TheaterMania: Lessons Learned on Localization

We recently launched a new site for an existing client, TheaterMania. We helped launch and currently maintain and develop The Gold Club, which is a subscription-based discount theater club in New York City. The new site is the same thing, but in London - same language, same codebase, new database, different servers. We only had to migrate users, which were already exported for us, so nothing exceptional there. Shouldn't be a big deal, right? We learned that's not always the case.

Architectural Decisions

One of our first problems, besides the obvious localization issues (currency, date formats, language), was to decide what we were shipping. Were we just building another site? Were we packaging software? There will most likely be more sites in other cities in the future - how far did we want to go in terms of making this a product that we could ship? In the end, we wound up going somewhere in the middle. We had to decide initially if we would use Organic Groups to have one site with multiple "clubs," one Drupal multisite installation, or multiple Drupal installations. The final decision was to combine the latter two choices - we created multisite-style directories so that if we need to take the site in a multi-site direction, we can easily do that. The sites each have a site-specific settings file, full of various configuration variables.

Now that the site has been launched, we're not sure if this list of variables will be developer-friendly moving forward, and have been keeping in mind that we may want a more elegant solution for this. The best part about this setup is that we have one codebase, one master branch, and each site is configured to use the appropriate settings. The most important thing is that this is all very thoroughly documented, both in the code, README files, and the repo wiki.

Currency & Recurly: Easier than Expected

One of the issues I thought would be very problematic was currency, but that wasn't actually an issue. All of the existing transactions are set up in cents - ie, 100 instead of 1.00 for a dollar, and that translates perfectly from dollars to pounds. We use Recurly, an external payment and subscription processor, so we didn't have to worry about any localization issues on that front. Most of the currency abstractions I did were to remove any hard-coded references to the dollar sign, and create functions and variables to get the appropriate currency symbol.

Dealing with Dates; Ugh.

Date formats were something I expected to be easy, but that wound up being more complex. I discovered hook_date_combo_process_alter() to change the display of the date in calendar popup fields. This made what I’d thought was going to be a difficult series of view handlers really simple. We have several fields using the date combo box on both content types and entities, and this function took care of them.

 * Implements hook_date_combo_process_alter().
 * Changes the date format.
function gc_display_date_combo_process_alter(&$element, &$form_state, $context) {
  if (isset($element['#entity']->type)) {
    switch ($element['#entity']->type) {
      case 'event':
        $element['value']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');

      case 'partner':
        $element['value']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');
        $element['value2']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');

      case 'promo_offer':
        $element['value']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');
        $element['value2']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');

  elseif (isset($element['#entity']->field_name)) {
    if ($element['value']['#instance']['widget']['type'] == 'date_popup' && $element['#entity']->field_name == 'field_user_csr_notes') {
      $element['value']['#date_format'] = variable_get('date_format_short');

I took the dozen or so existing date formats from Drupal, altered some of them to meet our needs, and added a few more. My head also started spinning when testing because I'm so used to M/D/Y formats that D/M/Y formats look really strange after a while, especially because code changes needed to be tested on the US and UK sites, so I had to be really careful when visually testing a page to make sure that a US page was showing 9/1/15 and the UK page was showing 1/9/15. In the future, I’d definitely advocate for a testing suite on a project like this. Overall, making sure all of the dates were changed was somewhat tedious, but not difficult. It required a lot of attention to detail and familiarity with PHP date formats, and vigorous testing by the whole team to make sure nothing had been missed.

Proper Use of t() Early == Wins Later

This project made me extremely grateful for the t() function. Since both sites were in English, we didn't have a need for site-wide translation, but we did need to localize a handful of strings, both for language issues (words like 'personalize' vs 'personalise'), and the general language preference of the stakeholders. It was easy enough to find the strings and list them in locale_custom_strings_en to switch them out. One gotcha we came across that I wasn't familiar with - you cannot use t() in your settings files. The function isn't available at that point in the bootstrapping. You can use get_t(), but we opted to remove the translation strings from any variables and make sure that t() was used when the variable was called. This wasn't something I had run into before, and it caused some problems before we figured it out.


A few tricky miscellaneous problems cropped up, too. There was a geolocation function enabled in Recurly, which was defaulting to the US and we were unable to change the settings - we also didn't realize this when testing in the US, and we scratched our heads when the London team told us the field was defaulting to US until we came across the culprit. We were able to fix it, and put in a patch for the library causing the issue.

I also realized how many various settings default to the US when working on this project - a lot of the location-related work was just abstracting out country defaults. Something to keep in mind if you're working on a project with locations. Don't make more work for developers who live or work on projects outside of the US. Plan for the future! Assume nothing!

Looking Back

I'm really glad that I worked on this project, because it's made me develop with a better eye for abstraction of all kinds, and making sure that it's easy for developers or users to work with my code anywhere. In the future, I’d put more thought into managing our configurations from the start, as well as automating the testing process, both for time-saving and better QA.

If you’ve ever worked on a site with challenges like these, I’d love to hear how you handled them! What are your best practices for managing custom locale strings and other site-specific variables? To what extent do you abstract things like dates and currency when developing a site, even when you don’t know if those will ever change?

Drupal 7
Alanna Burke Headshot

Alanna's love of content management systems started with Wordpress while working at Temple University, and continued with Drupal at Saint Joseph’s University, then on to Chromatic.