writing about things, sometimes.

Localization of dates in web pages

Written by Omar Polo on 03 August 2020 while listening to Dream in Color” by Grant Lee Phillips.

I'll surely not be the first one to acknowledge that localization is way more complex than a mere translation, but recently I was almost bitten by a details, and that's the reason for this entry. There are cases when it's easy to think that localization equals translation.

One common thing is printing dates: the date of when a comment was posted, the publication date of a post or the creation date of an entity, and so on. The javascript Date object has an .toLocaleDateString() method that prints a locale-aware representation of the date using the user locale, or the provided one

d = new Date()
d.toLocaleDateString() // my locale is en-US
// 8/3/2020

// 3/8/2020

// 2020/8/3

Now, let's say that you have an application that's available in various languages. Let's assume, without loss of generality, that Italian isn't among the languages you support, what happens if an Italian use you web application? You may, as it's common, use English as default fallback language, and the user is probably fine with that.

If you've used .toLocaleDateString, or similar functions, without specifying the locale, now you're screwed. Or, to say at least, you have a confused user. Your user will read phrases like:

[...] posted on 3/8/2020.

that just can't be interpreted correctly. The user will probably assume that since the site is in English the date is probably in the format month/day/year, while it may be according to his locale and thus be interpreted as day/month/year.

The fundamental problem here is a lack of context between the application and the user. While the HTML time tag has the datetime attribute to provide a machine-readable date, no browsers as far as I know provide a way to inform the user how that date (or date time) should be interpreted. It's only useful to machines, not to users.

To reach a conclusion, what should be done? Honestly I don't think there is a silver bullet. In some occasions I decided to use the less ambiguous YYYY/MM/DD format, but it may not always be applicable. You could try to map languages with locales, but it also may not work as there isn't a bijection between languages and locales

// "2020/8/3"
// "R2/8/3"

and bloating the settings with things like "How you prefer date to be printed" may be a bit silly.

I'm starting to think that providing locale-aware APIs that don't take an explicit locale as required argument is just broken, but I may be wrong.

P.S. node, at least on my system -- OpenBSD -CURRENT as of a couple of days ago, seems to completely ignore the given locale.

P.P.S. this commit from mpv was just too funny to read, it reinforces my thought on requiring the locale in locale-aware APIs.