Korean Translation Tip: Cardinal Rules of Korean-Language Layout

If you want to do Korean-language layout in-house, then there are two cardinal rules to follow (and I’m going to underline and bold them because they’re so important):
  • When laying out the body text, either left- AND right-justify the text OR make sure you end each line of text between words, not in the middle of words.
  • In titles or short phrases and bullet points, don’t left- or right-justify; just make sure you end each line of text between words, not in the middle of words.
(Mostly) like Japanese and Chinese, each Korean character is a syllable. But unlike Japanese and Chinese, Korean is made up of words which are separated by spaces.
If you are left/right-justifying the text, then it’s OK to end a line between characters of a word and you don’t have to put a dash at the end of the line to show that a word’s been separated. But if you’re going to leave the right side ragged, then you’ve got to separate at the spaces between words. It looks uber-tacky otherwise!
5-15-2013 4-40-31 AM

This is really pretty simple, but you’d be surprised how often these rules are ignored. There are other tricks to doing a top-notch job on Korean-language layout too, but these are the most important.
Korean Translation Tip – Make sure your layout person already knows this stuff or at least reads and refers to this information!
And by the way, my personal preference is to right/left justify the text in Korean and not worry about line breaks; it just looks better to me than a ragged right edge… and it’s easier! Either approach is fine, though.
Oh, and one more thing… Sometimes when I send these instructions to a client, they reply that it’s too hard for them to figure out where to split the words since they don’t read Korean and want us to go through and mark each one individually in a PDF or scan. Unfortunately, even if you don’t consider the waste of billable time since the software can be set to do it right automatically, it’s also impossible for us to do this. That’s because if a line break is adjusted on one line, then it affects all the following lines in that paragraph too, making it unrealistic from a static document to predict where every break should be. However, even if a layout person doesn’t read Korean, they can still see where the spaces are between words and if right-justifying the text is not the approach being taken, then going through line-by-line to verify the spacing is something that must be done during the layout work itself.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Steven,
    Your post explains why many Korean PowerPoint files and web pages have text as separate lines rather than as a continuous paragraph (e.g., there’s a return at the end of each line in a PowerPoint text box). It’s the simplest way to control word splitting at the end of the line. The problem with manually controlling where lines break is it makes it difficult to edit the text later.
    Since many Koreans go through a fair amount of effort to avoid words splitting, I was curious as to which style Koreans preferred (I noted your preference is justified with words splitting). I created two versions of a Korean news article, one with the text aligned on the left and no word splitting (ragged right), and a second with the text justified and words allowed to split (in Microsoft Word, there’s a setting that controls word splitting).
    The consensus amongst three Koreans I showed the two versions to was the justified version looked better (more professional), while the left aligned version looked friendlier. Apparently, friendly is better, as one of the Koreans who’s connected with a Korean ministry said the ministry’s policy is to normally left align text.
    I checked a Korean version of PowerPoint, and its default is to allow Latin and Korean text to wrap in the middle of a word. I’m not sure how many people know how to change the setting, but it’s easy enough to do, once you know where it is. The setting is under Paragraph / Asian Typography (단락 / 입력 체계).
    Controlling Korean word wrap in browsers is more difficult, which may be why many Korean websites use Flash or images of text to control the layout. The standard for Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) text is to split text without concern for breaking on a space (based on my understanding of the W3C standard – http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-text/#line-breaking).
    There is a CSS style setting, word-break: keep-all; that prevents words from breaking, but it only works on Internet Explorer and Firefox, it doesn’t work on Chrome, Safari, or Opera. With the predominance of Internet Explorer in Korea, I’m not sure why Korean sites don’t use keep-all, but they don’t, at least the few news sites I checked – they justify the text and let words split.
    There is one hack to prevent Korean words splitting across lines, wrapping every word in an HTML span tag, and then styling the span tag for white-space: nowrap;. I threw together a text page (http://sbwfc.co.kr/FontTest/) to verify that the idea works on the major desktop browsers (I still need to setup a test for mobile browsers). I used jQuery to add the span tags, which allows the Googlebot to see the original Korean text. I didn’t check how other search engines would handle the spans, but they’re probably similar.
    I’ve been using justified for Korean on my website, but next time I update my site’s code, I’m going to convert Korean text to align on the left and use my span tag hack to control the word wrapping.
    Thanks for posting the layout information.
    Rich DeBourke
    Ps. Your post uses “right/left justify” to designate text that aligns with the left and right margins. I’m not sure if there’s a standard, but I’m more use to align left, center, align right, and justify as the four designations for describing how text is laid out on a page.

  2. Rich – Thanks a lot for the additional and helpful insights. That’s good information to know!

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