SVN Tips for Translators

SVN is one of the most useful tools available for keeping up-to-date with your PO files. It’s not difficult to use, and once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you ever got on without it. ;)


Why use Source Control?

Most projects use some form of source control to manage their files. Source control makes it possible for many people to work on the same file, without confusion or lost data. Anyone who wants to change that file simply gets the latest copy from the repository (location of the shared files), adds his or her improvements, then commits (writes) the file back to the repository. The source control software makes sure that each person’s additions are integrated in the main file.

For example, if you add a section on Kumquats to the document on citrus fruits, then commit it, your colleague will see it when she checks out (downloads from the repository) the latest copy, to add her views on Grapefruit (good for you but sour comfort in the mornings). Once her grapefruit information is committed, another colleague may add forceful comments on the delightful taste of grapefruit, and commit them. The original non-lover of grapefruit can check out the latest file and add aspersions on her colleague’s tastebuds, which were shot off in the war. All nice, clean fun, while the SVN server collects all the information and maintains the current file.

How does this affect us translators? Source control means we have access to the latest .po file at any time.

Note: a GUI front-end for SVN like svnX makes using SVN even easier! Your file-browser might also have embedded SVN functions.//

How do I get the files?

All you need to get your latest PO file, is the source control address of its directory on the server. In the case of SVN, the address will either look like svn:// or

In other words, SVN files, just like webpages, have their own address. Like many websites, they ask you to login. If you want to be able to commit files (add them to the repository) you need permission (write access), just as you would need permission to add or change files on a website. This permission system protects our hard work from being altered or damaged by unauthorized people.

For example, Sourceforge uses the method, which requires you to input your Sourceforge account username and password. You would also need permission from the developers of your Sourceforge project, to commit files. Many svn:// servers use SSH to identify you when you connect. A server may be willing to let you checkout (download) files anonymously, but it certainly doesn’t want to accept files from a stranger. Don’t be a stranger: setup your SVN access. :)

To commit your files, if you don’t have write access, you will be asked to upload them using a tracker, or to email them to the developers, who will later commit your files to the repository.

What are the key points?

  • Checkout your working copy (your own local copy of the files on the server). This might be the whole source tree, containing all the files making up the project, or it might be part of that tree, only one branch, or only the /po directory containing your PO file. Checking out directories (you can’t checkout single files) is as simple as svn co svn_address. You can use the whole word checkout or simply co for short. Type the command when you are in the directory where you want the server files to arrive.
  • Notice an .svn directory that has also arrived from the server. This little folder is the key to source control. It keeps notes on where your files belong on the server, and what revision (version) of the files you have. Everytime you use SVN in that directory, that little .svn folder updates its information. It knows if your files come from a branch (separate version of the program), it knows exactly when you last updated or committed them. So anything you do outside your working copy doesn’t count: you must use SVN within it.
  • Always update your working copy before making any changes. Updating asks the server for the latest revision of the file. If you run svn update in your /po directory, the server will update every file in it to the latest revision. Your translation editor or text editor may also be able to update individual translation files via SVN. Either way, you must update your xx.po from inside its /po directory (or higher((Inside the working copy, SVN commands have a hierarchical effect: running svn update in any directory which contains /po will also update /po, and any other contained directories. So, if /po is on the path /trunk/messages/po, updating the messages directory will also update /po and any other directories it contains, and updating trunk will update the whole working copy.))). Even if you have downloaded a new copy of the file from the Web, or have been sent a new copy by email, you must update your working copy of xx.po before making any changes. Otherwise the server won’t know that you have the latest file.


Problem 1

Minh receives the latest vi.po file for Program X by email, or downloads it from the Web. He saves it to his /po directory. He updates his translation. Then he tries to commit the updated PO file. The SVN server refuses it, says it is out-of-date! Why? It’s the latest file.

Solution 1

The file may be the latest, but the SVN server doesn’t know that. As far as it knows, Minh last updated his vi.po file via SVN some time ago. He certainly hasn’t updated his /po directory from the server. So the server refuses any files from what it sees as an old working copy. Imagine this conversation:

vi.po: Let me in!

Program X svn server: Who are you?

vi.po: I’m, um, vi.po.

Program X svn server: So you say. Are you the latest vi.po? I don’t want you overwriting a newer file. I have to check up on you. Wait over there, and don’t interrupt.

*Program X svn server queries the .svn folder in the same directory with vi.po*

Program X svn server: Do you know this vi.po?

.svn folder: There’s a vi.po here with me.

Program X svn server: How recent is it?

.svn folder: This directory hasn’t been updated from the server for a couple of days.

Program X svn server: Really? thanks.

*Program X svn server now has the information it needs.*

Program X svn server: Hey, vi.po!

vi.po: Yes? Can I come in now?

Program X svn server: Get lost. You’re an old version.

vi.po: But I’m not! I’m the latest version, all updated!

Program X svn server: Not according to your .svn directory. End of conversation. Stop wasting my time.

Doing it right 1

Minh receives an updated vi.po file via email, or downloads it from the Web. He saves it somewhere else on his disk (not in his working copy /po directory), then updates his translation. When he’s ready to commit the file, he runs svn update in the /po directory where the old file is. Then, if he is sure his edited file is the latest one, he saves it on top of the updated one from the server. He runs svn commit inside the /po directory.

Problem 2

Sonja wants to know if her ro.po file for Program Y has been updated or not. She looks at the ro.po file in her working copy /po directory. She updated it yesterday, so it’s pretty current, she thinks. It has some untranslated and fuzzy strings, so she updates the translation, then commits the file. The SVN server rejects the file, saying it is out-of-date. Why? She updated it yesterday!

Solution 2

Another member of Sonja’s translation team has fixed some typos in the existing translations. He committed his changes this morning. So yesterday’s file is no longer the current copy of the ro.po file.

Doing it right 2

Sonja wants to know if her ro.po file for Program Y has been updated or not. She updated it yesterday, but who knows what has happened on the server since then? She runs svn update in her /po directory. She now has the current copy of ro.po, so she can update her translation, then commit it.

Problem 3

Jean-Christophe wants to know if his fr.po file for Program Z has been updated or not. He updated it yesterday, and in our example, he is unfortunately the only member of his translation team, so there aren’t any other translators! Nobody else would change the file. So he goes ahead and updates the translation, then tries to commit the file. The SVN server rejects the file, saying it is out-of-date. Why? No other translator can have changed the file!

Solution 3

The developer added a couple of new strings, and committed them this morning. She then updated all the .po files. Jean-Christophe’s version of the file is no longer the latest one. The moral of this story being: you can never assume you’re the only person who would change a file, unless you’re the only person with write access, and even then, you might have setup some regular scripts which update the files! So don’t assume: svn update.

Doing it right 3

Jean-Christophe wants to know if his fr.po file for Program Z has been updated or not. He updated it yesterday, but anything could have happened since then. He runs svn update in the /po directory. He now has the current copy of fr.po, so he can update his translation, then commit it.


There is still a small probability that someone else might change the file on the server while you’re editing the file. It’s unusual, but it does happen, either by coincidence, or in very busy projects/teams. If you’ve svn-updated the file before working on the translation, and your commit is rejected as being out-of-date, you can do one of two things.


  • Run svn update in the /po directory. This will create conflicts between the newer file on the server and your file. Extra files called xx.po.mine and xx.po.zzzz (where zzzz is the revision number of the current file on the server) and possible another dot file at the top, will be created in the /po directory. The conflicts will be shown between markers (>>>>> and <<<<<) in your xx.po file, with both copies of each changed line or string shown: marked mine and zzzz. You can choose which one to keep in each case. Make sure you have removed all signs of conflict, including the extra files, before trying to commit again. This is a messy process, and should be avoided if possible.
  • If you have a backup copy of your completed translation (and you should always keep a backup copy of your work, asking your translation editor to create one automatically, or creating one in another directory before trying to commit), delete your xx.po file in your /po directory. Run svn update in the /po directory. The server will update the directory to the current revision by making sure you have all the latest files, including a brand-new, shiny copy of xx.po. (It will replace any missing files.) Now you can save your backup copy over the new xx.po, or update your translation in that file, whichever works best for you at the time. Then commit! This method is much safer, since it avoids the messy conflicts. When you get into a mess with your working copy, you can always delete your own files and update them from the server. svn update will always checkout the current copy of that directory for you.


So, basically you can checkout your working copy (at least the directory containing your file), which gives you your xx.po file and the .svn folder which keeps track of its status. Anytime you want to know if the file has changed, run svn update in that directory. Then open xx.po in your editor, add new translations or fix older ones, save it, and commit it! Don’t forget to edit the ChangeLog [1] if there is one.


[1]A text file, usually in the same directory, which contains entries of the format Date Filename What changed Name and Email address.