A compiler or source-to-source translator are tools that read in a text file containing a program and write out another text file containing the translation of that program. For compilers, that generated program is in a low-level language such as assembly language, byte-codes for a virtual machine such as the Java virtual machine (JVM), or sometimes even C. For source-to-source translators the generated program is a higher-level language, which may or may not be the same language as the input program. Thus, the name “compiler” is a bit of a misnomer; it is simply a translator that generates low-level code. Compilers and source-to-source translators are essentially the same kinds of tools built using the same techniques.

Throughout this document we will use the term “translator” to indicate any tool that translates a program from one language, the source language, to another, the target language. In some cases the source and target languages are the same; for example a tool that reformats a program to comply with strict formatting guidelines.

It is common practice to construct language translators as a series or pipeline of components that perform the major tasks in program translation.


The scanning process reads in program text and recognizes its lexical syntax. This process involve recognizing lexical constructs such as keywords (e.g. while or if), identifer names (e.g. x, area, etc.), literal values (e.g. 1, 3.14, "Hello", etc.) and generating a sequence of tokens,one for each such recognized construct. This sequence of tokens is passed on to the parsing phase that follows. The scanner is also responsible for recognizing and removing comments from the input stream; for these no token is generated.

For example, from the input stream while ( x < 100 ) x = x * x ; the following list of tokens may be generated:

[ Whilet(“while”), LParent(“(“), Idt(“x”), LTt(“<”), IntLitt(“100”), RParent(“)”), Idt(“x”), EQt(“=”), Idt(“x”), Start(“*”), Idt(“x”), Semit(“;”)]


The parsing process recognizes the syntactic structure in the sequence of tokens produced by the scanner. This structure is represented as a tree. For example, the parser would create a tree with a root node labeled to indicate that it was a while-loop with two children; the first being the tree representing the while-loop condition and the second being the tree representing the while-loop body.

This tree is called the concrete syntax tree since it is based on the specification of the actual concrete syntax, as opposed to a simplified abstract syntax that is sometimes used in the following semantic analysis phase.

Semantic analysis

This phases examines a tree representation of the program to perform analysis such as type checking and error reporting.

Code generation

This is the final phase in which some translation of the tree representation is generated. This may be byte-code, machine code, or a translation to a language such as C. In most compilers this phase is preceded by an optimization phase.

Next Section: Scanning