PHP DevCenter
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by Joao Prado Maia

Understanding the Problem

Did you ever get into a situation in Web development where you need to create a Web site or a Web application that is dynamically available, in several languages? A lot of existing open source applications try to create their own solution for these needs, but the standard way to do this is to use Gettext, a set of GNU tools to help packages manage multi-lingual messages in their applications.

The majority of open source projects, such as Xchat and others, use Gettext to translate the messages and strings shown in their user interface to several languages. The same concept can easily be applied to a Web site or Web application, and that is the objective of this article.


So what you are looking for right now is a way to enable the Gettext PHP extension into PHP itself, to have access to its functions. If you are using Windows, you probably already have the Gettext DLL and only need to change your php.ini configuration file to enable this extension.

Do so by removing the semicolon from the front of the line where php_gettext.dll is located. After that, save the file and restart your Web server software. You will then be able to use and test the code snippets found in this article.

If you are using Linux, BSD, or any other UNIX operating system, there are more options to configure this extension. The safest bet is to get the appropriate package from your distribution vendor, like the RedHat RPM or Debian package.

Gettext 101

To simplify, the Gettext PHP extension allows you to dynamically translate strings in your PHP code by using the gettext() function to get the appropriate translated string. If the string is not translated yet, the original one is used instead.

A simple example follows:

// I18N support information here
$language = 'en';
setlocale(LC_ALL, $language);

// Set the text domain as 'messages'
$domain = 'messages';
bindtextdomain($domain, "/www/htdocs/"); 

echo gettext("A string to be translated would go here");

Setting Up the Gettext Files

Gettext works by expecting a locale directory where all of the translated strings are kept, in the following structure:


So in the case of a Web site, the locale directory would be inside the webroot. Or not; it's totally up to you, as the bindtextdomain() function showed above.

The directories you can create yourself, always remembering to create one language subdirectory for each language for which you wish to show translated strings. For instance, if you want to translate your site to Brazilian Portuguese (pt_BR), you would need to create a pt_BR subdirectory and assign the proper language code in your PHP code, like this:

// The language code goes here
$language = 'pt_BR';
setlocale(LC_ALL, $language);

// ....

So after creating the new pt_BR subdirectory, your directory structure would look somewhat like this:


After you have the directories all prepared, it's time to create the actual "pot" file, as it is usually referred to: the messages.po file. To do this, you will need to have PHP files that use the gettext() function to "mark" strings to be translated and use the xgettext command.

$ xgettext -n *.php

The line above will create a messages.po file, with some strings to be translated. It will look close to the following:

# Copyright (C) YEAR Free Software Foundation, Inc.
#, fuzzy
msgid ""
msgstr ""
"Project-Id-Version: PACKAGE VERSION\n"
"POT-Creation-Date: 2002-04-06 21:44-0500\n"
"PO-Revision-Date: YEAR-MO-DA HO:MI+ZONE\n"
"Last-Translator: FULL NAME <EMAIL@ADDRESS>\n"
"Language-Team: LANGUAGE <>\n"
"MIME-Version: 1.0\n"
"Content-Type: text/plain; charset=CHARSET\n"
"Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit\n"

#: gettext_example.php:12
msgid "A string to be translated would go here"
msgstr ""

This file contains all of the strings found inside gettext() calls, and it is used by the translators of the respective languages to translate the application (or Web application, in our case).

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