Archive for February, 2011

Italics in Japanese

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

When translating a document with formatting, such as a Microsoft Word document, you can’t always use the original source-language formatting in the translated language as is. This is especially true of italic type in Japanese. What works in italics in English does not work in Japanese. The formatting must be changed.

The main reason for this is Japanese text can become nearly unreadable when set in italic type. This is especially the case on low resolution monitors when displaying kanji in bold, italic fonts.

When translating English into Japanese, it is best to change the formatting for text in Japanese that was originally in italic type in English.

Here is a mini style guide of recommendations of how to format Japanese text that was translated from English set in italic type.


Use a Gothic bold-face type, or write the word in katakana if appropriate.


Another way to show emphasis is to use a well-known English phrase and write it in katakana.


Titles of Books, Publications, Media, etc.

Use the Japanese double quotation marks to quote the name of a publication.


Foreign Words

In English these would be written in italics. In Japanese, they will be written in either katakana or romanized type, which serves the function of designating it a foreign word.

Introducing or Defining Terms

Use the Japanese single quotation marks.



In other instances where italics are used in English, it is usually safe to use the Japanese single quotation marks.

In general, it is best to avoid italic type in Japanese. Certain Japanese typefaces don’t even have an italic font to begin with. It is very important to thoroughly proofread documents translated into Japanese for these types of formatting issues. What is natural in English can produce something almost unreadable in Japanese. And it will be a lot more natural to use something other than italics.

This also works the other way around when translating from Japanese into English. Where quotation  marks and katakana etc. are used in Japanese should be changed into italics in the English translation where appropriate.

Using Wikipedia as a Translation Resource

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When you are translating something, sometimes there are words or phrases that just aren’t in the dictionary. A site like ALC is amazing for Japanese/English translations, but even ALC doesn’t have everything.

In those cases, I have found Wikipedia to be an excellent online resource for doing translations. Although a word or phrase might not be in the dictionary, there might be a Wikipedia article about it. And if there is a Wikipedia article in one language, it might have a translated version of that article in another language.

Using the Languages Sidebar to Find Translations

On the left-hand side of each Wikipedia article is a sidebar with lots of options. One of these options is for languages.

If there is a similar article in a the Japanese language Wikipedia, you will see the link for 日本語 to read the Japanese article.

For example, when translating manufacturing documents that deal with chemicals, you will often come across an MSDS (material safety data sheet). This type of phrase is usually not in the dictionary, but it has an established name in Japanese. To find the proper Japanese, just go to the English Wikipedia article for MSDS, and click on the link to the Japanese version of the article and you will see that it is 「化学物質安全性データシート」.

Lots of phrases that are difficult to look up in dictionaries may have a dedicated Wikipedia article that you can use to find the translated Wikipedia article, which will lead you to the correct translation.

Using Wikipedia to Better Understand How to Translate Something

Sometimes even Wikipedia doesn’t have translated articles of what you need to translate. This is often the case for something that is very unique to the source language you are translating.

An example of this I came across at work translating semiconductor maintenance procedures from Japanese to English is the Japanese phrase KY. It is often written in English just like that. In Japanese they often use English for certain things for them to stand out. In this case, however, I was stumped as to what this was—until I searched Japanese Wikipedia.

Japanese Wikipedia had an article linked from KY to the main article for 「危険予知訓練」. This made sense in the context of what I was translating. This was what KY meant: kiken yochi. Although there is no English article link to get the proper English translation (probably because we don’t use the phrase KY in English), there is enough of an explanation to understand what kiken yochi is and how to translate it. And, as luck would have it, the Japanese article has an English example of what kiken yochi is: tool box meeting.

After reading about kiken yochi and discussing it with others, we came up with pre-task planning as the translation we would use. Job hazard analysis is also a suitable translation for KY.

In the case of KY, Wikipedia did not have a direct link to a translated English article because the term KY is Japanese for kiken yochi, but it did provide enough explanation to be able to come up with an appropriate translation.

If you can’t find a translation for something, learn about it and come up with your own. Wikipedia is often a great resource to learn enough about something to be able to translate it when you come across a term or phrase that just isn’t in any dictionary.

Japanese Input on Fedora 14 Linux

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Fedora 14 is the quickest and easiest Linux distribution to get Japanese input working so you can type in Japanese. Fedora uses the IBus keyboard input method system and uses the Anthy Japanese input method for the Japanese keyboard input.

This short tutorial will show you step by step how to get Japanese IME setup on Fedora 14 in a few short minutes. There is noting to install—just a few menus to navigate and you are all set up to type in Japanese.

To start, select from the top panel SystemPreferencesInput Method

On the IM Chooser – Input Method configuration screen, click the check box to Enable input method feature.

Then click the Input Method Preferences… button.

On the IBus Preferences screen, select the Input Method tab.

Press the Select an input method drop down and scroll down to select JapaneseAnthy.

Press the Add button to add Anthy as the Japanese input method.

Press the Close button on the IBus Preferences screen.

Press the Log Out button on the IM Chooser – Input Method configuration screen.

Press Log Out on the Log Out popup window to log out of Fedora.

Log back in to have the new Japanese input method changes take effect.

You will now have the IBus input method framework button on the Gnome top panel. This is the button to change input modes. Open a text editor such as gedit or some other application with a text input window.

Press the IBus input method framework button and select Japanese – Anthy.

The keyboard icon has now changed to Aち, which shows the letter A and the hiragana character chi, which probably is trying to get something close the the pronunciation of Anthy while indicating Japanese/English input modes.

You should now be able to type in Japanese.

Use the Anthy Aち button to toggle between Japanese, English, and other Japanese IME modes.

That’s it. Now you can type in Japanese, as well as quickly toggle between English and Japanese on the fly in Fedora. As an added convenience, the IBus input method remembers individual preferences per application. So if you are typing Japanese in gedit, but writing an email in English in Firefox, you can switch between the applications and IBus will give you the correct input method that you last used in that application.

Sorting in Japanese — An Unsolved Problem

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Sorting Japanese is not only difficult—it’s an unsolved problem. This seems hard to believe if you are not familiar with the complexities of processing Japanese digitally. But what is trivially easy in English is impossible in Japanese, even with the amount of computer power we have available today.

The problem comes from the complex nature of written Japanese. Contrast it with English, which only has 26 letters: a comes before b; b comes before c; and so on. On the other hand, Japanese not only has thousands of characters, it also has four different kinds of written characters. But this is only the beginning of the difficulty. The unique nature of kanji characters and their associated pronunciations is the language feature that makes Japanese unsortable.

Let’s work our way through the complexities to understand why Japanese cannot be sorted.

A Simple Sort

Let’s do a simple sort of a list of English words. Here I have a list of characters from the video game Street Fighter.

  • Ryu
  • Ken
  • Chun Li
  • Yun

Let’s put this list through a simple sort function using PHP.

   $names = array (“Ryu”, “Ken”, “Chun-Li”, “Yun”);
   sort ($names);

   foreach ($names as $name) {
      echo “$name<br/>”;

Here is the result:

  • Chun Li
  • Ken
  • Ryu
  • Yun

This is the result we expect—it’s in alphabetical order. A computer can easily sort English in alphabetical order because there are simple rules. C comes before K; K comes before R; and R comes before Y. You should have learned this in the first grade.

Now let’s start looking at the complexities of Japanese, and see why sorting does not work as easily.

Multiple Character Sets

Japanese has four different character sets in the written language. Don’t worry about why there are four different types of characters, just know that there are.

  • Hiragana alphabet — ひらがな
  • Katakana alphabet — カタカナ
  • Kanji characters — 漢字
  • ABC alphabet — abc

Here is where the difficulty comes in: each character set has characters with the same pronunciations as characters in the other sets. On top of that, all four character sets are written together to form what is modern written Japanese. If you only had to deal with one character set at a time (ignoring kanji for the moment, we will get to that later), you could sort Japanese automatically just like English. Hiragana sorts just fine; katakana sorts just fine; and the ABC alphabet sorts just fine. But, in combination, it is not clear how you would sort these.

I should note that there are two different alphabetical sorting orders in Japanese. For this article I am going to use the a i u e o (あいうえお) sort order.

Sorting Settings

Now let’s look at an example of sorting mixed character sets. Again, using PHP.

   setlocale(LC_ALL, ‘jpn’);
   $settings = array (“システム”, “画面”, “Windows ファイウォール”,
      “インターネット オプション”,  “キーボード”, “メール”, “音声認識”, “管理ツール”,
      “自動更新”, “日付と時刻”, “タスク”, “プログラムの追加と削除”, “フォント”,
      “電源オプション”, “マウス”, “地域と言語オプション”, “電話とモデムのオプション”,
      “Java”, “NVIDIA”);
   sort ($settings);

   foreach ($settings as $setting) {
      echo “$setting<br/>”;

Here is the result.

  • Java
  • Windows ファイアウォール
  • インターネット オプション
  • キーボード
  • システム
  • タスク
  • フォント
  • プログラムの追加と削除
  • マウス
  • メール
  • 地域と言語のオプション
  • 日付と時刻
  • 画面
  • 管理ツール
  • 自動更新
  • 電源オプション
  • 電話とモデムのオプション
  • 音声認識

Take a look at what happened with this sort. The first three strings start with characters of the alphabet, and were sorted as we expect. The next eight strings are in katakana, and they are sorted correctly according to the Japanese a i u e o sort order. The rest of the strings all start with kanji and are not sorted in any way that makes sense to a human.

So what is going on here? In this case, it seems that PHP is using the character code to determine the sort order. This works fine with alphabets like English, or even the Japanese katakana, because the character codes go in order with the sort order. But the character codes do not go in order when mixed with other character sets. In this example you can see ABC and katakana are separated. Kanji are then separated from katakana. There were no hiragana in this list but they would do the same. Sort order by character code works fine for alphabets when the alphabets are by themselves. But once you mix alphabets together, you cannot have any sensible sorting order by doing it that way.

An observant reader might have noticed what these items in our list are: Control Panel items in Windows XP. It’s clear that PHP’s sort function can’t sort this properly. But what about Windows XP Japanese edition?

Microsoft seems to have the same problem. They do alright with sorting each character set individually. But they don’t seem to be able to integrate the character sets together like a Japanese user would expect. It’s OK, I don’t expect Microsoft to be able to solve such a hard problem.

Sorting Names

Let’s look at another example to show what happens when you have all four character sets sorted together. Here we have two names, both written four different ways—using each character set: ABC alphabet, hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

Ayumi、 あゆみ、アユミ、歩美


It is very possible to have different people with the same name write their name in different character sets. The traditional way of writing the Japanese name of Ayumi would be written in kanji; a modern, stylish way would be to write it in hiragana, and a second generation Japanese-American might write their name in katakana or the alphabet.

Put these names into the same PHP sort function and look what happens.

   setlocale(LC_ALL, ‘jpn’);
   $names = array (“Ayumi”, “アユミ”, “あゆみ”,  “歩美”,  
   “Tanaka”, “タナカ”,  “たなか”, “田中”);
   sort ($names);

   foreach ($names as $name) {
      echo “$name<br/>”;

Here is the result:

  • Ayumi
  • Tanaka
  • あゆみ (Ayumi)
  • たなか (Takana)
  • アユミ (Ayumi)
  • タナカ (Tanaka)
  • 歩美 (Ayumi)
  • 田中 (Tanaka)

Within each character set Ayumi is sorted before Tanaka, which is correct for the ABC, hiragana, and katakana alphabets. The kanji pair had a 50/50 chance of being right. But as you can see, the different character sets are not integrated together. If these were all names in your phone’s contact list or your Facebook friends list, you would expect all of the Ayumis and Tanakas to be listed together.

The ABC, hiragana, and katakana alphabets can be sorted—although which character set of Ayumi gets sort preference is a whole other issue—once that preference is agreed upon, sorting can be done just as easily as English.

Kanji — The Real Problem

The real problem with sorting Japanese text is kanji. Kanji aren’t just difficult for students of Japanese to make sense of, they are literally impossible for computers to process with the same intelligence as a human. The reason for this is the following:

Kanji have multiple pronunciations, determined by the context in which it appears.

This fact keeps students up nights studying for years trying to remember how to pronounce kanji right. And it also makes our sorting problem extremely nontrivial. We sort things in language by the pronunciations. Up until now we were dealing with letters. ABC, hiragana, katakana—these are all letters which a single pronunciation. There is only one place they can go.

Kanji on the other hand all have multiple pronunciations. Some have over ten! Only from the context in which the kanji appears do you know how to pronounce it. Our simple sorting problem has now turned into a natural language processing problem.

Here is an example:


Here the kanji 私 is used in two different contexts. The first usage, is 私 (watashi). The second usage is part of the compound word 私立大学 (shiritsu daigaku). Using the Japanese sort order, these words should be sorted like this:

  • 私立大学 (しりつだいがく)
  • 私(わたし)

A second year Japanese student could figure this out. For a computer, this is a very difficult problem.

Here is another, more extreme example.

There are four Japanese women whose names you have to sort: Junko, Atsuko, Kiyoko, and Akiko. This does not seem difficult, until they each show you how they write their names in kanji:

  • 淳子 (Junko)
  • 淳子 (Atsuko)
  • 淳子 (Kiyoko)
  • 淳子 (Akiko)

As you can see, this is rather troublesome. This comes back to kanji having multiple pronunciations. If this was for an address book of your phone contacts for example, you would want Atsuko and Akiko listed with the A names like Ayumi and Akira. But you would not want Junko and Kiyoko listed there.

And this problem is not limited to names. Regular, everyday words also have multiple pronunciations. For example, 故郷 (ふるさと、こきょう), 上手 (じょうず、じょうて、うわて、かみて…) etc.

So how do we deal with this? They have phones and social networking Web sites in Japan with sorted contact lists, so how can we sort these words properly?

The Wrong Way – Using IME Input

First, let’s look at a good try, but failed attempt at Microsoft to try to solve this problem. What good would Excel be if you could not sort on columns and rows. Microsoft clearly understands the issue with sorting Japanese—they just didn’t think through the solution thoroughly.

What Microsoft does in Excel is to capture the input the user types to get the kanji character. For example, if you typed Junko to get 淳子, it will save that input string as meta data in the background. When it is time to sort, it sorts on the input pronunciation meta data rather than the kanji that are displayed. You can actually see what the meta data looks like in Excel 2003 if you save as XML.

You can see the kanji 淳子 is in two different rows, but the input used to get them was different, Atsuko and Junko, so those are saved as meta data to assist with sorting later on.

The problem with this approach is it doesn’t take into account of how people actually interact with computers using a Japanese IME system. Japanese input works with a dictionary of possible kanji conversions based on what has been input. But not every word or name is in that dictionary. Sometimes you have to type each kanji individually or use a totally different pronunciation to get the kanji you want to show up. This results in the wrong pronunciation being saved as meta data, and sorting will not work as expected.

This system also doesn’t work with cutting and pasting text from other sources, as well as any sort of CSV or database import, etc. This was a good try by Microsoft to solve this problem, but it just doesn’t work.

The Right Way – Ask the User

A computer simply cannot guess the correct pronunciation of kanji, even if it logs the users input, because that might not even be correct. The easiest way to solve this problem is just ask the user for the pronunciation! Most software developed in Japan uses this approach.

Let’s look at this approach done correctly: Let’s look at their new user registration First, notice the fields in the English version of this screen.

Now look at the Japanese version of this screen.

As you can see, the Japanese version has an extra field. This is for the user to enter the pronunciation of their name in katakana. This way, Amazon has their name in kanji, and the correct pronunciation to go with. They can now sort their user information correctly. This is the approach that most Japanese software takes. It is an extra step, but it solves the problem.

The big takeaway from this is that you cannot just translate software, or even a Web site, and expect it to work. Something as simple as registering a new user has to be completely reworked. In the case of a simple Web site, you will need to redo not only the Web interface, but also the database back end and the code to interface with the database and Web site generation. Localizing a site into Japanese is much more complicated than other languages because of the extra functionality that is required.

While does do the interface and programming localization correct, they do have something on their site that isn’t localized for the Japanese audience: Their logo.

In English, the logo goes with their saying: “Everything from A to Z.” This is indicated by the arrow. But in Japan, and any other country that doesn’t use English, A and Z aren’t always the first and last letters of the alphabet. The A to Z thing works in English because the name Amazon has A and Z in it. But in other countries, they might not have any idea why there is an arrow under the Amazon logo.

Final Thoughts

Sorting in Japanese is hard. Without user input, it is impossible in some contexts to know how to sort some Japanese words. People developing and localizing software need to understand these issues. But regarding the general problem of sorting Japanese when you don’t have user input to give the pronunciation, there may not be a way to automate this until computers can understand language as well as a native Japanese person. For a computer to understand Japanese is far more complex than most other languages. You can see this first hand by using machine translation software and comparing Japanese to something like French.

I think this is an interesting problem. This goes beyond just sorting. How can you expect a machine translation program to work if it doesn’t even know the pronunciation of a word—something that can be key to understanding what that word is. I can imagine even statistical machine translation being confused, especially with names.

Japanese is an interesting language, and processing it with computers is even more interesting.