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January 2014

Korean Translation Tip: Korean Capitalization and English Hieroglyphics

By now (if you've been reading my past tips herehere and here!), you should know that Korean punctuation doesn’t always match English punctuation.

Another aspect of Korean writing that doesn’t jive with English is CAPITALIZATION.

In fact, Korean has no concept of capitalization whatsoever. It’s no more possible to capitalize a Korean word than it is to write English in hieroglyphics.

So, what is a translator to do when an English source text emphasizes information by capitalizing every letter in certain words and this extra impact needs to be conveyed in the Korean translation?

Here are the options: underline it, bold it, increase the font size, switch to a different color or italicise it... or try a combination!

Korean Translation Tip #1 - If capitalization is used in an English document to emphasize certain text, then the Korean translation will have to use a different method to achieve the same result; there’s no way to capitalize Korean.

This capitalization aspect can impact a Korean translation in another way, too.

Sometimes certain words in a Korean translation are left in English. Perhaps it's because a very technical term is best communicated in English (even within a Korean translation) or is translated but also provided with the English term following in parenthesis (ex: the words "costochondritis" or "Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" in a medical text for physicians). Proper nouns, such as company names, are often left in English. And occasionally a certain English word or phrase is just considered really cool for a Korean readership (ex: "Gangnam Style").

However, a Korean translator may not be clear on whether this English should be capitalized or not, especially if it was not capitalized the same way everywhere in the source text due to English rules of capitalization.

And since capitalization isn't a part of the Korean language, Korean writers don't naturally think of it as important. In fact, sometimes it really isn't important if words are just being left in English but not connected to an English grammatical structure.

The upshot is that it's not uncommon to find English words in a Korean translation capitalized inconsistently.

It's unlikely that any Korean reader would ever notice or care but to the eyes of an English-speaker, this issue stands out like a sore thumb.

Therefore, when proofing a Korean translation, the final polishing step should consider consistency of capitalization and this is one matter I pay particular attention to when reviewing the work of my translation teams.

Korean Translation Tip #2 - The capitalization of English words interspersed in a Korean translation is likely to be handled inconsistently, even by otherwise careful and competent translators. Try to check for and correct this in the final document proof.

Key Considerations for Translating Korean Emails and Other Documents Related to Legal Disputes

I frequently translate Korean emails and other documents to be used in litigation. These generally come to me during the discovery phase before trial while the attorneys for the non-Korean side are preparing their case using materials obtained from the opposing Korean party.

In these situations, the attorneys are interested in knowing exactly what the Korean says, not more and not less. Therefore, I put the highest priority on correctness and completeness and only focus on style and smooth readability after achieving a precise translation.

In other words, I make it my goal to help the end client understand through my English translation exactly what the Korean says. As much as possible, I seek to convey source meaning and tone, as well as errors, redundancies, and even punctuation mistakes. If it's not pretty in the source, then I don't make it pretty in the translation.

Respect and Formality

Of course, there are limits here. As I've explained before, it's virtually impossible to translate all of the elements of formality and respect into English from a Korean source document (see "To My Esteemed Reader"). Still, I am not without tools for communicating these aspects. While I can't use a humble form of the pronouns "I" and "we", insert honorific tags into the English sentences, or even change verb endings to indicate formality, I can communicate these nuances with terminology and phrasing.

In a highly formal Korean business email exchange (and Korean business communications are generally conducted with greater formality than American ones), I retain the addressing of individuals in Korean by their titles by using corresponding English job titles, rather than first names. (Even "Mr. So-and-So" without a job title isn't quite the same in English as it is in Korean.)  

I also choose phrasings like "I hereby send you the attachment", rather than "Here's the attachment" or "I'm sending an attachment." Oftentimes, Korean terms and phrasings translate most directly into expressions we might consider a bit difficult in English, so that "I am sorry for our results which are not commensurate with the efforts you've made on our behalf" may be a truer reflection of the original Korean meaning AND help to communicate formality more effectively than "I'm sorry for not delivering the results you deserve."

Gender, Pronouns and Plural/Singular

There are other ways that an English translation can't always convey the Korean perfectly. Korean doesn't indicate gender as often as we do in English (such as by using he/she pronouns) and it often leaves out plurals (see "Korean Has a Plural Form; It Just Doesn't Get Used Much"). If it's possible to grasp these from context, I use the correct gender or singular/plural in English. If I don't know and it's not that important, I sometimes just choose one or the other and use that. But if it's not possible to know but choosing one or the other could be misleading to the reader, I occasionally phrase things a bit awkwardly to avoid creating confusion (ex: "Please send him/her the document(s)." or "Please send document to the person".) Note how the second example is even slightly incorrect grammatically; if it's a choice between correctness or grammar, I choose correctness.

One exception to the pronoun usage rule is that I don't translate 우리 or 저희 to "we" when these are used in the common sense for "our country" (우리나라) or "our wife" (저희 와이프). These are usually best translated as "Korea" or "my wife" without changing the writer's meaning and intent (see "Koreans Are All About 'We'").

Consistency with Existing English in the Source

Another issue that comes up is consistency with English in a document. What do you do when a Korean's job title in an email clearly corresponds to a certain English title (ex: 전무 > Managing Director) but -- and Korean companies do this ALL THE TIME -- the email footer includes an English title that's inflated (ex: 전무 > Vice President), presumably so that recipients of his English emails will think he's more important than he really is? The best approach for this is to translate the Korean correctly and then provide a separate explanation somewhere to the client about the situation.

If the source document has English words interspersed in the Korean and they are misspelled or used incorrectly, I generally spell them correctly or correct the usage in my translation if it's clear what was intended. 


Punctuation can be an issue, too. As mentioned above, I try to reproduce incorrect punctuation. However, if the punctuation in Korean is not wrong, just different because that's the way Koreans like to do it, such as by adding a space before colons (see "A Quirk of Punctuation Usage in Korean") and not adding periods correctly around acronyms (see "Koreans See Punctuation of Acronyms from a Different Perspective"), I go ahead and use accepted English punctuation. I also change Korean-style smileys to English ones (see "Koreans Smile Differently When Writing") and tildes to dashes (see "Korean, English, Tildes and Dashes").

Cultural Adaptation

As for Korean political correctness or cultural sensitivity, I make no effort to soften things or depart from what the source says. If it's offensive or emotional in the source, the attorney need to understand the intended impact. Sometimes this can require an extra translator's note, such as explaining that an untranslatable change in the level of respect in the Korean source was intended to offend.

There are a number of set Korean expressions commonly found in Korean emails. Not only do Koreans continuously exhort each other to work hard and suffer more (rather than to take it easy - see "Koreans Work Harder Than Anybody"), but they also have a standard opening greeting that ends in a question mark... or doesn't (see "Is the Standard Korean Greeting a Question or Not?"). At the end of messages or reports, Koreans often write "The End", even though we wouldn't normally do so in English. I don't change the "work hard" phrasing to "take it easy" and I certainly include "The End" if it's in the source. For the standard greeting, I've lately taken to translating it as "How are you?" when the writer uses a question mark and "Hello" otherwise. Though both versions are actually the same, at least this helps to match punctuation, and it doesn't change the intent of meaning at all.


Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a non-Korean client to evaluate the quality of a job translated using this precise approach. In fact, if I go out of my way to convey flaws (such as by including superfluous punctuation) or bad writing style (redundant phrasings, run-on sentences, etc.) of the Korean source in my English translation, the client could easily think I was careless and judge my exceptionally good translation as inferior to one where the translator has smoothed things over.

What can be done about this?

That's what this article is about.

If you're reading this, it may be because I forwarded you the link before starting a job or with a delivery. If you come across things in the translation that seems odd, ask me about it; don't assume it was a mistake. If you don't like the writing style, ask me why I expressed things the way I did. I do check my work and, while I do make occasional mistakes, I don't make many, and flaws or awkward phrasings and terminology in the translation are probably there by design to help you/your client's attorneys know EXACTLY what the Korean documents I translated say.

The Not-So-Secret Formula of Korean 70s TV Dramas

Over the last couple years, I've watched three Korean TV series set mainly in the 1970s.

Light and Shadows (빛과 그림자, MBC) (64 episodes at 70 minutes each)

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Samsaengi (삼생이, KBS) (120 episodes at 35 minutes each)

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Eun-Hee (은희, KBS) (140 episodes at 35 minutes each)

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One way or another, this genre has turned out to be particularly interesting to me, and I've sometimes attributed it to the idea that these shows give me some insight into how Koreans remember the decades before I arrived in Korea, which I'd like to think gives me a better understanding of the culture as it is today. (I referred to Eun-Hee in an article I wrote a few months ago: "Reflections on Face...")

However, having watched these three shows in succession, I'm starting to wonder if I'm mainly just getting to see the basic template on which the writers are taught to base their stories (not to mention nearly about every building at Hapcheon Image Theme Park, where all three shows were filmed in part, and which we visited in 2012 - photos here, here and here.)

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So now yet another 70s show is starting next week on KBS called Sungeum's Land (순금의 땅). Sungeum is the name of a girl and literally means "pure gold". Samsengi and Eun-Hee were also named after girls who grew up to become women on the show, so we can assume some similaries just from the naming. This is, however, the first to choose as its promotional graphic an image of a single person, rather than the set of four people (two males/two females) of the other three; I wonder if they'll change this once the story gets underway.

I'm not privy to any special information about the new series other than having watched the preview, but by pulling out my crystal ball (and analyzing my notes from watching the previous shows), I predict that Sungeum's Land (or Land of Pure Gold or whatever they call it in English) will include the following story elements.

1. Hidden Parent/Child (and Sibling) Relationships

Samsengi and another girl were switched at birth so that Samsengi grew up thinking she belonged to a family she didn't. Eun-hee was raised by an aunt whom she thought was her mother. In Light and Shadows, one of the leading parts grew up as an orphan but was actually the long-lost daughter of a rich Korean businessman in Japan. 

2. An Almost Justifiable Act of Original Deceit by a Person Trusted by the Main Family Who Then Ends Up Ruined

Samsaengi was switched at birth by a man who worked for her father and continued to live in the home of her father even as Samsaengi grew up and learned the truth. Eun-hee's father was accused of murder by a close friend who was the actual murderer. Both of these acts of deceit laid the basis for the plot of their respective stories and the persons committing the deceit did so for reasons that could be somewhat justified, having not started out as bad people. The perpetrators though spend the length of the show trying to keep the secret hidden, even resorting to murder to maintain the lies, but ended up committing suicide or going crazy.

I don't recall a key act of deceipt like this in Light and Shadows, but a childhood friend of the main character went into politics and turned against the family that raised him, and finally killed himself and another evil character in the end to redeem himself. 

3. Basis in the Korean War

The elements of #1 and #2 above all started during the Korean War; without the war, these terrible lies would never have gotten started.

4. Families Moving from the Countryside to Seoul

The main characters of Light and Shadows came from a small town with a made-up-name, but Samsaengi's family was from Daegu and the families of Eun-Hee were originally from Kaesung. In all three cases, they ended up in Seoul (or in Eun-Hee's case, Incheon, next to Seoul).

5. Underworld Figures, Corruption and Politics

All three stories involve gangsters, corrupt political figures, borrowing from moneylenders (with the main protagonists losing or almost losing everything) and torture of one or more main characters by the Korean CIA at "Namsan"). At least two of the shows included political demonstrations against the government and references to actual political events of the times.

6. At Least One Character Spending an Extended Time Overseas

In Light and Shadows, the hero spends a couple years in exile in Japan. Samsaengi's friends study abroad in Europe. And Eun-Hee's husband-to-be leaves for the US on at least three occasions to get away from it all.

7. A Faked Injury by Someone

I'm not sure why, but women in these shows like to fake injuries to manipulate others to do what they want. It happened in all three shows; no reason to expect otherwise on Sungeum's Land.