The Top 20 Things to Remember When Translating Korean to English

                                                               by Richard Walker                 Last updated on Nov. 08, 2016

Korean to English translation is challenging. There are many differences between the two languages. These discrepancies can lead to major translation errors.

Some grammar rules in Korean are more logical than their English counterparts and vice versa.

Korean speakers are known to struggle with article usage in English because the rules are inconsistent.

On the other hand, English speakers have trouble with topic and particle markers in Korean, which do not exist in English.

I personally struggled with honorifics my first year in Korea, because I was worried about offending others.

In English, we take for granted the fact that we can address someone directly with the word “you”. While in Korean, you can use the word you, but will be considered very impolite if addressing anyone other than your friends or young children. There is a sophisticated etiquette of addressing others by either their job title, name of their first born, relative age or relationship to you.

Luckily, Koreans are very gracious when it comes to non-Koreans speaking their language and expected me to hardly be able to say hello. However, this did get tiresome after becoming fluent as people would still complement me for saying anything in Korean like I was an imbecile.

Here are some of the challenges a translation company may face when translating between Korean and English.

  1. Alphabet

Fortunately, the Korean language has an alphabet that was created scientifically by the order of King Sejong. Unfortunately, it is very different from English, which makes Romanization of English words into Korean difficult.


There are numerous sounds in Korean that do not exist in English and vice versa.

This can be confusing since the rules of Romanization that were created in 1972 continue to be changed. It is important to use the current standard of Romanization.

Example: Shincheon, Shinchon, Shinchun and Shicheong are all vastly different places and were especially confusing when I first went to Korea.

This is important to keep in mind when translating addresses in contracts, because the wrong name or address can invalidate everything.

  1. Critical Typos

Typos in English tend to relegate the intended word to gibberish.

In Korean, however, words are formed with syllable blocks of either one consonant + one vowel (가), one consonant + one vowel + one consonant (각) or one consonant + one vowel + one double consonant (깍). Each syllable block can form a word on its own and often have multiple meanings. If either the consonant or vowel is off, the meaning of the word can change greatly while still having meaning.

Example: 가지, 거지 and 까지 are all different by one consonant or vowel, but mean “eggplant”, “beggar” and “until” respectively.

It takes a keen eye and deep understanding of the language to recognize the difference between typos and intended words.

  1. Slang and Abbreviations

Koreans are very much into trends. Word choice is no exception and there are numerous ways to alter the way words are written in Korean.

Examples: When Koreans learn vocabulary, they remember the opposite word. This enters into their vernacular with expressions like 금수저”gold spoon” or 흙수저”dirt spoon”. Which are the equivalent of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth or not.

아라 or “arah” is an abbreviation of 아이라인 or “eye line”. It is very difficult for a non-native Korean speaker to understand these abbreviations, because 아라 can be a girl’s name.

It is important to stay current on these words, especially when translating marketing copy.

  1. Sentence Structure

While English sentence structure is Subject-Verb-Object, Korean sentence structure is usually Subject-Object-Verb, with some exceptions.

Example: “남자가 고양이를 보았다” which is literally “man cat saw”. We would translate this to “The man saw a cat.”

This can cause confusion of who is doing what to whom when translating.

  1. Advanced Sentence Structure

There are also situations where you are dealing with sentences with multiple objects, which are common. Also, as stated above, the order can be switched even further with the object coming before the subject.

Example: 준호가 신문을 본다, “Joonho newspaper reads” which can also be acceptably written as신문을 준호가 본다, “newspaper Joonho reads”.

In these situations it is very important to pay attention to the object markers and the context of the sentence.

  1. Multiple Objects

There are also cases of more than one object in a sentence.

Example, 영미는 자장면을 그릇을 주문했다, “Yeongmi Jajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodle) three bowls ordered.” This makes little sense in English, and should be localized to, “Yeongmi ordered three bowls of black bean sauce noodles.”

It is important to be familiar with these situations, so you can preserve their meaning.

  1. Use of Subjects and Objects

Often times the subject or object is left out of a sentence, making it confusing for English speakers.

In fact, ellipsis, or omission of a subject or object occurs 69.22% of the time for subjects, 13.78% of the time for objects in Korean. Ellipsis occurs 31.5% of subject, 7.67% of object in English. The reason for this is Korea is focused more on the verb ending due to the use of honorifics. The verb is the center of Korean sentences whereas in English the noun is the center of the sentence.

Example: It would not be uncommon to see “고양이를 보았다” or “cat saw”.

This sentence is confusing because we do not know who the subject is. It would be necessary to look at the context to figure it out. The verb ending tells us this is a plain statement where someone saw a cat, and who it was is not important.

A mix up in the subject and object can alter the meaning of a sentence greatly and lead to misunderstandings.

  1. Adjective Use

Koreans love their adjectives. They often use multiple ones in a sentence that sometimes become redundant.

If all redundant adjectives were translated in the following sentence, 수분감이 풍성하고 촉촉한 느낌의 피부보습 모이스춰라이징 크림, it would be “a skin hydrating moisturizing cream with rich moisture and a moist feeling”.

It is important to choose the key adjectives in the previous example in order to preserve meaning and not sound ridiculous. Using this example, “a skin hydrating moisturizing cream with a rich moisture and a moist feeling.” could be a potential solution.

  1. Adjective Variety

There are many different versions of adjectives that are commonly used.

For example, even a simple word like “Yellow” could be “노랗다”, “노르스름하다“, “누렇다“, “누리끼리하다“, “노릇노릇하다“, “누리팅팅하다“ or “샛노랗다“. These are used depending on the situation to elicit different emotions.

Example: 노릇노릇하다 is normally used to express the color of food. 샛노랗다 Is used to express the color of flowers or clothes.

Mixing these up will change the tone of the sentence and potentially sound awkward.

  1. Number System

While Koreans write numbers with commas between the 1000’s digits like in English, they express numbers differently.

In English, numbers are divided by 1,000’s and follow the same pattern with 3 zeros (i.e. 1,000 = one thousand, 100,000 = one hundred thousand, etc.). In Korean they rise by 4 zeros, starting with 10,000 (만/man), 100,000,000 (억/eok) 1,000,000,000,000 (조/jo).

Example: Korea has a recorded history of 5,000 years, but call it “ban man nyeon” or “half of 10,000 years”.

In regards to money, 100,000 (one hundred thousand) would be called ship man or ten ten thousand in Korean.

This is further complicated by the exchange rate between the Won and the US Dollar, which is roughly 1,000 to 1.

10억 or one billion won is equal to roughly one million usd.

Being off by a zero can create major issues down the road, especially when translating financial documents.

  1. Konglish

Korean has extensive Konglish words, which are English words with completely different meanings. The most commonly used example being, “fighting”, which is actually a word of encouragement or a cheer.

Examples: Steering wheel would be 자동차 핸들 (car handle). Commercial would be CF광고 (CF advertisement). Trench coat would be 버버리 or 바바리 (Burberry). Stainless Steel would be 스텐 (stain).

A recent example is the tourism slogan for Seoul, which was previously “Hi Seoul” and is currently, “I.Seoul.You”, which was selected by a panel of linguists, government officials and private citizens. A side note, the slogan for the Korea Tourism Board was “Korea, Sparkling” and is now “Imagine Your Korea”.

In the past, “meeting” could actually mean “blind date”, which is particularly confusing at work. “Appointment” or “promise” is usually used to denote plans or even meetings. Nowadays, more and more Koreans are using “meeting” to actually mean a business meeting, while still using it at times to refer to blind dates, which are very common in Korea.

There are numerous examples of Konglish and it is important to either consult a Korean or double check the meanings of seemingly English words.

  1. Honorifics

Honorifics take a lifetime to master and are the foundation of Korean language and culture. There are two main categories of speech, 존댓말 (jondaemal) and 반말 (banmal), or higher and lower levels. Within these two categories, there are seven levels of speech, with only four (Hasipsio – polite formal, Haeyo – polite for daily use, Haera – plain for speaking amongst friends, and Hae – an intimate style reserved for close friends or children) being used commonly today.

The different verb endings are a remnant of the time when Korea had a rigid class system. You are either higher or lower than the person you are speaking to. You can denote your level with verb endings.

The rules are too complicated to cover here, but there are two main issues you should be aware: how to address someone and how to refer to oneself. You can raise the level of the person you are speaking to and lower the level of yourself depending on the pronoun, object and verb you use.

As you can imagine, using these forms incorrectly will greatly damage the credibility of your translation.

  1. Advanced Honorifics

To make matters more confusing, when speaking to someone about someone else, you must calculate the relative difference in position between the person you’re referring to and the person you are speaking to.

This is known as 압존법 or “relative honorifics”. The National Institute of Korean Language is trying to convince people not to use 압존법 since it is a remnant of Japanese colonization. However, it is still absolutely vital in Korean workplaces.

Example: You must change the postpositional particle and verb if the person you are speaking to is a higher position (age, title, etc.) than the person you are referring to. “부장님, 이 과장님은 지금 자리에 안 계십니다” This means, “General Manager, Manager Lee is not at his desk now”, with the bolded parts elevating the Manager higher than the General Manager, even though they both are in a higher position than you. In this situation, your General Manager would scold you by saying, “So, Manager Lee is higher than me?”

If you are off at all, you will look less educated (i.e. your parents are ignorant or didn’t bother teaching you etiquette) or even disrespectful.

Most Koreans perfect this while working at their first company job as it is confusing even for them.

  1. Sentence Length

The quality of a writer in Korea is based on how long their sentences are. When translating into English, it is important to know where to break sentences with multiple clauses to preserve meaning and continuity.

Likewise, it is important to extend the length of sentences by combining them when translating from English to Korean in order to sound intelligent.

For example, “이 계획에 의하면, 비영리 사단법인인 우리글진흥원을 통해 구에서 발행하는 ‘중랑구소식’을 비롯한 생활정보문, 홍보물 등을 감수토록 하였으며, 직원들의 글쓰기 능력을 키워줄 ‘공공문장 바로 쓰기’ 특강을 개설할 예정이다.”, is one sentence of an article from Herald Corporation. It has 3 clauses and the subject isn’t even mentioned once. One would have to guess from the context that it is about a “revised plan”.

Again, it helps to have a Korean check your work when tackling sentences of this length.

  1. Spacing

A misplaced space would equal a typo in English. However, it can alter the meaning of a word or sentence in Korean.

Example: The word “안심하다” means “it’s a relief”, however, “안 심하다” with a space means “it’s not severe”.

To the untrained eye, both examples could be deemed acceptable in a sentence even though the meanings are completely different.

Other examples

  1. Units

Pyeong is a uniquely Korean measurement unit for area that is approximately 3.3 ㎡. It is mostly used for the measurement of real estate. Needless to say, it is vital to be sure which unit of measurement is being used in a document.

  1. Singular and plural nouns

While there is a way to denote singular and plural nouns, there is limited emphasis placed on them. Whether a noun is meant to be singular or plural is something that Korean speakers can decipher.

  1. Verbs and adjectives

The difference between verbs and adjectives is blurred in Korean. Adjectives can be used as verbs without adding a “be” verb.

  1. Gender specific pronouns

Korean does not use gender specific pronouns. This can make it difficult to know which pronoun to use in English.

  1. Definite and Indefinite Articles

Korean does not use articles such as “a” and “the”. This makes it challenging to choose the proper article in English when translating from Korean.


  • “The Great King-Sejong.” King Sejong. N.p., 2004. Web.
  • “Cultural Heritage, the Source for Koreans’ Strength and Dream.” Apr 20, 2014.
  • “Romanization of Korean.” N.p., 2000. Web.
  • Park, Cheong Hee. “한국어와 영어의 생략 현상에 대한 통계적 접근.” Thesis. 민족어문학회, 2012. 2012. Web.
  • Wikipedia contributors. “Konglish.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Mar. 2016. Web.
  • .., News From. “South Korea: New Seoul Slogan Sparks ‘Konglish’ Debate.” BBC News. N.p., 29 Oct. 2015. Web.
  • The Korea Tourism Organization Presents a New Vision to Attract 20 Million Tourists. Korea Tourism Organization, 8 Aug. 2014. Web.
  • Wikipedia contributors. “Korean speech levels.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Apr. 2016. Web.
  • Namu Wiki Contributors. “한국어의 존비어 문화.” Namu Wiki, 1 May 2016. Web.
  • Lee, Junghwan. “[중랑구] 중랑구, 공공문장 바로쓰기 수도권에서 첫 실시.” Herald Corporation. N.p., 9 Mar. 2016. Web.
  • Wikipedia contributors. “Pyeong.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Apr. 2016. Web.

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