Korean Translation Tip: Why You Can't Translate Phrase-by-Phrase Between English and Korean, Part II

Last month I posted a short video illustrating how you can't mix-and-match sentence fragments to make proper sentences between English and Korean.

A few people pointed out that this often works with English and Western languages, and so they weren't sure why I would trouble them with a video like this for Korean.

In response, I've put together another one here to emphasize how different Korean is from English and to put this matter to rest, once and for all.

Korean Translation Tip - Just because you can translate phrase-by-phrase between Western languages does not mean you can do it between Western and Asian languages.

Issues in Calculating Rates for KO>EN Translation Jobs, Revisited

Several years ago I posted an article about why I don't generally offer per-word rates for Korean>English translation. The following is from a recent email to a client, explaining things in a bit more detail.


Dear <Client>,
Here are the issues  I can think of now which make it hard to use source word/character rates on Korean>English work.
  1. The majority of the work I get for KO>EN is scanned source files in PDF format, which can't be analyzed precisely until the translation is complete. On those jobs, fixed quotes in advance or target word billing are the most reasonable. Sometimes these PDFs can be converted to Word through OCR or the native Adobe Acrobat conversion. However, for various reasons, these word counts are extremely unreliable.
  2. Even if the files are editable, I find that it takes an extra measure of care to ensure everyone's talking about the same thing when referring to Korean words/characters. To make matters worse, if the language settings in Word aren't set right, the software will count Korean words as characters (or vice versa, I can't remember which right now) and that creates confusion. At least until a few years ago, Excel also didn't count Korean words and characters correctly.
  3. Korean does not have a long tradition of using words (or even writing left-to-right), and I find that Koreans are not as consistent in their use of spacing as we are in English. Therefore, what you find is that different writing styles yield different Korean word counts, even as the final English translated word count remains unchanged. Furthermore, when clients equate Korean with Chinese and Japanese which don't use words, it adds another layer of confusion. Your colleague mentioned that internally you are assuming two Korean characters to be one word, but that is arbitrary. Korean words are calculated based on discrete units of meaning, and separated by spaces. 
  4. Different types of content return different word count expansions. For example, Korean word lists will translate to English almost at one for one. However, because Korean grammar attaches tags to words and those tags are then translated to English as separate words, the expansion rate increases the more "prose-y" a text is. The expansions vary depending on subject matter, too.
  5. As with the current job, many Korean writers, especially on technical documents, mix a lot of English words into the text. These are embedded in the Korean grammar though and can't be excluded from the word count. However, if the letters of the English words are counted as characters (which is what happens if not analyzed separately), it runs the word count way up. On today's job, there were 1,500 English words mixed in with some 4,000 Korean words. That means rejigging the word counting formula to avoid overcharging. Counting source characters also means having to do something extra with numbers, since that also runs up the count. 
For all these reasons, it is so much easier to just use the English word counts, which are predictable and universally understood. But of course, it is true that this makes it hard to quote projects in advance. One solution is simply to ask me to quote projects first, if you have the time to wait. But as I mentioned to your colleague today, I've also started offering a character rate to clients that just have to have a source-based billing structure. But since it's imprecise, it's still best if I can analyze, adjust and quote the work in advance to take account of the various issues mentioned above. Keep in mind though that if I'm taking the risks of all these unknown factors with an advance quote, I'm also going to aim a bit high; generally, my most competitive pricing is available on English-word rates.

Korean Translation Tip: Why You Can't Translate Phrase-by-Phrase Between English and Korean

We frequently get translation requests for content where the source text has been chopped up into sentence fragments. This is especially common with captions for video, since the content needs to show up on-screen in bite-sized pieces. But sometime clients even send such requests because they want to be able to rearrange words themselves later, or because they sent over bilingual files for translation in a CAT tool which were improperly translated.

In the first case, as long as the source text forms complete thoughts and the translation doesn't have to correspond 1-for-1 by sentence fragment, we can translate it. But the "mix-and-match" approach is a recipe for disaster. 

Here's a video I put together to illustrate how structurally different Korean and English are and to show why the translation of complete thoughts must be done at the sentence level.



Korean Translation Tip - If you're ever tempted to ask that English sentences and phrases be translated into Korean in the order the words appear in the English (or vice versa), please watch this video again to remind yourself that English and Korean can't be connected in such a linear way.

Korean Translation Tip: Spacing Around Parentheses in Korean Looks Funky and Inconsistent

This tip is based on a reader question about the following graphic in last month's message.

image from koreanconsulting.typepad.com

The reader asked why there isn't a space before or after the parentheses... Good question!

The answer may surprise you, but no, there should not be spaces there. The reason is hard to explain clearly without getting into complicated grammar, but the basic idea is that Korean is made up of character units functioning as standalone words, and also of character tags/markers attached to standalone words to indicate various grammatical meanings (such as subject, object, etc.).

In the case above, without the words in parenthesis, the phrase would read "Study Hard" Campaign은, where 은 is a topic marker attached to the word Campaign. Therefore, the added parenthetical text is stuck right in between the word and its tag and no space is added on either side.

Keep in mind that spaces should be added around parentheses when additional text is not being stuffed between a word and its tag. This phenomenon seems to occur almost exclusively when English and/or numbers are inserted into Korean text. The spacing around parenthesis within pure Korean text generally follows the same rules as we use in English (though Koreans get used to such usage and often go without spacing even when it should be there).

Korean Translation Tip - Correct spacing in Korean around parentheses often looks funky and inconsistent to English speakers. Feel free to bug your linguist for confirmation, but expect to get a response back saying it’s OK.

Microsoft Thanked Me for Renewing My Subscription to the Magazine "Office 365 Small Business Premium"

I have been using the Korean version of Office 365 Small Business Premium for a year and it's time to renew. A couple days ago, Microsoft sent me an email thanking me for renewing.

Only problem....

They used the word for "subscribe" that is only used when subscribing to things to read, such as newspapers and magazines.

And they didn't mess it up once... They used the wrong word four times in one email.

Check it out:


In every case, the indicated Korean word should be changed to "사용권". In Korean, there is no straight translation for "subscription" in the English sense here. The correct word means "right to use", which, if you think about it, means exactly what it should.

Perhaps the linguists who worked on the job didn't know that they were translating for a software subscription, rather than a magazine subscription. Or perhaps they just reused old TM segments which had been translated for a magazine subscription situation. Or maybe they just weren't paying attention.

Whichever it was, the QA processes failed. 

For lots more of these, check out A Collection of Korean Translation Errors in the User Interfaces of Leading Software.