Locale::VersionedMessages::Overview - an overview of Locale::VersionedMessages


The problem of localization of an application is well understood, and is solved in a quite simple way.

Rather than hard coding messages in a program, the messages are stored in a lookup table (called a lexicon). A lexicon is a list of all of the messages for a single locale. There is one lexicon for each locale.

Every time you need to display a message in the program, it looks up the message in the lexicon for the locale you are using.

The process of localizing the program in another locale is then simply a matter of creating a new lexicon for the new locale.

The actual procedures for doing all this can be grouped into the following broad tasks:

Create the localization infrastructure

When you decide you want to localize a set of messages, you need to create the infrastructure for this. This typically consists of a set of files (one per locale), and perhaps additional files containing information about the set of messages, etc.

Because the structure of these files will follow quite rigid rules, and have different requirements (based on the localization tools being used), this step tends to be best done using a tool to initialize everything.

In it's most basic form, the infrastructure will consist of one lexicon containing every one of the messages translated to the default locale. It may also have a file containing the list (and possibly description) of the messages that will go in each lexicon.

Add messages

When a message is added to the set of messages, it has to be added to the localization files.

Every message will be labeled using a unique ID called the message ID. This message ID will not be shared by any other message in the set of messages (though it could be used in a different set).

These message IDs will be used by the program to access the actual message. Assigning the message ID is a matter of convention... there are no strict rules governing them.

As a final step, the message will need to be written out in the default locale and stored in the default lexicon. It may also be translated for other lexicons, but that is optional, and will probably be performed after the message is added by translators who understand both languages.

Translate messages

Once the message is in the default lexicon, it can then be translated to any other language for which a lexicon exists.

In general it is not required that every message be translated into every locale (i.e. be present in every lexicon). A lexicon is allowed to be incomplete. However, it is required that the default lexicon be complete (i.e. contain every single message ID and the corresponding message in the language of the default locale).

Create additional lexicons

Additional lexicons can be created and represent a translation of the program to some other language. As previously stated, with the exception of the default lexicon, it is not necessary that every message be translated... however ideally they will be.

If a message does not exist in a lexicon, the message from the default lexicon can be used, however that will result in a multilingual program, so ideally, all of the lexicons will be complete.

Maintain existing messages

The final part of the process is to maintain the messages stored in the lexicon.

In an ideal world, the messages will all get added to all the lexicons, they will be translated a single time, and after that, they'll all be static. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the real world.

Messages may change in order to clarify things, correct mistakes, or add greater detail. In some cases, as the program changes over time, the messages may become inaccurate due to changes in the functionality of the program, and the messages will need to be updated accordingly.

Changes in the message should ideally be reflected in all of the lexicons. In other words, changes to the message as it exists in the default lexicon should be reflected in all the translations. Unfortunately, none of the existing tools seemed to provide any level of support for this operation.

Translating a message is typically not done by a single individual. It's done by many people (typically one per locale) who have different time lines, different levels of attention to detail, and different amounts of time they can devote to the task. As such, if you give them a list of messages to maintain, in order to do so effectively, they need to know something about which ones are up-to-date, and which need some work.

This is the step which prompted me to write this set of tools. It seemed to me that the standard tools for localization were missing this step.

Once the lexicons are created, actually using them in a program is typically a fairly simple task.

A number of modules exist which handle various portions of the internationalization task, however none exist which provide the tools necessary to handle all of the tasks listed above.

This distribution is an attempt to deal with all of the tasks related to internationalization. It includes (or will include) a combination of modules and tools to create, use, and maintain messages for use by an application.

Although several different tools exist for handling the localization process, I'll concentrate on three: Locale::gettext, Locale::Maketext, and this one (Locale::VersionedMessages).

In contrasting Locale::VersionedMessages with the other modules, it should be noted that some of the characteristics for those modules discussed below are conventions encouraged by the module rather than forced behaviors. In some cases, the behaviors of the Locale::VersionedMessages module could be obtained using the other modules. However, I want to examine not only changes in the functionality, but changes in convention as well.


In comparing the different localization tools, I will concentrate on a few characteristics:

How are the translations stored

Translations can be stored as data files or perl modules. Data files are a bit harder to handle in a platform-neutral way, and tend to be less flexible, but are typically easier to maintain.

From a perl perspective, one disadvantage with using data files is that they are outside of the perl framework, and are stored simply as files on the filesystem. Even though perl has excellent support for installing and accessing modules, installing and accessing data files is less straightforward. Having a module work with a data file in a completely platform neutral way is difficult (though certainly not impossible) due to the different standards for different platforms. Different operating systems, and even different system administrators within a single operating system have different conventions for where data files live, so accessing data files in a way that will fit all the different circumstances is quite difficult.

Though the problems with data files are certainly not insurmountable, an alternate solution is to store the data in a perl module which can then be loaded without any extra effort on the part of the module author, or the programmer of an application that uses the module. Perl modules are very easy to access. They are also much more flexible. However, they harder to maintain automatically since they are not guaranteed to follow a specific format.

What conventions are there

Most localization tools establish conventions, which may not actually be the best convention to use in some cases, and it's worth discussing these conventions.

How are plurals handled

Perhaps the hardest part of translating a message is to correctly handle numbers. For example, if you want to translate the message:

   I found N files.

in English, you actually have two cases:

   I found 1 file.
   I found N files.  (for N>1).

You might even want to say:

   I didn't find any files.

for N=0. Other languages have equally (and in some cases, significantly more) complicated rules.

How are the localization tasks performed

The different localization tasks listed above are handled in different ways using the different tools, so they will be described briefly.

For this comparison, I will use Locale::gettext and Locale::Maketext in addition to Locale::VersionedMessages.


The Locale::gettext module is probably the most widely used of the localization modules, and has a number of advantages. The single most important advantage that the gettext tools have is that the gettext tools for localization are widely used and available practically everywhere.

The gettext lexicons are stored as data files. Interfaces to these data files exist for almost every programming language (including perl). However, there are (IMO) significant weaknesses in the gettext data files that do not lend themselves well to all of the tasks listed above.

A number of standard tools exist for maintaining the actual data files, so the tasks of creating the infrastructure, and adding messages and/or lexicons are very well supported and understood. However, important functionality is missing (due primarily to the format of the data files) with respect to maintaining translations. This will be discussed below.

The basic file in the gettext world is the PO file. In it's simplest form, this consists of a file which contains a series of messages, each of which consists of a message ID and the text. A simple, one-message PO file containing the example message (for a French locale) might look like:

   msgid  "Unable to open file %s: Err = %s\n"
   msgstr "Incapable d'ouvrir le fichier %s: Err = %s\n"

Some comments about this:

By convention, the msgid is the untranslated string (i.e. the string in the default locale), so by convention, there is no default lexicon. This means that the full message is used in the program. Although people do not necessarily have to adhere to this convention, it is often done, and I disagree with the convention. If you have a long message, especially one that is used multiple times, then you have to write the full message multiple times in the program. Also, changing the message means changing it multiple times in the program AND in every single lexicon. I find that to be an unacceptable amount of overhead.

Also, although there may be comments associated with the message, they are optional, and maintained by the translators, so in it's simplest form, the messages do not have any description (such as version information) which might aid in maintaining the messages.

Another thing to note is that the order of the substitution values (%s) must be the same in all translations.

The gettext does handle plural values, but it is tedious. You have to have a full translation for each case, which makes translating a long message tedious (a lot of repetition). As an example:

   "Plural-Forms: nplurals=3; plural=n%10==1 && n%100!=11 ? 0 :"
   "n%10>=2 && n%10<=4 && (n%100<10 || n%100>=20) ? 1 : 2;\n"

   msgid "One file removed"
   msgid_plural "%d files removed"
   msgstr[0] "%d slika je uklonjena"
   msgstr[1] "%d datoteke uklonjenih"
   msgstr[2] "%d slika uklonjenih"

This form is extremely flexible in that it allows you to choose any number of plural forms, and handle them specially. In this example, the first form (msgstr[0]) is used any time the number ends in 1, but not 11; the second is used when the number ends in 2, 3, or 4, but not 12, 13, or 14, and the last form is used in all other cases. The fact that this is a real case illustrates how complex localization can be, and the need for a very flexible tool.

One problem with gettext is that the plurality problem is handled on the entire message. If the message is long and has a lot of text surrounding the number that is not affected by the plurality of the number, a lot of repetition is present.

Finally, it does not allow for a message to have two plural items:

   I have X apples and Y oranges.

so this would have to be broken up into two messages (and depending on the message, some languages may not break into two in the same way necessary to do this in a general way).


The Locale::Maketext module differs from the Locale::gettext method in several ways.

Unlike the Locale::gettext method, it store all of the data in perl modules, however I disagree with the way it is done.

The primary module is: _PROGRAM_::_SOMETHING_ This contains the default lexicon. In addition, there are other modules: _PROGRAM_::_SOMETHING_::_LOCALE_ which contain additional lexicons. Here, _SOMETHING_ can be any string chosen by the programmer to specify that these are messages used by _PROGRAM_. By convention, it is something like: 'I18N', or 'Messages', or 'Localization', etc., but this is not a requirement.

I dislike this convention for one primary reason: it's bad practice to make every application (or set of messages) a top-level name in the hierarchy of perl modules. That is a great way to mess up the perl module namespace.

A Locale::Maketext lexicon module contains similar information to the gettext PO file, but is stored in the form of a hash:

   %Lexicon = (
      "Unable to open file [_1]: Err = [_2]\n" =>
         "Incapable d'ouvrir le fichier [_1]: Err = [_2]\n"

Again, by convention, the untranslated message is often used as the message ID, and the default lexicon can basically be empty in this case.

Aside from that, this method has a number of potential advantages over the gettext.

Since the lexicons are hashes, other information could be stored in them; however, at this point, none is.

Locale::Maketext is not limited to having substitutions the same in every language. Since they are referred to by number, they can be in different orders in different translations.

Finally, Locale::Maketext handles plurals differently. It is done in a less flexible, but more convenient way:

   %Lexicon = (
      "Found" =>
         "Found [quant,_1,document,documents,nothing]" =>,

This returns one of the messages:

   Found 1 document
   Found 3 documents
   Found nothing

In other words, the first form is singular (and 1 is prepended), the second is for numbers greater than 1 (and the number is prepended), and the the third form is for numbers less than or equal to zero (but the number is NOT prepended).

The general form is much more convenient than Locale::gettext, but it is certainly less flexible than the gettext version.

However, any number of [quant...] substitutions can be embedded, so translating:

   I found N apples and M oranges

is possible.

The main disadvantage to the Locale::Maketext toolkit is that there are no tools to help in creating or maintaining the modules that make up the lexicons.

All handling of the messages is done manually, and this definitely hampers the practical usefulness of this toolkit to those responsible for maintaining a translation.


The Locale::VersionedMessages stores all data in perl modules similar to Locale::Maketext, but it uses a different hierarchy:

Every set of messages is defined in a module:


This modules does NOT contain a lexicon. Instead, it contains a simple description of all messages, including information that will be useful to translators. The format of this module is:

   $DefaultLocale = _LOCALE_;
   @AllLocale     = (_LOCALE_, _LOCALE_, ...);

   %Messages = (
      'Unable to open file' =>
          'vals'   => ['FILE','ERR'],
          'desc'   => 'The I/O error for when a file cannot be opened',

Any number of lexicons will be stored, each in a module:


The format of a lexicon module is:

   %Messages = (
      'Unable to open file' =>
            'vers'   => 3,
            'text'   => "Unable to open file [FILE]: Err = [ERR]\n"

Clearly, there is a lot more information here, and since data is stored as key/value pairs in a hash, additional information may be added in the future without fear of breaking existing code. It should also be noted that currently the values of 'desc' (in the description module) and 'text' (in the lexicon modules) can be UTF-8. All other values are straight ASCII.

It should be noted that SET is explicitly NOT defined to be the name of a program. I would like to encourage creation of reusable sets of messages, so there could be a set called IO_Errors (which contained common I/O errors), Buttons (which contained common button labels used in programs), etc.

In order to help with maintaining the modules, the format of these modules is fairly rigid. They can be edited by hand, or they can be maintained using the included tools.

Unlike both of the other methods listed above, I encourage using a convention where the message ID is NOT the message in the default lexicon. Instead, by convention, it is a short string describing the message that will not need to be changed, even if the text of the message does change.

There are too many problems with using the untranslated message as the message ID.

If you ever need to change the text of the message, for any reason, it involves both changes to the lexicons AND changes to the program using the lexicons.

If the message is multi-line, it is simply not practical to use it as the message ID, so you'll end up using a shorter message description as the ID anyway.

If the message is too short (perhaps only one or two words, such as the label on a button), a good translation may require some contextual information that is not available from the one or two word message itself.

So, I consider it a very poor convention to use the following as message IDs:


   I have [quant,n,apple,apples] and [quant,m,orange,oranges]

   This is a long message.
   It's multi-line.
   And I don't want to use it as a message ID.

The first is two short. A translator may not be able to translate it without knowing some context. The second contains a lot of information that doesn't need to be in the message ID and it tends to complicate and obscure the actual message. The third is too long.

Far better message IDs would be:

   Cancel button label

   How many apples [n] and oranges [m]

   Multi-line sample message

Then, the text above can go in the appropriate lexicon.

It IS appropriate (though not necessary) to include the values that need to be passed in as that allows the programmer to easily see what variables need to be passed in.

Another problem with using the messages as the message IDs is that the default lexicon can then be left empty (which is done in practice). When you do that, it is much harder to find a list of messages that need to be kept up-to-date. In my opinion, the default lexicon should ALWAYS contain every single message.

Locale::VersionedMessages handles plural items in a format that is similar to Locale::Maketext, but with most of the flexibility of Locale::gettext.

A message might include:

   A simple substitution is [mystring]

   This is a formatted decimal number: [num:%3.1d]

   I have [n:quant [_n=1] [1 orange] [_n<1] [no oranges] [_n oranges]]

All values are passed in by name rather than by position in the argument list.

The format for this is covered in the main manual for this module. It can handle much more complicated cases, such as the one given above in the gettext description.

As already mentioned, this module provides tools for creating and maintaining the modules. The format of the modules is very simple. They consist of some simple perl data structures which contain all the message information.

It can be edited by hand, or maintained automatically (though doing this will format the file automatically, remove comments, etc.). It will also remove any perl other than the data structures, so it is highly recommended that translators stick to the simplest forms of the modules.

The single largest advantage to the Locale::VersionedMessages module is that it includes the ability to truly maintain lexicons by providing version numbers for every single message.

When a message in the default lexicon is modified, the version number will be incremented. This allows you to easily see which messages in which lexicons are out-of-date with respect to the default lexicon. Other tools only allow you to see which messages are missing from a lexicon, and this is a significant weakness in them.


Currently, the Locale::VersionedMessages distribution includes one tool (lm_gui) which is a Perl-Tk based graphical tool for managing message sets and lexicons. At some point, a command line tool may also be made available, but it is not yet ready for general use.

The lm_gui tool is not as pretty as I'd like. It is based on my somewhat limited knowledge and experience with Perl-Tk, so it is definitely not the most polished application, but it is fully functional (and I plan on improving it's look over time).

In addition, it's fully localized, so it can be used both as the tool to manage your own localization, and as a complete reference example. It should be noted that all messages should be entered as UTF-8 text, NOT in some other encoding. Future versions of the tool may support additional encodings.

The lm_gui tool will read and write the perl modules that contain a message set description and the lexicons. Since the modules are simply created by writing out perl data structures, any changes made to them such as added comments, changes in formatting, etc., will be lost, so if you choose to use this tool, be aware of that if you choose to also manually edit the files.

The lm_gui tool supports all of the operations described above involved in creating and maintaining a localization infrastructure.

Create the localization infrastructure

To create the infrastructure for a new set of messages, run the lm_gui tool. When creating a new set, you will have to supply a directory and the name of the set.

The directory be where the Locale::VersionedMessages hierarchy of perl modules describing this set will live. Inside the specified directory will be a hierarchy Locale/Message/Sets and the modules will be created and placed in that directory.

The set name is a simple alphanumeric/undersocre label naming the message set.

After specifying that, you will also be required to select the default locale (which should be something in the form en_US).

Once that's done, the message infrastructure will be created (though it will contain no messages at this point). You'll then be able to use the lm_gui tool to add messages and lexicons.

Add messages

To add a new message, click on the Add Message button in lm_gui. You'll then be asked for the following information:

The Message ID is a simple one-line label for the message. This will be used inside the program to reference the message. Message IDs MUST be unique within the set of messages.

The Message Description is an optional one-line description of the message. It is used only to give translators additional information about the message. It can contain UTF-8 text.

The Substitution Values are the names of the parameters that can be passed in the Locale::VersionedMessages::message to be inserted in to the message. This should be a space separated list of names, and is optional.

Finally, you have to enter the text of the message as it appears in the default locale. The text can include UTF-8 text.

Create additional lexicons

The lm_gui tool can also be used to create a new lexicon file. Just type in the name of the new locale (in the form en_US) and it'll create the lexicon. At that point, you can translate any/all of the messages for the new locale.

Translate messages
Maintain existing messages

Maintaining messages is the central task of the lm_gui tool. Because every message has a version number, the tool can easily be used to maintain different translations, even when the default messages are changing.

When working with the default lexicon, you can modify the text of the message in the default locale. You can also modify the description of the message if desired.

It is even possible to adjust the message ID (and it will be changed in all existing lexicons automatically). This should be done very rarely since that will entail modifying the source code of all applications which use this message. As a general rule, the message ID should not be modified once it is in use.

When modifying the text of the message, by default, the version number in the default lexicon will be incremented. This will have the effect of flagging the message in all other lexicons as out-of-date. If the change to the message is so simple that it should not increment the version (such as fixing a typo or simple grammatical error), click on the Leave Version Unmodified box.

When working with other lexicons, the list of message IDs will be displayed with some color coding. Red messages are missing from this lexicon, so they need to be translated. Yellow messages are in the lexicon, but are marked out-of-date. All other messages are up-to-date in this lexicon. When a message ID is selected, the description of the message and the text in the default locale will be displayed. This will allow you to compare the translation to the default message. If you modify the message, by default, it will then be treated as up-to-date. If you modify the message, but feel that it still needs later work, you may want to click on the 'Mark Out-Of-Date' box so that the message will be left in an out-of-date state. You can even click on that box with a message previously marked as up-to-date to flag the message for later review.


Please refer to the Locale::VersionedMessages documentation for information on submitting bug reports or questions to the author.




This script is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the same terms as Perl itself.


Sullivan Beck (