Korean Translation Tip: Cardinal Rules of Korean-Language Layout

When doing Korean-language layout on English-to-Korean translation projects, there are two cardinal rules to follow.

  • 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 separated by spaces. 

When left/right-justifying the text, it’s OK to end a line between characters of a word. In Korean layout, you don’t even have to put a dash at the end of the line to show that a word’s been separated. But if you leave the right side ragged, you’ve got to separate text in the spaces between words. It looks uber-tacky otherwise!

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My personal preference is to right/left justify the text in Korean. This way, it’s not necessary to worry about line breaks. This also just looks better to me than a ragged right edge. Either approach is fine, though. 

Sometimes when I send these instructions to a client, I heard back that it’s too hard to figure out where to split the words. The client tells me they don’t read Korean and want us to go through and mark each line individually. This wastes billable time since most software can do line breaks correctly if set up right. It is also impossible for us to do it. Adjusting a line break on one line affects all the following lines in that paragraph, too. It is not possible to predict on a static document where every break should be.

However, even a graphic designer who doesn’t read Korean can still do Korean layout correctly. Just check where the spaces are between words. If you don’t right-justify the text and the software doesn’t do it automatically, go through line-by-line to verify the spacing.

This is really pretty simple. But you’d be surprised how often these rules are ignored on Korean translation projects. There are other tricks to doing a top-notch job on Korean-language layout, too. But these are the most important. 

Best-Practice Tip Make sure your layout person already knows this stuff or at least reads and refers to this information! 

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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