Korean Translation Tip : A Quirk of Punctuation Usage in Korean

Do you notice something odd about the punctuation in the subject line of this post? A few months ago I had a memorable translation experience related to Korean punctuation which I’d like to share with you.

It was in regard to a translation I did of a marketing brochure for a Korean organization.

In the Korean source, there were a number of places with colons. For example:

– 지정 : 2005년 7월

My translation said:

– Designation: July 2005

Note how, in the Korean, the colon has a space before and after it. But in English, we don’t do that.

Amazingly, even though I clearly explained that it was correct to leave the colon as I had delivered, the client overruled me and changed all of the colons in the English to this:

– Designation : July 2005

This is an error which is so commonly committed in written Korean that it approaches acceptability… and in this case, became the final version of the English translation!

Korean Translation Tip: If you send English documents for translation into Korean, you should get back a Korean translation that does not put spaces before colons. However, this usage is so prevalent in Korean that even if you do get your translation back like this, it’s probably not worth the trouble to argue over.

I asked Hongil Kim–one of my long-time associates in Korea and featured on my website–about this and he provided a very helpful in-depth explanation. Here’s a translation of his response.

There isn’t a rule in Korean that says a space needs to be added before a colon. But it is what many Koreans have come to do as a habit.

The various punctuation marks used in modern Korean (,, ?, !, .) were not part of the language just one hundred years ago. We have come to use these through influence from the West.

Thus, it is correct to follow Western conventions in the use of punctuation, but oddly, it has become common practice in Korean to put a space before the colon.

Perhaps this started because early Korean computer fonts (which were double-type, rather than single-byte like English) were not able to use proportional spacing and this meant the colon was shown with a little space before it and so Koreans naturally came to accept this usage. 

3 Responses

  1. Suzanne A. says:

    In French, it is the same as in Korean, with a space before and another one after…

  2. Thanks, Suzanne. Yes, I heard that too. It’s interesting to see all the nuances that crop in language usage around the world…

  3. Irina G. says:

    I never knew that was like an informal rule untill now. But while writing in Korean (daily since two years now), I felt it is more pleasant to the eye if I put a space before colons when using 한굴. It just feels like a text written with those characters’ shape breaths better. So I kept writing with space before colons in Korean and without space in English and Romanian (my language).
    About the (), I also felt I should not add space before and after when used with a word and it’s particle. But never really knew it. Yet I never felt that the same applies everytime i use (). This site is such a treasure to me. I found him because I begun to write down the first chapter of a book written at the beginning of 20th century in Korean, and I was astonished to see the dot only at the end of paragraph, while within the paragraph were only commas. I love Korean. And learn it on my own since the end of 2013. Daily. (that book, I want to translate it in order to improve my vocabulary and learn new particles, if possible). Thank you so much!

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