Contributing to the translation of Debian

If you’re not into packaging and if you asked how you could help Debian, someone probably suggested that you help to translate it.

It’s true that translating Debian is essential if we want to make Debian available to everybody on the world. There are many persons who are stuck as soon as they get a message in English, so it’s important to aim for 100% coverage in terms of localization.

Some vocabulary: localization vs internationalization

Internationalization (i18n) is the work that makes it possible to translate messages in a given application.

Localization (l10n) is the work of translating messages of said application. So as a translator, you’ll be doing “localization” but some knowledge of “internationalization” is still useful… because it will define how you’re supposed to provide the translations. We’ll come back to that later.

Join your localization team

Usually the translation work is shared among multiple translators within a localization team. Check out the Debian International page on www.debian.org to find out instructions for translators for each language.

Many teams have a debian-l10n-*@lists.debian.org mailing list used for coordination, feel free to ask questions on those lists when you start (but make sure that you have read the relevant documentation before).

Each team has its own workflow, so observe for a while to get used to what’s happening before asking your first questions.

What is there to translate?

The translation of most of the software provided by Debian is not handled by Debian. The Debian translation teams “only” handle the translation of:

Now before contributing to your first translation, I have to come back to internationalization to teach you a few things. In the above list, the projects marked with “(*)” do use PO files for their translation and the next sections will explain you how to work with those files.

Introduction to Gettext

The free software community has mostly standardized on a single internationalization infrastructure known as Gettext. With this tool, you’re provided a “POT file” which contains all the translatable strings. It looks like this:

# SOME DESCRIPTIVE TITLE.
# Copyright (C) YEAR Software in the Public Interest, Inc.
# This file is distributed under the same license as the PACKAGE package.
# FIRST AUTHOR , YEAR.
#
#, fuzzy
msgid ""
msgstr ""
"Project-Id-Version: dpkg 1.16.1\n"
"Report-Msgid-Bugs-To: debian-dpkg@lists.debian.org\n"
"POT-Creation-Date: 2011-09-23 03:37+0200\n"
"PO-Revision-Date: YEAR-MO-DA HO:MI+ZONE\n"
"Last-Translator: FULL NAME \n"
"Language-Team: LANGUAGE \n"
"Language: \n"
"MIME-Version: 1.0\n"
"Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8\n"
"Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit\n"
"Plural-Forms: nplurals=INTEGER; plural=EXPRESSION;\n"

#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:66
#, c-format
msgid "invalid character '%c' in archive '%.250s' member '%.16s' size"
msgstr ""

#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:81 lib/dpkg/ar.c:97 lib/dpkg/ar.c:108 lib/dpkg/ar.c:112
#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:134 utils/update-alternatives.c:1154
#, c-format
msgid "unable to write file '%s'"
msgstr ""

[…]

The lines starting with “#:” are comments that indicate the source files where the (English) string is used. This can be useful if you want check the source to have more information about how the string is used.

The lines starting with “#,” contain flags that can be important. If the “fuzzy” flag is set, the translated string is not used because it must be updated (or at least verified) since the original string evolved. The “c-format” flags indicates that the string must be a C format string, this has some implications in what’s allowed in the string (in particular when it embeds conversion specifier for arguments submitted to printf-like functions).

Another thing to note is that the translation of the empty string is used to store some meta-information about the translation itself.

Contributing a translation as a PO file

When you start a new translation, you copy that POT file to create a “PO file” for your own language (eg. fr.po for the French language). You replace some template values (identified with the upper case words in the POT file) and you replace all the empty strings on “msgstr” lines with the translation of the string that appears in the previous “msgid” line.

The result could be something like this:

# translation of fr.po to French
# Messages français pour dpkg (Linux-GNU Debian).
msgid ""
msgstr ""
"Project-Id-Version: fr\n"
"Report-Msgid-Bugs-To: debian-dpkg@lists.debian.org\n"
"POT-Creation-Date: 2011-09-23 03:37+0200\n"
"PO-Revision-Date: 2012-01-16 07:57+0100\n"
"Last-Translator: Christian Perrier \n"
"Language-Team: French \n"
"Language: fr\n"
"MIME-Version: 1.0\n"
"Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8\n"
"Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit\n"
"Plural-Forms: Plural-Forms: nplurals=2; plural=n>1;\n"
"X-Generator: Lokalize 1.2\n"

#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:66
#, c-format
msgid "invalid character '%c' in archive '%.250s' member '%.16s' size"
msgstr "caractère invalide « %1$c » dans la taille du membre « %3$.16s » de l'archive « %2$.250s »"

#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:81 lib/dpkg/ar.c:97 lib/dpkg/ar.c:108 lib/dpkg/ar.c:112
#: lib/dpkg/ar.c:134 utils/update-alternatives.c:1154
#, c-format
msgid "unable to write file '%s'"
msgstr "impossible d'écrire le fichier « %s »"

[…]

If there’s already a “PO file” for your language, there might still work to do: there might be strings that have not yet been translated and there might be “fuzzy” strings which have to be updated — strings which were already translated but where the original string has been modified.

There are software that can assist you to edit PO files: poedit, virtaal, lokalize, gtranslator. There are also special extensions for vim (packaged in vim-scripts) and for Emacs.

Submit the translation for inclusion

Once you have a complete PO file, you should submit it for inclusion. Sometimes you will have been granted commit rights to the source code repository so that you can include your translation by yourself. In the other cases, you should submit your translation with a bug report tagged “l10n” and someone else will include your work in the next release.

Depending on the team, the workflow might require a review before the submission. In that case, you usually have to send a call for review on the coordination mailing list.

Go ahead!

Hopefully those explanations will be enough to get you started. There are many other things to learn¹ but it’s good to learn while practicing…

¹ For example, can you find out why the French translation above changed “%c” in “%1$c”?

Do you want to read more tutorials like this one? Click here to subscribe to my free newsletter, you can opt to receive future articles by email.

People Behind Debian: Josselin Mouette, founder of the Debian GNOME team

Josselin Mouette is one the leaders of the pkg-gnome team, he takes sound technical decisions and doesn’t fear writing code to work-around upstream issues. He deserves kudos for the work he has put into packaging GNOME over the years. He can also be very sarcastic (sometimes he even enjoys participating to flamewars on debian lists), and there are quite a few topics where we have long agreed to disagree. But this kind of diversity is also what makes Debian a so interesting place…

Read on to learn more about the pkg-gnome team, its plans for Wheezy, Josselin’s opinion on the GNOME 3 switch, and much more.

Raphael: Who are you?

Josselin: I am a 31 years old Linux systems engineer. I started in life with physics, which I studied at the ENS Lyon. I started a thesis on experimental and numerical models for optoelectronics, but when it became clear that research was not for me, I abandoned it and accepted a job at the CEA, which holds the largest computing center in Europe. Working on these machines has been the most awesome job ever (except for it being near Paris). After that I worked a bit on system monitoring technologies.

I am married, currently living in Lyon, and working for EDF (the French historical electricity company) on scientific workstations using Debian. EDF is using Debian on more than a thousand workstations and holds the fastest Debian supercomputer in the world (200 Tflops), which makes it another obvious place for Debian developers.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Josselin: I discovered Debian in 1999 while studying at the ENS, which is one of the biggest nests of Debian developers – while being a small place, it is producing almost one Debian developer per year on average. After wondering for a while what it could be useful for, hacking on a slink snapshot made me think that it was for, well, everything except for gaming. Later, in 2002, when I was working on optoelectronics computing codes, I started to package them for Debian in order to make them easier to install, for us as well as other labs over the world. I started the NM process, and it was going smoothly but also going to take time. However, at that moment, the frozen-bubble game went out and made quite some buzz. Since I knew a guy who knew the game’s developer, he asked me to package it. The package found 3 sponsors in a very short time and was fast-tracked into the archive at a speed that was unseen before. After which the NM process was completed very quickly.

At that time, I was a heavy WindowMaker user, but I didn’t like the direction the project was taking (actually, I wonder if there was one). GNOME was starting to become attractive, but its packaging in Debian was very ineffective, with many inconsistent packages maintained by people who didn’t ever talk to each other – some of them didn’t speak English, and some of them didn’t talk at all. Together with awesome people, among which Jordi Mallach, Gustavo Noronha Silva, JHM Dassen, Ross Burton and Sébastien Bacher, we started the GNOME team in 2003, introducing consistent packaging practices, and initiating synchronized uploads. Releasing a completely integrated GNOME 2.8 in sarge was a considerable achievement; proving (together with the Perl team) that a team was the best way to maintain large package sets changed the way people work on Debian.

“Proving […] that a team was the best way to maintain large package sets changed the way people work on Debian.”

Raphael: You’re one of the most active contributors of the team which is packaging GNOME for Debian. What would you suggest to a new contributor who would like to help the team?

Josselin: There are several ways to contact the team, but the recommended one has always been IRC. We hang on #debian-gnome on the OFTC network, so just come around and ask for us.¹ The real question is what you want to do in the team. Of course, most new volunteers want to help packaging the latest and greatest version of GNOME into unstable as soon as possible, but unless they already have Debian background, this is not the easiest task. Since there are already people working on this, the “big” packages are usually waiting on dependencies.

I used to direct newcomers towards bug triage, but it is a tedious task and I’m now convinced that our huge bug backlog will never be dealt with. The most useful thing to do for newcomers now is probably to find a GNOME or GNOME-related package that needs improvement or is lagging behind, and simply try to work on it. You can also come and fix the bugs you find annoying. Find a patch on the GNOME bugzilla, or cook it yourself, propose it, and if it’s worthy enough you’ll soon get commit access.

“Our huge bug backlog will never be dealt with.”

¹ At this point I feel worth mentioning that if no one answers in 10 minutes, it doesn’t mean that no one will answer in 2 hours, so please stay on the channel after asking.

Raphael: There’s been some controversy about GNOME 3 and the direction that the project is taking. What’s your personal stance on GNOME 3? And what’s the position of the pkg-gnome team?

Josselin: The controversy is not new to GNOME 3, but the large-scale changes made with it have put it more prominently. The criticism usually boils down to a few categories:

  1. General lack of configurability
  2. Strange design decisions
  3. Red Hat centric development
  4. Hardware requirements
  5. Change resistance

The lack of configuration options has been an ongoing criticism since GNOME 2.0 has decided to rip off most of them. Of course, when the control center was redesigned again for 3.0, there was a surge of horrified exclamations from people who missed their favorite buttons. On this topic, I fully concur with GNOME developers. The configuration option that is useful for you is not necessarily useful for someone else. Of course, sometimes developers go a bit too far, but the general direction is right. At work, we found that only a minority of users actually configure anything on their desktops: they just want something that works to launch their applications. Apple and Google have sold millions of devices by making them the simplest possible and without any configuration.

Design decisions are, on the contrary, individual decisions, and each of them, while having reasons behind it, can be questioned. I remember seeing a lot of complaints when the OK and Cancel buttons were reversed in dialog boxes, something that nobody questions anymore. GNOME Shell is full of such changes; some are easy to get accustomed with, some others just make eyebrows raise. The most obvious example is the user menu in GNOME 3.2, which contains an entry to configure your Google account, but no entry to shutdown the computer. Both decisions were taken independently, each of them with (good or bad) reasons, but the result is simply ridiculous. The default configuration in Debian will contain an extension to make it a bit better, but on the whole we don’t intend to diverge from the upstream design, on which a lot of good work has been done.

“On the whole we don’t intend to diverge from the upstream design, on which a lot of good work has been done.”

Point 3 is more complex. Red Hat being the company spending the most on GNOME, it is obvious that their employees work on making things work for their distribution. An example is the recurring discussions about relying on system services that are currently only implemented by systemd. Since there is a lot of (mostly unjustified) resistance against systemd in Debian, and since it won’t work on kFreeBSD anyway, someone needs to develop an alternative implementation of these services for upstart and sysvinit. Everything is in place for someone else to do the job but it has to be done, and this can be frustrating. Especially since it can also be hard to integrate changes needed for other distributions¹.

Hardware requirements are mostly a consequence of the previous criticism: there’s hardware that most distributions just don’t want to bother supporting. We’ve seen it in squeeze with the introduction of a hard dependency on PulseAudio. The Debian GNOME team (together with the Gentoo maintainers) made this dependency optional, carrying heavy patches, in order to cover the cases where it does not work. Now that it has gained more maturity, making this effort obsolete, the new tendency is to require 3D acceleration. For various reasons, it is not available to everyone². On this matter, the position of the Debian GNOME team has always been to support as much different configurations as possible with reasonable effort. Thanks to efforts from the incredible Vincent Untz, upstream supports a so-called “fallback mode”, which is the GNOME panel from 2.x with a lot of its bugs fixed. We intend to support this mode for as long as reasonably possible in Debian, possibly even after upstream ends up dropping it. However, other applications are going to require 3D because GStreamer is moving to clutter too, affecting video playback performance on non-accelerated systems³. For epiphany this is not a problem; only embedded video will be affected. But for totem, this is a major issue; because of that we will probably keep totem 3.0 in wheezy.

Finally, there is a natural human tendency to dislike change (I have it too), and it applies a lot to desktop users’ habits. Needless to say a change of such a scale as introducing GNOME Shell can trigger reactions. However, I don’t think it is reasonable, because of this resistance, to keep gnome-panel 2.x in Debian. This would be a lot of work on obsolete technology, and would prevent the upcoming removal of a lot of deprecated libraries. This time is much better spent improving gnome-panel 3.x in Debian and keeping the “fallback mode” great. One of the change that was made in Debian was to make it easier to find, being available as “GNOME Classic” directly from the login manager, instead of having to find it in an obscure configuration panel. In all cases, I would recommend to actually try GNOME Shell for a few hours before ditching it. I had never been accustomed to a new environment as quickly ever before.

“In all cases, I would recommend to actually try GNOME Shell for a few hours before ditching it.”

¹ Having seen several of my GDM patches reverted without a warning, I know we are not finished with carrying patches in Debian packages.
² Scientific workstations are a non-trivial example, since there is a measurable effect of using 3D in the window manager on heavy 3D applications.
³ On the other hand, on accelerated systems, this feature should end up improving performance a lot.

Raphael: What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

Josselin: The first goal of the GNOME team is, of course, to provide again a great desktop environment to work on. For wheezy it will probably be based on GNOME 3.4. There also needs to be some work on package management interfaces. Upstream bases everything on PackageKit, but it is not as featureful as the aptdaemon Ubuntu technology. If I have time, I would also like to improve HTTP proxy support, since currently it is based on a stack of terrible hacks.

Raphael: If you could spend all your time on Debian, what would you work on?

Josselin: Obviously I would like to make GNOME in Debian even better. That would imply working on underneath dependencies (what we now like to call plumbing) to make sure everything is working great. This would also imply working more as GNOME upstream to make it more suitable for our needs.

I would also work on large-scale improvements on the distribution, like conditional recommends which I’d love to see implemented¹, or automatic build-dependency generation. I would also work on the installer to make it better for desktops machines.

¹ The idea is to automatically install language packs, or glues between two packages when both packages are installed.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Josselin: The obvious answer is the same as the one most people you interviewed before gave: not enough members in core teams. A lot of developers join Debian to work on a small number of pet packages, and don’t necessarily want to be involved with existing teams. It is probably still not obvious enough that the primary way to start contributing to Debian is to join an existing team.

But if there is one thing that is preventing Debian from gaining more momentum now, it is a completely different one: the too short support timeframe. 3 years is really not enough for corporate users. One year to migrate from one version to another is too short, and it is not possible to skip a release. It is definitely possible to change that with reasonable effort: the long-term support after 3 years doesn’t have to cover the same perimeter as the short-term one. For example, we could upgrade the kernel to the version in the current stable release, and stop fixing all non-remote security holes. The important thing is to cover the most basic needs: companies are ready to take the risk of having less support if it allows skipping a version, but not the risk of having no support at all. And even more important is to say that you do something. Red Hat says they support a release for 10 years, but of course after 5 years the supported perimeter is extremely small.

“3 years [of support] is really not enough for corporate users.”

Long-term support will not magically fix all problems in Debian, but it will bring more corporate users into the picture. And with corporate users come paid Debian developers, who can work on critical pieces of the system. Debian was built on the synergy between individuals and companies, and in recent years – perhaps as a reaction against what happened with Ubuntu – we’ve kind of forgot the latter. A lot of individuals have joined the project, and they are actively working, for example, on shortening the release cycle, which goes against the interest of professionals. We should embrace again such users and developers, and that means adapting to the current needs of larger entities.

Raphael: You’re the maintainer of python-support, a packaging helper that was competing with python-central. Both helpers are now deprecated in favor of dh_python2. Does this mean that the situation of Python in Debian is now sane? Or are there remaining problems?

Josselin: dh_python2 (and the Python3 version, dh_python3) has a sane enough design. It fixes a lot of issues in python-central and also python-support, at the expense of somehow reduced functionality for developers. However, just like the previous tools, it merely works around design mistakes in the Python interpreter. For example it is not possible to split binary modules, pure-Python modules and byte-compiled modules in different directory trees, like Perl does – although PEP 3147 introduces a way to do so. There is still no sane and standardized way to deal with module versions. There is no difference made between the module (which is a part of language semantics) and the file containing it (an information which depends on the implementation). Developers heavily rely on introspection features and make assumptions based on the implementation, that make it impossible to work around problems with module files.

Such problems are not restricted to Python. Those who fought against Ruby gems could tell even worse stories. While introducing GObject introspection packages in Debian (they can be used in JavaScript and Python to provide modules based on GObject libraries), I was pleased to see a clear distinction between file and module, but I was again struck by the fact you are not forced to declare API versions in your Python/JS code. In all cases, there is no reliable way to detect runtime dependencies in a given Python or JavaScript file, which leaves the maintainer to declare them by hand, and of course, often be wrong about them. Add to that the fact that most errors cannot be detected before runtime. For all these reasons, and while still being fond of Python for scripts and prototyping, I’ve become really skeptical of using purely interpreted languages to write real applications. Some GNOME developers are moving away from Python and JavaScript, mostly towards Vala; I can only approve of that move and hope the same happens to other projects.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Of course there is the never-sleeping, never-stopping, Michael Biebl who can upload a whole GNOME release in a single week-end. But there are a lot of awesome people who make Debian something that simply works. I could talk about Cyril Brulebois from the X strike force, Julien Cristau from the release team, Sjoerd Simons for his sound advice and work on plumbing, Luca Falavigna who is so fast at processing NEW, to quote only a few of those I work with frequently. And of course, Jordi and Sam for their humor.


Thank you to Josselin for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Note that you can find older interviews on http://wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook

.

Answering questions of Debian users on various support channels

When you start your journey with Debian, you tend to have lots of questions. You’ll find some answers in various documentations but there always are remaining questions. Those can be asked on various support channels:

Those are the places where you can also start your journey as a Debian contributor… instead of asking questions, you just have to answer questions of other users! Let me share some advice if you want to do some user support.

User support is difficult…

It’s not always an easy task. Some users are more skilled than others and there might be difficulties related to the language, English is not always the native language of a user who asks a question in English.

Be respectful and courteous when you answer user questions, even if they made mistakes. You’re effectively representing Debian and you should give out a good image of the project. If you don’t have the patience or the time needed to do a good answer, don’t reply and let someone else take care of this user. I invite you to read (and follow!) the Debian Community Guidelines.

Avoid RTFM answers, instead you should show the users how they could have found (alone) the solution to their problem. We don’t want to scare people away, we want to grow our community.

But it’s also rewarding

In some cases, the problem reported by the user will be a real problem and you’ll have an opportunity to file a good bug report, thus helping to improve Debian for everybody.

Often, you don’t even have the answer to the user’s question. But you’re more skilled than him/her to do researches on the web, or you know of a good documentation that might contain the relevant bits of information, in any case you’re doing further research to help this user. In this process, you also grow your own skills since you’re learning stuff that you didn’t know yet.

At least that’s how I learned many things during my first year in the Debian community… there’s no reason why you couldn’t learn lots of stuff that way, in particular if you also read the answers of other skilled people on those channels (it takes a bit of training to learn who are the skilled people though).

I still believe that doing user support is one of the best ways to join the Debian community and to start contributing. It helps you to grow your skills, and to slowly progress from “average user” to “advanced user”.

If you want to start contributing to Debian, click here to subscribe to my newsletter and get future updates for new contributors. You can also follow me on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

Debian related goals for 2012

Like last year, here’s a list of Debian related goals that I’d like to achieve this year. I might not have the time to implement all the projects, but I like to write them down to keep me motivated. And maybe it can inspire other people to implement some of them (or to help me).

  1. Finish the translation of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook

    The target is to have the book available in April. It would be nice to complete the liberation fund until then so that the book is immediately made available under a DFSG-free license.

  2. Update the Debian Administrator’s Handbook for Wheezy
  3. Translating the book in English is only the start of the journey. The real challenge is to keep the book up-to-date with each subsequent release of Debian. And Wheezy should hopefully be released in 2012 since the freeze is in June.

  4. Design and implement the Debian Package Maintenance Hub

    It’s an ambitious project that aims to merge and replace the PTS, the DDPO and their respective mail variants. It should also standardize the flow of information directed towards package maintainers. I’m going to use the DEP process to drive this project.

    This could easily take most of the year, but hopefully I’ll motivate other people to chime in and help.

  5. Implement dpkg --check-db and dpkg --repair-db

    While dpkg is fairly reliable, it’s not exempt of bugs and more annoyingly, harddrives/filesystems are not 100% reliable either, thus it happens that some internal database files get corrupted. Given that most files are text based, advanced users can manually fix them but many less skilled users are just left with a broken system that they tend to reinstall.

    To avoid this, we could provide a command that would try to automatically bring back the internal database to a sane state by looking for a working backup to restore (while at the same time marking some packages as requiring re-installation since we have some indications that they were present).

  6. Implement storage of dpkg’s internal files in Git

    This would be an extension of the former idea. Installing a package dpkg-db-history (any idea for a better name?) would setup dpkg hooks that would record every database change in a git repository. This repository could then be used to restore the last working version of the database.

Besides those concrete projects, I want to do better than last year on the topic of funding my Debian work. I will thus reiterate some objectives:

  1. Write useful articles for Debian users and Debian contributors.

    They should complete the pages Mastering Debian, Contributing to Debian 101, Debian Packaging Tutorials, and help me increase the audience of this blog.

  2. Write at least one Debian-related ebook (different from the Debian Admin Handbook) and sell it.

    It could be an ebook targetting testing users since I believe that many more users could benefit from it if they had some better knowledge of the limitations and of the way to mitigate the problems that arise from time to time.

    Or maybe it could be an ebook for people who want to start contributing to Debian, it could even be bundled with a few hours of mentoring.

  3. By the end of the year, have at least 1/3 of my time funded by donations and/or earnings of my information products.

    This means doing 3,5 times better than in 2011. It should be doable given that the sales of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook will contribute to this goal (once the translation is over).

That makes up lots of challenges for this year. Feel free subscribe to my newsletter to stay up-to-date with my progress and to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news. It’s also a good way to help me reach those goals since you will be informed of all my new projects.