January 01, 2009

Typesetting Japanese

Over at TeleRead, David Rothman mentions the cell phone ebook format popular in Japan. It's popular enough that novels are being "born digital" in that medium and then reformatted for the printed page, in some cases preserving the format's original constraints.

Rothman wonders about "this relationship between content and format," and the advisability of preserving the "look and feel" of the cell phone format.

Japanese writers have long employed a more "granular" approach to formatting text. For example, dialog gets its own paragraph, separated from the dialog tag. The Japanese "quotation mark" font often presumes the indent. Manga has probably been a recent influence as well.

And speaking of manga, unlike American comics, the text in speech balloons has long been typeset in a standard font, while sound effects and marginalia are hand-lettered (and consequently often well-nigh unreadable by semi-literate gaijin like myself).

Also in the unreadable department, because kana is a phonetic syllabary, Japanese writers regularly reproduce dialog that reflects actual vernacular usage, a practice that has markedly decreased in English letters over the past century (thank goodness).

Parentheses are used instead of italics. The em-dash becomes a double-em dash (kanji are by default fixed-width, so one "em" is one character wide). In fact, most "text decoration" is done with typographic symbols (which makes ebook conversion straightforward.)

Vertically-read text can be emphasized with a period (a "side dot") or vertical line to the right of each character.

The reasons for this become obvious if you think about traditional typesetting in Japanese. To typeset a line in italics, for example, would require having on hand a completely separate set of lead type for each of the approximately 2000 standard kanji (plus duplicates).

Computers have changed all this. Italics and bold and all the other permutations are now just a click away. It's probably only a matter of time before they show up in traditionally typeset text.

There is considerable variation among writers, but it seems to me that Japanese writers can get away with a lot more paragraph breaks. On the other hand, written Japanese grammatically allows for paragraph-long sentences that have to be broken up to make sense in English.

Mass-market paperbacks use the "ebook-sized" A6, and the "light novel" maxes out at about 40,000 words. The manga "short story" is alive and well. I'm not the greatest short story fan, but I love the manga "one-off." Like haiku, brevity is not only studied but applied.

On a related note, I've noticed that Harlequin's minimum word length for submissions has dropped to 50,000 words, and that it's now buying novellas. Seriously, anybody interested in the publishing business should keep an eye on what's going on at Harlequin.

Related posts

The cell phone novel

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