26 Tips for Translating Korean to English

 by Richard Walker
 Last updated on Mar. 18, 2019

Korean to English translation is tricky. The two languages are night and day in many ways, including the cultural background in which they were formed.

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

For example, Korean speakers struggle with article usage (a/the) in English, because the rules are inconsistent.

On the other hand, English speakers have trouble with topic (은/는) and particle (이/가) markers in Korean, which do not exist in English.

These differences can lead to major translation errors if one isn’t detail-oriented. This makes it especially hard to find reliable Korean to English translators.

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.

Korean Alphabet Chart

Consonants Vowels
ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅓ (eo) ㅕ (yeo) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu) ㅡ (eu) ㅣ (ee)
ㄱ (g)
ㄴ (n)
ㄷ (d)
ㄹ (r/l)
ㅁ (m)
ㅂ (b)
ㅅ (s)
ㅇ (-/ng)
ㅈ (j)
ㅊ (ch)
ㅋ (k)
ㅌ (t)
ㅍ (p)
ㅎ (h)

 

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 very different places and are especially hard to keep straight for those who have never been to Korea.

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

 

2. Three Number Systems

Korean uses native Korean numbers and Sino-Korean numbers, which are based on Chinese. There are also ordinal numbers that stem from the Korean system.

Numeral Sino-Korean Native Korean Ordinal
0 공 (gong)
영 (yeong)
제로 (jero)
1 일 (il) 하나 (hana) 첫째 (cheot-jjae)
2 이 (ee) 둘 (dul) 둘째 (dul-jjae)
3 삼 (sam) 셋 (set) 셋째 (set-jjae)
4 사 (sa) 넷 (net) 넷째 (net-jjae)
5 오 (o) 다섯 (dah-seot) 다섯째 (dah-seot-jjae)
6 육 (yuk) 여섯 (yeo-seot) 여섯째 (yeo-seot-jjae)
7 칠 (chil) 일곱 (il-gop) 일곱째 (il-gop-jjae)
8 팔 (pal) 여덟 (yeo-deol) 여덟째 (yeo-deol-jjae)
9 구 (gu) 아홉 (ah-hop) 아홉째 (ah-hop-jjae)
10 십 (ship) 열 (yeol) 열째 (yeol-jjae)
11 십일 (ship-il) 열하나 (yeol-hana) 열한째 (yeol-han-jjae)
12 십이 (ship-ee) 열둘 (yeol-dul) 열둘째 (yeol-dul-jjae)
13 십삼 (ship-sam) 열셋 (yeol-set) 열셋째 (yeol-set-jjae)
14 십사 (ship-sa) 열넷 (yeol-net) 열넷째 (yeol-net-jjae)
15 십오 (ship-o) 열다섯 (yeol-dah-seot) 열다섯째 (yeol-dah-seot-jjae)
16 십육 (ship-yuk) 열여섯 (yeol-yeo-seot) 열여섯째 (yeol-yeo-seot-jjae)
17 십칠 (ship-chil) 열일곱 (yeol-il-gop) 열일곱째 (yeol-il-gop-jjae)
18 십팔 (ship-pal) 열여덟 (yeol-yeo-deol) 열여덟째 (yeol-yeo-deol-jjae)
19 십구 (ship-gu) 열아홉 (yeol-ah-hop) 열아홉째 (yeol-ah-hop-jjae)
20 이십 (ee-ship) 스물 (seu-mul) 스무째 (seu-mul-jjae)
30 삼십 (sam-ship) 서른 (seo-reun) 서른째 (seo-reun-jjae)
40 사십 (sa-ship) 마흔 (mah-heun) 마흔째 (mah-heun-jjae)
50 오십 (o-ship) 쉰 (shin) 쉰째 (shin-jjae)
60 육십 (yuk-ship) 예순 (ye-sun) 예순째 (ye-sun-jjae)
70 칠십 (chil-ship) 일흔 (il-heun) 일흔째 (il-heun-jjae)
80 팔십 (pal-ship) 여든 (yeo-deun) 여든째 (yeo-deun-jjae)
90 구십 (gu-ship) 아흔 (ah-heun) 아흔째 (ah-heun-jjae)
100 백 (baek) 온 (on) 온째 (on-jjae)
백째 (baek-jjae)
200 이백 (ee-baek) 이백째 (ee-baek-jjae)
300 삼백 (sam-baek) 삼백째 (sam-baek-jjae)
400 사백 (sa-baek) 사백째 (sa-baek-jjae)
500 오백 (o-baek) 오백째 (o-baek-jjae)
600 육백 (yuk-baek) 육백째 (yuk-baek-jjae)
700 칠백 (chil-baek) 칠백째 (chil-baek-jjae)
800 팔백 (pal-baek) 팔백째 (pal-baek-jjae)
900 구백 (gu-baek) 구백째 (gu-baek-jjae)
1,000 천 (cheon) 즈믄 (jeu-meun) 천째 (cheon-jjae)
2,000 이천 (ee-cheon) 이천째 (ee-cheon-jjae)
3,000 삼천 (sam-cheon) 삼천째 (sam-cheon-jjae)
4,000 사천 (sa-cheon) 사천째 (sa-cheon-jjae)
5,000 오천 (o-cheon) 오천째 (o-cheon-jjae)
6,000 육천 (yuk-cheon) 육천째 (yuk-cheon-jjae)
7,000 칠천 (chil-cheon) 칠천째 (chil-cheon-jjae)
8,000 팔천 (pal-cheon) 팔천째 (pal-cheon-jjae)
9,000 구천 (gu-cheon) 구천째 (gu-cheon-jjae)
10,000 만 (mahn) 골 (gol) 만째 (mahn-jjae)
20,000 이만 (ee-mahn) 이만째 (ee-mahn-jjae)
30,000 삼만 (sam-mahn) 삼만째 (sam-mahn-jjae)
40,000 사만 (sa-mahn) 사만째 (sa-mahn-jjae)
50,000 오만 (o-mahn) 오만째 (o-mahn-jjae)
60,000 육만 (yuk-mahn) 육만째 (yuk-mahn-jjae)
70,000 칠만 (chil-mahn) 칠만째 (chil-mahn-jjae)
80,000 팔만 (pal-mahn) 팔만째 (pal-mahn-jjae)
90,000 구만 (gu-mahn) 구만째 (gu-mahn-jjae)
100,000 십만 (ship-mahn) 십만째 (ship-mahn-jjae)
1,000,000 백만 (baek-mahn) 백만째 (baek-mahn-jjae)
10,000,000 천만 (cheon-mahn) 천만째 (cheon-mahn-jjae)
100,000,000 억 (eok) 잘 (jahl) 억째 (eok-jjae)
1,000,000,000,000 조 (jo) 울 (ul) 조째 (jo-jjae)

This is akin to English using Hindu-Arabic numbers as well as Roman numerals in rare cases such as Superbowls and Rocky movies. However, the Korean number systems are used daily in different situations.

For example, Korean numbers are used for counting people, objects and age, while Chinese-based numbers are for counting money, dates, addresses and phone numbers. Beyond 100, Korean numbers are not often used and Sino-Korean numbers take over.

Using the incorrect number system sounds incredibly strange to Koreans. Also, understanding number systems provides very helpful context clues when translating into English. One can predict the type of object being counted when it is not specified in the source text, which happens frequently in Korean.

 

3. Slang and Abbreviations

Koreans are very much into trends. Word choice is no exception and there are numerous ways to play with words in Korean.

Example: 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 as well.

The usage of newly developed slang becomes ubiquitous almost instantaneously given the connectivity and homogeneity of the people.

It is important to keep up with these words, especially when translating marketing copy.

 

4. 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.

 

5. 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.

 

6. 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.

 

7. 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.

 

8. 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.

 

9. Adjective Variety

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

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.

 

10. Counting 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/mahn), 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 mahn nyeon” or “half of 10,000 years”. In regards to money, 100,000 (one hundred thousand) would be called ship mahn 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.

 

11. 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.

 

12. 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.

 

13. 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.

 

14. 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.

 

15. Spacing

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

 

16. 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.

 

17. 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.

 

18. Verbs and Adjectives

The difference between verbs and adjectives is blurred in Korean. Adjectives can be used as verbs without adding a “be” verb. A commonly used example of this is 바쁘다 (busy) being used in a sentence as 나는 바빠요, which means, “I am busy”. There is no separate verb in the sentence, but it is built into the adjective.

 

19. Gender Specific Pronouns

Korean does not use gender specific pronouns. This can make it difficult to know which pronoun to use in English. Context is key in understanding whether a male or female is being referenced. Koreans are inherently good at this.

 

20. 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. Especially when it is unclear whether the noun is a proper noun or has been referred to already in the text.

 

21. Phonology

Korean is predominantly a syllable-timed language, unlike English, which is a stress-timed language. This means that all syllables receive equal stress and are spoken with flat intonation, which can sound somewhat robotic to English-speakers.

 

22. 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.

 

23. Subject-Verb Agreement

Korean sentences do not require the verb to correspond in number with the subject. For example in English, “they like” does not include the “s” while “he likes” adds the “s”; whereas Korean verbs are not conjugated in agreement with the subject. This makes translation from Korean to English a bit trickier. This is also a reason why it takes some English learners longer to remember the -s ending in the third person singular present simple tense.

 

24. Past Tense

Koreans usually reference the past through a single past tense. This also makes it difficult to choose the right tense from several possibilities (present perfect, past perfect continuous, past simple etc.) when translating into English.

 

25. Self vs Situation

Korean doesn’t normally reference the self in sentences. The actual situation is more important than where the person fits into it. An example of this is when asking for directions in Korean, one would say, “여기 어디에요?”, or “where’s here”. While in English, one would normally ask, “where am I”. It would be considered childish to ask in Korean, “내가 어디예요?” or “where am I”. Due to this, it is easy for native Koreans to recognize Gyopos (overseas Koreans) when they speak since they tend to violate this norm.

 

26. Addressing Others

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

 

 

Interesting facts about Korea

Official Name: Republic of Korea (ROK)

Government: Presidential Republic

Population: 51.3 million people live in South Korea (2019). Over half the population lives in the northwest area surrounding Seoul. The South Korean population is equivalent to 0.67% of the total world population.

Capital: Seoul has around 10 million inhabitants in the special city with a density of roughly 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000/square mile). There are 25.6 million people living in the surrounding metropolitan area. It is by far the largest city in Korea.

Other notable cities:

Busan, population 3,678,555

Incheon, population 2,628,000

Daegu, population 2,566,540

Daejeon, population 1,475,221

There has been an effort to move the capital to a new city called Sejong City, starting with government offices.

There are numerous planned cities around Seoul, known as “bed towns”, or places you simply sleep after work. These include Bundang, Ilsan and Pangyo. An interesting case of a planned city gone awry is Songdo, which was an ambitious project to create a place where cars aren’t necessary. It was largely empty for a few years and would have been a great place to film a post-apocalyptic movie.

Official Language: Korean

Korean is spoken by nearly 80 million people around the world. This includes North and South Korea as well as expatriate communities in numerous countries. 84.5% of overseas Koreans actually live in only five countries (China, U.S.A, Japan, Canada and Australia).

The language family that Korean belongs to is disputed. The Northern theory places Korean in the Altaic language family, making it related to Japanese, Mongolian, Finnish and Turkish. The Southern theory claims it is a member of the Austronesian language family. Some linguists believe it exists in a family of its own. There is no definite answer to this question, given Korea’s long history of contact with China and Japan.

Korean has been heavily influenced by Chinese. A large proportion of Korean words were either coined using Chinese characters or adopted directly. In addition, there are many loanwords borrowed from English, Japanese and even German.

Koreans tend to be very gracious when it comes to non-Koreans speaking their language and are generally impressed if you can say “안녕하세요” (hello). This can seem patronizing to some, especially after hearing “한국말 잘해요” (you speak Korean well) for the hundredth time.

Literacy: More than 97.9% of Koreans can read and write, which is one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The median age in South Korea is 41.8 years.

Currency: 1,119 South Korean Won equals 1 USD (Feb 2019)

Rough Childhood: All Korean males are required to perform a minimum of 18 months of military service. They pay an entry-level private 306,100 KRW (less than 300 USD) per month. This can be avoided by winning a gold medal in the Olympics or having a preexisting health condition allowing one to perform public service in a government office.

Tremendous Growth: Korea went from receiving the highest international aid per capita to one the of the richest in the world in 50 years. It’s not uncommon for the average Korean person to have a passcode lock on their front door with a security camera and a 100 Mbit/s internet connection.

Vast resources: Korea does not have many valuable natural resources. It has achieved growth through intensive education, long work hours and rapid industrialization. Korea’s most valuable resource is its human resources.

Tough Job: For such a modernized country, Korea is relatively new to the whole democracy thing. There have been a total of 12 presidents. 5 out of the last 7 former presidents have either been to prison or have committed suicide.

Big Business: Samsung comprises roughly 20% of Korea’s GDP. They are known as a “무너 회사” or “Octopus Company” since they operate in numerous industries from everything to hospitals to electronics to funeral homes. They have a “cradle to grave” philosophy where they can deliver a baby and handle its every need until death.

Royal Family: Members of the last Korean royal family died out a few decades ago. Jaebeol are the closest thing to Korea’s nobility. They arrange marriages between notable families such as Hyundai and LG to strengthen alliances just like in feudal times. They are both hated by the populace for “갑찔” or “master actions” and envied for their wealth and power. This is reflected in many K-dramas where a pretty, yet common girl will meet a 3rd generation Jaebol man and fall in love, much to the chagrin of the man’s mother who usually meets the woman to slap her and/or offer her an envelope full of cash to get rid of her. This is because the matriarch intended to marry her son off to a typically ill-mannered Jaebol girl.

Spectator Sport: South Korea has been dominating in eSports for the last two decades. It is not common for a start “athlete” to earn a six figure income and have numerous fans. The games are quite popular to watch and sell-out whole stadiums.

Korean Inventions

Jikji simgyeong (1337) – Printing with metal moveable type – predates Guttenberg bible (1455) by 118 years.

Hwacha (1590s) – Multiple rocket launcher – Goryeo Dynasty and used during the Imjin Wars

References

  • “How was Hangul Invented?” King Sejong. N.p., 2013. Web.
  • “Cultural Heritage, the Source for Koreans’ Strength and Dream.” Un.org. Apr 20, 2014.
  • “Romanization of Korean.” korean.go.kr. N.p., 2000. Web.
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