Always define the language and the direction of your HTML documents, part 02: Backwards English

In part 01 of these series, I showed why is it important to always define the language and the direction of all HTML content and not rely on the defaults: The content may get embedded in a document with different direction and be displayed incorrectly.

This issue is laughably easy to avoid: If you are writing the content, you are supposed to know in what language it is written, so if it’s English, just write <html lang=”en” dir=”ltr”> even though these seem to be the defaults. Nineteen or so characters that ensure your content is readable and not displayed backwards. Please do it always and tell all your friends to do it.

The problem is that you don’t only have to explicitly set the language and the direction, but, as silly as it sounds, you have to set them correctly, too. A more subtle, but nevertheless quite frequent and disruptive bug is displaying presumably, but not actually, translated content in a different direction. This happens quite frequently when a website supports the browser language detection feature, known as Accept-Language:

  1. The web server sees that the browser requests content in Hebrew.
  2. The web server sends a response with <html lang=”he” dir=”rtl”>, but because the website is not actually translated, the text is shown in the fallback language, which is usually English.
  3. The user sees the content just like this numbered list, which I intentionally set to dir=”rtl”: with the numbers and the punctuation on the wrong side, and possibly invisible, because English is not a right-to-left language.

Of course, it can go even worse. Arrows can point the wrong way and buttons and images can overlap and hide each other, rendering the page not just hard to read, but totally unusable.

This bug is also an example of the Software Localization Paradox: It manifests itself when Accept-Language is not English, but most developers install English operating systems and don’t bother to change the preferred language settings in the browser, so they never see how this bug manifests itself. The site developers don’t bother to test for it either.

The solution, of course, is to set a different language and direction only if the site is actually translated, and not to pretend that it’s translated if it’s not.

Here are two examples of such brokenness. Both sites are important and useful, but hard to use for people whose Accept-Language is Hebrew, Persian or Arabic.

Here’s how the Mozilla Developer Network website looks in fake Hebrew:

Mozilla Developer Network website, in English, but right-to-left

Mozilla Developer Network website, in English, but right-to-left

Notice how the full stops are on the left end and how the text overlaps the images in the tiles on the right-hand side. This is how it is supposed to look, more or less:

Mozilla Developer Network home page in English, left-to-right

Mozilla Developer Network home page in English, left-to-right

I manually changed dir=”rtl” to dir=”ltr” using the element inspector from Firefox’s developer tools and I also had to tweak a CSS class to move the “mozilla” tab at the top.

The above troubles are reported as bug 816443 – lang and dir attributes must be used only if the page is actually translated.

After showing an example of a web development bug from a site for, ahem, web developers, here is an even funnier example: The home page of Unicode’s CLDR. That’s right: Unicode’s own website shows text with incorrect direction:

The Unicode CLDR website, in English but right-to-left

The Unicode CLDR website, in English but right-to-left

The only words translated here are “Contents” (תוכן) and “Search this site” (חיפוש באתר זה), which is not so useful. The rest is shown in English, and the direction is broken: Notice the strange alignment of the content and the schedule table. A few months ago that table was so broken that its content wasn’t visible at all, but that was probably patched.

Here’s how it is supposed to look:

The CLDR home page in English, appropriately left-to-right

The CLDR home page in English, appropriately left-to-right

I tried reporting the CLDR home page direction bug, but it was closed as “out-of-scope”: The CLDR developers say that the Google Sites infrastructure is to blame. This is frustrating, because as far as I know Google Sites doesn’t have a proper bug reporting system and all I can do is write a question about that direction problem in the Google Sites forum and hope that somebody notices it or poke my Googler friends.

One thing that I will not do is switch my Accept-Language to English. Whenever I can, I don’t just want to see the website correctly, but to try to help my neighbor: see the possible problems that can affect other users who use different language. Somebody has to break the Software Localization Paradox.

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