Invoking the msgfmt Program.

A different kind of entries is used for translations which involve plural forms.

#  translator-comments
#. automatic-comments
#: reference...
#, flag...
msgid untranslated-string-singular
msgid_plural untranslated-string-plural
msgstr[0] translated-string-case-0
msgstr[N] translated-string-case-n

Such an entry can look like this:

#: src/msgcmp.c:338 src/po-lex.c:699
#, c-format
msgid "found %d fatal error"
msgid_plural "found %d fatal errors"
msgstr[0] "s'ha trobat %d error fatal"
msgstr[1] "s'han trobat %d errors fatals"

It happens that some lines, usually whitespace or comments, follow the very last entry of a PO file. Such lines are not part of any entry, and PO mode is unable to take action on those lines. By using the PO mode function M-x po-normalize, the translator may get rid of those spurious lines. See section 2.5 Normalizing Strings in Entries.

The remainder of this section may be safely skipped by those using PO mode, yet it may be interesting for everybody to have a better idea of the precise format of a PO file. On the other hand, those not having Emacs handy should carefully continue reading on.

Each of untranslated-string and translated-string respects the C syntax for a character string, including the surrounding quotes and embedded backslashed escape sequences. When the time comes to write multi-line strings, one should not use escaped newlines. Instead, a closing quote should follow the last character on the line to be continued, and an opening quote should resume the string at the beginning of the following PO file line. For example:

msgid ""
"Here is an example of how one might continue a very long string\n"
"for the common case the string represents multi-line output.\n"

In this example, the empty string is used on the first line, to allow better alignment of the H from the word `Here´ over the f from the word `for´. In this example, the msgid keyword is followed by three strings, which are meant to be concatenated. Concatenating the empty string does not change the resulting overall string, but it is a way for us to comply with the necessity of msgid to be followed by a string on the same line, while keeping the multi-line presentation left-justified, as we find this to be a cleaner disposition. The empty string could have been omitted, but only if the string starting with `Here´ was promoted on the first line, right after msgid.(2) It was not really necessary either to switch between the two last quoted strings immediately after the newline `\n´, the switch could have occurred after any other character, we just did it this way because it is neater.

One should carefully distinguish between end of lines marked as `\n´ inside quotes, which are part of the represented string, and end of lines in the PO file itself, outside string quotes, which have no incidence on the represented string.

Outside strings, white lines and comments may be used freely. Comments start at the beginning of a line with `#´ and extend until the end of the PO file line. Comments written by translators should have the initial `#´ immediately followed by some white space. If the `#´ is not immediately followed by white space, this comment is most likely generated and managed by specialized GNU tools, and might disappear or be replaced unexpectedly when the PO file is given to msgmerge.

2.3 Main PO mode Commands

After setting up Emacs with something similar to the lines in section 2.1 Completing GNU gettext Installation, PO mode is activated for a window when Emacs finds a PO file in that window. This puts the window read-only and establishes a po-mode-map, which is a genuine Emacs mode, in a way that is not derived from text mode in any way. Functions found on po-mode-hook, if any, will be executed.

When PO mode is active in a window, the letters `PO´ appear in the mode line for that window. The mode line also displays how many entries of each kind are held in the PO file. For example, the string `132t+3f+10u+2o´ would tell the translator that the PO mode contains 132 translated entries (see section 6.2 Translated Entries, 3 fuzzy entries (see section 6.3 Fuzzy Entries), 10 untranslated entries (see section 6.4 Untranslated Entries) and 2 obsolete entries (see section 6.5 Obsolete Entries). Zero-coefficients items are not shown. So, in this example, if the fuzzy entries were unfuzzied, the untranslated entries were translated and the obsolete entries were deleted, the mode line would merely display `145t´ for the counters.

The main PO commands are those which do not fit into the other categories of subsequent sections. These allow for quitting PO mode or for managing windows in special ways.

Undo last modification to the PO file (po-undo).
Quit processing and save the PO file (po-quit).
Quit processing, possibly after confirmation (po-confirm-and-quit).
Temporary leave the PO file window (po-other-window).
Show help about PO mode (po-help).
Give some PO file statistics (po-statistics).
Batch validate the format of the whole PO file (po-validate).

The command _ (po-undo) interfaces to the Emacs undo facility. See section `Undoing Changes' in The Emacs Editor. Each time U is typed, modifications which the translator did to the PO file are undone a little more. For the purpose of undoing, each PO mode command is atomic. This is especially true for the RET command: the whole edition made by using a single use of this command is undone at once, even if the edition itself implied several actions. However, while in the editing window, one can undo the edition work quite parsimoniously.

The commands Q (po-quit) and q (po-confirm-and-quit) are used when the translator is done with the PO file. The former is a bit less verbose than the latter. If the file has been modified, it is saved to disk first. In both cases, and prior to all this, the commands check if any untranslated messages remain in the PO file and, if so, the translator is asked if she really wants to leave off working with this PO file. This is the preferred way of getting rid of an Emacs PO file buffer. Merely killing it through the usual command C-x k (kill-buffer) is not the tidiest way to proceed.

The command 0 (po-other-window) is another, softer way, to leave PO mode, temporarily. It just moves the cursor to some other Emacs window, and pops one if necessary. For example, if the translator just got PO mode to show some source context in some other, she might discover some apparent bug in the program source that needs correction. This command allows the translator to change sex, become a programmer, and have the cursor right into the window containing the program she (or rather he) wants to modify. By later getting the cursor back in the PO file window, or by asking Emacs to edit this file once again, PO mode is then recovered.

The command h (po-help) displays a summary of all available PO mode commands. The translator should then type any character to resume normal PO mode operations. The command ? has the same effect as h.

The command = (po-statistics) computes the total number of entries in the PO file, the ordinal of the current entry (counted from 1), the number of untranslated entries, the number of obsolete entries, and displays all these numbers.

The command V (po-validate) launches msgfmt in checking and verbose mode over the current PO file. This command first offers to save the current PO file on disk. The msgfmt tool, from GNU gettext, has the purpose of creating a MO file out of a PO file, and PO mode uses the features of this program for checking the overall format of a PO file, as well as all individual entries.

The program msgfmt runs asynchronously with Emacs, so the translator regains control immediately while her PO file is being studied. Error output is collected in the Emacs `*compilation*´ buffer, displayed in another window. The regular Emacs command C-x` (next-error), as well as other usual compile commands, allow the translator to reposition quickly to the offending parts of the PO file. Once the cursor is on the line in error, the translator may decide on any PO mode action which would help correcting the error.

2.4 Entry Positioning

The cursor in a PO file window is almost always part of an entry. The only exceptions are the special case when the cursor is after the last entry in the file, or when the PO file is empty. The entry where the cursor is found to be is said to be the current entry. Many PO mode commands operate on the current entry, so moving the cursor does more than allowing the translator to browse the PO file, this also selects on which entry commands operate.

Some PO mode commands alter the position of the cursor in a specialized way. A few of those special purpose positioning are described here, the others are described in following sections (for a complete list try C-h m):

Redisplay the current entry (po-current-entry).
Select the entry after the current one (po-next-entry).
Select the entry before the current one (po-previous-entry).
Select the first entry in the PO file (po-first-entry).
Select the last entry in the PO file (po-last-entry).
Record the location of the current entry for later use (po-push-location).
Return to a previously saved entry location (po-pop-location).
Exchange the current entry location with the previously saved one (po-exchange-location).

Any Emacs command able to reposition the cursor may be used to select the current entry in PO mode, including commands which move by characters, lines, paragraphs, screens or pages, and search commands. However, there is a kind of standard way to display the current entry in PO mode, which usual Emacs commands moving the cursor do not especially try to enforce. The command . (po-current-entry) has the sole purpose of redisplaying the current entry properly, after the current entry has been changed by means external to PO mode, or the Emacs screen otherwise altered.

It is yet to be decided if PO mode helps the translator, or otherwise irritates her, by forcing a rigid window disposition while she is doing her work. We originally had quite precise ideas about how windows should behave, but on the other hand, anyone used to Emacs is often happy to keep full control. Maybe a fixed window disposition might be offered as a PO mode option that the translator might activate or deactivate at will, so it could be offered on an experimental basis. If nobody feels a real need for using it, or a compulsion for writing it, we should drop this whole idea. The incentive for doing it should come from translators rather than programmers, as opinions from an experienced translator are surely more worth to me than opinions from programmers thinking about how others should do translation.

The commands n (po-next-entry) and p (po-previous-entry) move the cursor the entry following, or preceding, the current one. If n is given while the cursor is on the last entry of the PO file, or if p is given while the cursor is on the first entry, no move is done.

The commands < (po-first-entry) and > (po-last-entry) move the cursor to the first entry, or last entry, of the PO file. When the cursor is located past the last entry in a PO file, most PO mode commands will return an error saying `After last entry´. Moreover, the commands < and > have the special property of being able to work even when the cursor is not into some PO file entry, and one may use them for nicely correcting this situation. But even these commands will fail on a truly empty PO file. There are development plans for the PO mode for it to interactively fill an empty PO file from sources. See section 3.4 Marking Translatable Strings.

The translator may decide, before working at the translation of a particular entry, that she needs to browse the remainder of the PO file, maybe for finding the terminology or phraseology used in related entries. She can of course use the standard Emacs idioms for saving the current cursor location in some register, and use that register for getting back, or else, use the location ring.

PO mode offers another approach, by which cursor locations may be saved onto a special stack. The command m (po-push-location) merely adds the location of current entry to the stack, pushing the already saved locations under the new one. The command r (po-pop-location) consumes the top stack element and repositions the cursor to the entry associated with that top element. This position is then lost, for the next r will move the cursor to the previously saved location, and so on until no locations remain on the stack.

If the translator wants the position to be kept on the location stack, maybe for taking a look at the entry associated with the top element, then go elsewhere with the intent of getting back later, she ought to use m immediately after r.

The command x (po-exchange-location) simultaneously repositions the cursor to the entry associated with the top element of the stack of saved locations, and replaces that top element with the location of the current entry before the move. Consequently, repeating the x command toggles alternatively between two entries. For achieving this, the translator will position the cursor on the first entry, use m, then position to the second entry, and merely use x for making the switch.

2.5 Normalizing Strings in Entries

There are many different ways for encoding a particular string into a PO file entry, because there are so many different ways to split and quote multi-line strings, and even, to represent special characters by backslashed escaped sequences. Some features of PO mode rely on the ability for PO mode to scan an already existing PO file for a particular string encoded into the msgid field of some entry. Even if PO mode has internally all the built-in machinery for implementing this recognition easily, doing it fast is technically difficult. To facilitate a solution to this efficiency problem, we decided on a canonical representation for strings.

A conventional representation of strings in a PO file is currently under discussion, and PO mode experiments with a canonical representation. Having both xgettext and PO mode converging towards a uniform way of representing equivalent strings would be useful, as the internal normalization needed by PO mode could be automatically satisfied when using xgettext from GNU gettext. An explicit PO mode normalization should then be only necessary for PO files imported from elsewhere, or for when the convention itself evolves.

So, for achieving normalization of at least the strings of a given PO file needing a canonical representation, the following PO mode command is available:

M-x po-normalize
Tidy the whole PO file by making entries more uniform.

The special command M-x po-normalize, which has no associated keys, revises all entries, ensuring that strings of both original and translated entries use uniform internal quoting in the PO file. It also removes any crumb after the last entry. This command may be useful for PO files freshly imported from elsewhere, or if we ever improve on the canonical quoting format we use. This canonical format is not only meant for getting cleaner PO files, but also for greatly speeding up msgid string lookup for some other PO mode commands.

M-x po-normalize presently makes three passes over the entries. The first implements heuristics for converting PO files for GNU gettext 0.6 and earlier, in which msgid and msgstr fields were using K&R style C string syntax for multi-line strings. These heuristics may fail for comments not related to obsolete entries and ending with a backslash; they also depend on subsequent passes for finalizing the proper commenting of continued lines for obsolete entries. This first pass might disappear once all oldish PO files would have been adjusted. The second and third pass normalize all msgid and msgstr strings respectively. They also clean out those trailing backslashes used by XView's msgfmt for continued lines.

Having such an explicit normalizing command allows for importing PO files from other sources, but also eases the evolution of the current convention, evolution driven mostly by aesthetic concerns, as of now. It is easy to make suggested adjustments at a later time, as the normalizing command and eventually, other GNU gettext tools should greatly automate conformance. A description of the canonical string format is given below, for the particular benefit of those not having Emacs handy, and who would nevertheless want to handcraft their PO files in nice ways.

Right now, in PO mode, strings are single line or multi-line. A string goes multi-line if and only if it has embedded newlines, that is, if it matches `[^\n]\n+[^\n]´. So, we would have:

msgstr "\n\nHello, world!\n\n\n"

but, replacing the space by a newline, this becomes:

msgstr ""

We are deliberately using a caricatural example, here, to make the point clearer. Usually, multi-lines are not that bad looking. It is probable that we will implement the following suggestion. We might lump together all initial newlines into the empty string, and also all newlines introducing empty lines (that is, for n > 1, the n-1'th last newlines would go together on a separate string), so making the previous example appear:

msgstr "\n\n"

There are a few yet undecided little points about string normalization, to be documented in this manual, once these questions settle.

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