Browser Add-ons, Google Chrome, Interpr.it, Launch Announcement, Mozilla, Mozilla Firefox, Programming

Improving the browser extension localization process

Executive summary: I’ve developed a new site to help extension authors and translators collaborate; it’s called Interpr.it.

My least favorite aspect of developing browser extensions is localization. Writing the actual code to internationalize an extension isn’t so bad, but keeping the translation files up to date has always been a chore. (Localization is the process of translating software into different languages; internationalization is writing software that can be easily localized.)

The preeminent site in the extension localization space is Babelzilla. Babelzilla has been around since 2006, and it is the only site that I know of for pairing extension developers with translators. It works, but I’ve never felt that it works especially well, and when you can’t release an update to your extension because Babelzilla is down or buggy (preventing you from retrieving the latest locale files), it’s very frustrating.

Localizing Google Chrome Extensions

When I started developing browser extensions for Google Chrome, I was surprised to find that no Babelzilla equivalent exists, even though Chrome has very full-featured internationalization support for extensions – apparently, extension developers in this ecosystem are expected to come up with their own ad hoc solutions for managing their extension translations. “Ad hoc” is not a term I enjoy applying to solutions, so I decided to see what I could do to improve upon the Babelzilla experience for Chrome extension developers.

Centralizing Extension Internationalization

In developing a translation site for Chrome extensions, I had two goals:

  1. A full-featured API that allows developers to interact with the site without visiting it.
  2. A clean and simple interface for translators that reduces the barrier to entry as close to zero as possible.

With these two goals in mind, I developed Interpr.it. On Interpr.it, developers upload their extensions, translators localize them into their native language, and then developers can download the new locale files to use in their next extension update.

Interpr.it for Developers

Developer interaction is limited to the upload and download of locale files. In fact, developers can interact with Interpr.it completely from the command line via the /api/upload and /api/download API methods. (There are also API methods for translating messages and retrieving the translation history of a message.)

Interpr.it for Translators

Once an extension has been uploaded to Interpr.it, a status page is generated that shows the progress made on all of the locales supported by Chrome for extensions. Here’s an example screenshot of that page:

Each locale code links to a translation page, which is a listing of all of the messages (or “phrases” or “strings”) used in the extension. Here’s what one of those messages looks like:

There are 4 aspects to the UI for translating a single message:

  1. The original un-translated message.
  2. A description of the message from the developer, which adds context to the message.
  3. The placeholders in the message, used to insert information which can’t or shouldn’t be translated.
  4. The history of the message’s translation, which shows previous revisions and allows a developer or translator to revert changes.

(Not every message will have a description, placeholders, and a translation history.) The translator types the translated phrase in the box, and as soon as they hit the tab key (or click outside of the box), the message is automatically saved without a page reload.

Additional Interpr.it Features

Sign in/out is tied to your Google account, so you don’t have to create another username and password; it seemed like a natural fit for a site focused on Google Chrome extensions.

The Interpr.it site itself is localized using itself. (Interpr.it obviously isn’t a browser extension, but it does use Google Chrome-style JSON locale files, so it’s compatible with Interpr.it’s translation system.) To access a localized version of Interpr.it, select a locale code from the menu in top-right corner of the website, or manually type a URL like es.interpr.it.

Interpr.it will also automatically fill in any translations that have been previously completed for other extensions. For example, if a translator has already translated ‘Thank you’ into French for another extension, and a different developer’s extension uses the phrase ‘Thank you,’ Interpr.it will automatically transfer that translation. (There’s been some discussion as to whether this will backfire, but I have been unable to come up with identical English phrases that would result in different translated phrases. If you can come up with some, I’d love to hear them.)

Open for Business

If you’re a Chrome extension developer, you can upload your extension to Interpr.it right now. I’m already using it to manage localization for the Interpr.it website and two of my Chrome extensions, and so far, thirteen different translators have translated a total of 1087 messages.

After I have some more time to collect feedback from developers and translators, I plan on either adding support for Mozilla browser extensions or possibly donating code to the Babelzilla project to improve their experience for developers (if they’re interested).

Feedback

If you’ve read this far, I want your feedback. Even if you’re not involved in the development or translation of browser extensions, I want to know what you think – were you not aware of the process at all? Does it sound like a problem worth solving? If you are familiar with the problems faced by developers and translators, do you think that Interpr.it is an improvement upon the Babelzilla experience? Or am I wasting my time reimplementing something that already (kind of) exists? What features would you like to see? What localization/internationalization issues do you find irritating? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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