JS Questions: What’s a Transpiler?

This is the seventh in a series of posts I’m writing that aims to provide concise, understandable answers to JavaScript-related questions, helping me better understand both foundational concepts and the changing landscape of language updates, frameworks, testing tools, etc.

What’s a Transpiler?

JavaScript transpilers emerged when the latest big update to JavaScript (ES2015) was released, which brought about some major changes to the language (such as arrow functions and classes). These updates have been good for developers, making it easier to write code in an intuitive and concise manner.

Before ES2015, the most recent update to the language had been in 2009, and since 2015, two more updates have been released, ES2016 and ES2017. With the recent rapid changes to JS, web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari have been unable to maintain compatibility with the language, and transpilers are used to bridge the gap between them.

This table breaks down different browsers’ compatibility with JS versions by feature, giving a sense of the types of issues that must be accounted for by web browsers with language updates.

Transpilers such as Babel take care of this compatibility issue by transforming code to follow earlier conventions the browser can support. Essentially, a transpiler allows a programmer to have the convenience of coding in the most recent version of JS, while still being able to revert the code to an earlier standard. The transpiled code probably won’t be as readable as it would be if it had been written by a programmer (check out Babel’s repl to test this), but it shouldn’t matter–transpiled code will be handed off to the compiler to transform into computer-readable code.

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