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The gettext functions have a very simple interface. The most basic function just takes the string which shall be translated as the argument and it returns the translation. This is fundamentally different from the catgets approach where an extra key is necessary and the original string is only used for the error case.

If the string which has to be translated is the only argument this of course means the string itself is the key. I.e., the translation will be selected based on the original string. The message catalogs must therefore contain the original strings plus one translation for any such string. The task of the gettext function is it to compare the argument string with the available strings in the catalog and return the appropriate translation. Of course this process is optimized so that this process is not more expensive than an access using an atomic key like in catgets.

The gettext approach has some advantages but also some disadvantages. Please see the GNU gettext manual for a detailed discussion of the pros and cons.

All the definitions and declarations for gettext can be found in the libintl.h header file. On systems where these functions are not part of the C library they can be found in a separate library named libintl.a (or accordingly different for shared libraries).

— Function: char * gettext (const char *msgid)

The gettext function searches the currently selected message catalogs for a string which is equal to msgid. If there is such a string available it is returned. Otherwise the argument string msgid is returned.

Please note that all though the return value is char * the returned string must not be changed. This broken type results from the history of the function and does not reflect the way the function should be used.

Please note that above we wrote “message catalogs” (plural). This is a specialty of the GNU implementation of these functions and we will say more about this when we talk about the ways message catalogs are selected (see Locating gettext catalog).

The gettext function does not modify the value of the global errno variable. This is necessary to make it possible to write something like

            printf (gettext ("Operation failed: %m\n"));

Here the errno value is used in the printf function while processing the %m format element and if the gettext function would change this value (it is called before printf is called) we would get a wrong message.

So there is no easy way to detect a missing message catalog beside comparing the argument string with the result. But it is normally the task of the user to react on missing catalogs. The program cannot guess when a message catalog is really necessary since for a user who speaks the language the program was developed in does not need any translation.

The remaining two functions to access the message catalog add some functionality to select a message catalog which is not the default one. This is important if parts of the program are developed independently. Every part can have its own message catalog and all of them can be used at the same time. The C library itself is an example: internally it uses the gettext functions but since it must not depend on a currently selected default message catalog it must specify all ambiguous information.

— Function: char * dgettext (const char *domainname, const char *msgid)

The dgettext functions acts just like the gettext function. It only takes an additional first argument domainname which guides the selection of the message catalogs which are searched for the translation. If the domainname parameter is the null pointer the dgettext function is exactly equivalent to gettext since the default value for the domain name is used.

As for gettext the return value type is char * which is an anachronism. The returned string must never be modified.

— Function: char * dcgettext (const char *domainname, const char *msgid, int category)

The dcgettext adds another argument to those which dgettext takes. This argument category specifies the last piece of information needed to localize the message catalog. I.e., the domain name and the locale category exactly specify which message catalog has to be used (relative to a given directory, see below).

The dgettext function can be expressed in terms of dcgettext by using

          dcgettext (domain, string, LC_MESSAGES)

instead of

          dgettext (domain, string)

This also shows which values are expected for the third parameter. One has to use the available selectors for the categories available in locale.h. Normally the available values are LC_CTYPE, LC_COLLATE, LC_MESSAGES, LC_MONETARY, LC_NUMERIC, and LC_TIME. Please note that LC_ALL must not be used and even though the names might suggest this, there is no relation to the environments variables of this name.

The dcgettext function is only implemented for compatibility with other systems which have gettext functions. There is not really any situation where it is necessary (or useful) to use a different value but LC_MESSAGES in for the category parameter. We are dealing with messages here and any other choice can only be irritating.

As for gettext the return value type is char * which is an anachronism. The returned string must never be modified.

When using the three functions above in a program it is a frequent case that the msgid argument is a constant string. So it is worth to optimize this case. Thinking shortly about this one will realize that as long as no new message catalog is loaded the translation of a message will not change. This optimization is actually implemented by the gettext, dgettext and dcgettext functions.