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Background images that support localization

Intended audience: CSS coders, HTML coders (using editors or scripting), and anyone who plans to apply background images behind text in fixed width columns.

Updated 2012-09-16 16:42

Question

How can I ensure that when text expands in translation the background images will still work?

Background

Text tends to change size when translated. For background information about this, see Text size in translation.

This means that any background images you carefully crafted to fit behind your source text may now be too small or too large. This article looks at a way of dealing with this.

NOTE! The examples chosen for this article show how to use graphics to achieve rounded corners and gradient effects that can now be done using CSS, without the need to download graphics and with simpler code. However, at the time of this update, the requisite CSS properties are not yet supported by all major browsers, and even then only by recent versions. Furthermore, you may want to still use graphics to achieve more complicated effects. Nevertheless, the article has been updated with links to live code that show how you could use CSS rather than images for these particular examples, assuming that the browser supports the necessary properties.

The problem

For a first example we will keep things simple, and assume that we want to implement a fixed-width box on our page. The text can expand downwards, but not sideways.

Let's also assume that we want a background with a nice gradient behind the title of the box, a line across the bottom, and rounded corners. To get these effects, designers will often choose to use a background image behind the title.

A dialog box in Spanish.

This fixed-width box in Spanish has the title 'Interface Language', and a list of radio buttons to select a language. It uses this graphic to achieve the graded effect behind the title:

The background graphic.

Our CSS would look like this:

div.box h3 {
    margin: 0;
    padding: 6px 8px 4px 10px;
    font-size: 130%;
    color: #333;
    background: url(img/h3-bg.gif) no-repeat top left;
    }

The problem with this approach is that when we translate this dialogue box into something like Malay the title text expands to occupy two lines. Because the graphic used for the gradient background is only one line deep, things now begin to look a mess.

The same dialog box in Malay, with title background not covering the whole title.

Similar problems can arise with horizontally expanding text. For example, suppose the original Chinese interface included a tab metaphor using background images behind each link as follows.

Picture of tabs containing Chinese text.

If images were used for the tabs, they would have to all be redrawn for every translation - a time-consuming process. This is because the labels would all be different sizes in different languages. Sometimes a single background image is used for the graphic part of the tabs. Again, such a background would have to be redrawn for each translation, otherwise you would see something like this:

Picture of Portuguese text overflowing the tabs originally set for Chinese.

Of course, these scenarios are only examples. Such problems are not only limited to box headings and tabs, but can occur anywhere that you are trying to match background graphics with text.

Answer

The way to deal with this type of issue is to ensure that your graphic backgrounds can automatically expand with the text they are related to, and to anticipate that the box containing your text may grow during translation and avoid highly constrained spaces.

In the following subsections we will briefly allude to a small number of solutions that may help. These are just illustrations of possible approaches. For more information on how to apply these, see the original sources cited. We will spend a little more time on the first example, so that you can understand the basic idea. There may be other approaches that work. The key thing is to think how you will provide the flexibility for text to grow and shrink across different language versions.

It is important to note that the solutions described below are based on good standards-compliant code, and were initially designed to support accessibility, since people with poor vision often want to boost the text size. The approach works equally well for localization issues.

Titles in fixed width boxes

This solution deals with variable text height. One way to approach this issue is to use a graphic that is three or four lines deep behind the title. This example uses a technique described in Dan Cederholm's book, Bulletproof Web Design.

A larger version of the background graphic.

By attaching the graphic using the CSS background property, only the amount needed to view the title will actually be shown.

Note that the graphic no longer provides the solid line underneath the title. We can still apply such a line, however, by adding to the CSS as follows.

div.box h3 {
    margin: 0;
    padding: 6px 8px 4px 10px;
    font-size: 130%;
    color: #333;
    background: url(img/h3-bg.gif) no-repeat top left;
    border-bottom: 1px solid #E0CFAB;
   }

This will now produce the effect we are looking for in the translated version.

The Malay box, looking fine now.

Of course, a similar technique has to be used for the lower part of the box, since that text may also change and, with different content, add or subtract lines of text.

See an example of how to do this in CSS, for browsers that support the necessary CSS properties.

Tabs

This technique builds on the simple approach just described and shows how to maintain several graphic edges to a box while stretching the interior space horizontally. It is based on the article "Sliding Doors of CSS" by Doug Bowman. The basic idea is similar to that in the previous section, albeit a little more complicated to code. Each tab has two background graphics:

A background image for the left part of the tab. and A background image for the right part of the tab..

The two graphics are attached as backgrounds to two different, overlapping elements. Only the needed parts of the graphics are visible, and the result looks like a single background. (The article describes some additional code for the currently selected tab and the line at the base of the other tabs.)

The following tabs in Chinese and Italian use exactly the same code - only the label text has been changed - but the tabs accommodate the varied label sizes perfectly, even when the text shrinks rather than expands.

These examples are designed into this page - they aren't graphics - so you can test the expanding/shrinking behavior by increasing/decreasing the text size for this page in Firefox.

Note that we have left some expansion space to the right of the tabs. You should also consider doing this. If there is not enough space available, you will need to find a solution that allows tabs to wrap onto another line, and allow for the box or column to grow downwards to accomodate that.

See an example of how to do this in CSS, for browsers that support the necessary CSS properties.

Boxes

This example looks at boxes that can vary in size in both directions. It uses an adaptation of another technique described in Dan Cederholm's book, Bulletproof Web Design, and also draws on the Sliding Doors approach.

The HTML source code for each box is the same, except for the text. The CSS is also the same.

A max-width property has been used to ensure that the box width is never greater than 250 pixels, but it can be less than that (as is likely the case for the Japanese, if your font size is the default for this page). This causes new lines to be added to the box if the contained text is long. Nevertheless, the graphics that create the border and the rounded corners still look right.

You can find the code used for the HTML and CSS by examining the source text for this page.

There is, however, one potential issue that remains. If a single word is longer than the max-width setting, it will stick out of the side of the box. For example, with the default font settings for this page, the word for internationalization (интернационализации) will probably not fit in a box with max-width set to 100px. There are two things that can be done here.

See an example of how to do this in CSS, for browsers that support the necessary CSS properties.

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By: Richard Ishida, W3C.

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Content first published 2007-07-03. Last substantive update 2012-09-16 16:42 GMT. This version 2012-09-16 16:42 GMT

For the history of document changes, search for qa-resizing-backgrounds in the i18n blog.