Monday, October 22, 2007

Classic Literature Collection for DS

Nintendo and Chukei have just released what seems to be a fantastic piece of software called DS文学全集, a collection of 100 classic novels that can be read on the DS in one card, and the option to download additional novels as they're released. Brilliant idea, especially for somebody like me that's never had a chance to read much classic literature in Japanese. It would certainly be on my must-have list, if it wasn't for their sadly antiquated policy on furigana.

Furigana, for those that don't know, is the adding of phonetic readings to the top or side of characters the reader is expected not to be able to read, and as surprising as it sounds given the complexity of the writing system, it is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, if you're not familiar with a character or word, then having the reading written out is all you need to look it up in the dictionary in seconds. Not having the reading would mean taking a wild guess, or trying to find the characters in a kanji dictionary which is a time consuming process. On the other hand, if you are already familiar with the characters and the words (and the more you read, the more familiar you become obviously), the furigana readings become intrusive and distracting, as there's much more visual noise to wade through, and your eyes tend to naturally be drawn to the reading rather than the characters themselves. In traditional publishing, an editor has to determine which words will have readings and which ones won't by estimating the youngest target demographic, calculating which characters they should be familiar with (which is easily done thanks to a nationwide curriculum) and adding readings to all the others. In other words, they have to make a compromise that will distract some readers and alienate others.

With ebook readers becoming more popular though, this compromise is no longer necessary. A well designed reader would have a furigana setting in the options where you can set all words on or off, or specify familiarity in terms of Kanji-Kentei levels. Kanji-Kentei is a set of tests aimed at evaluating your ability to use the written language, with the lowest level being equivalent to the first year of elementary school, the second lowest being the second year and so fourth all the way up through 12 increasingly difficult levels. So if I were to set the furigana to level 10, then all words made up of the 80 characters I should know are left without furigana, and the remaining 6000 odd that I don't have a clue about have it added. And for those who really don't want to rely on phonetics but happily admit there are gaps in their knowledge (i.e. most of the entire adult population of Japan) a simple interactive furigana option would be nice. Either touch a word with the Stylus to reveal the reading, or if that seems like too much trouble, how about a hot key; press the button once to reveal all the readings on the current page; press again to hide them. Either way, the readings are only there when you specifically want them to be.

Sadly, Nintendo and Chukei did not have such foresight, so furigana readings on the 100+ classic novels of DS文学全集 are fixed at what looks like around year 6 (12 year old) level and cannot be changed. This is a waste and a shame, and I would hope that Nintendo could some day add a library to all their consoles that allow developers to implement interactive furigana with ease. I might just wait for the next version of DS文学全集 - hopefully they'll have figured out what a great contribution they could be making to the country's basic literacy by then.