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Understanding Decision-Making Protocol within Korean Companies and Translating the Related Terms and Phrases in Korean Business Documents

I frequently translate Korean business files for the discovery process in international litigation involving Korean companies. These projects involve translating internal Korean emails and reports of one party to the lawsuit that the legal counsel of the other party needs to understand to prosecute the case.

Sometimes a case rests on who knew what and when, and who gave authorization to do what and when. Therefore, accurate translation of the reporting and decision-making protocol in these documents is critical. A Korean translator without an adequate understanding of how the authorization process works within Korean companies and who doesn’t take a best-practice approach to translating the relevant content can inadvertently leave out important meaning.

Translating an Internal Korean Reporting Document (Example 1)

The following is a typical grid found in many internal documents of Korean companies.

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A translation might read as follows.

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The empty boxes usually contain at least the signatures of people involved in the process of having the document authorized. Sometimes they also include printed names, job positions and/or times and dates, too. In addition, if only some of the authorization steps are followed, the boxes for the steps not included are left blank. The column with the left-most empty box (under “Drafted by”) is the lowest level of authorization (in this case, it merely indicates who put the document together) and the second (“Coordinated by”) would likely be a direct supervisor involved in the drafting. The next column (“Confirmed by”) would be a third-level authorization, with the person signing the far-right cell (“Authorized by”) being the highest-ranking person in the process.

Translation of an Internal Korean-Company Report (Example 2)

While the basic process and grid layout are somewhat standardized across departments and companies, the terminology and organizational levels involved in the authorization protocol vary. Here’s another example:

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In this case there are two levels in the authorization process. The left three columns are for the first-level authorization and the second three columns would be a second-level. Based on having translated “결재” above as “Authorized by”, the following translation might be expected:

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However, this would be misleading. At the first-level in the authorization process, the word “authorization” is not really suitable. It’s more of a “sign off” or “check off” step before passing the document up for what we would generally think of in English as “authorization”. Therefore, a preferred translation in this example would be as follows:

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The word “결재” is a difficult word to translate because the best English term varies by context. It also possessed a generic meaning that overlaps with the meanings of other words. As indicated above, while the overall authorization (결재) process can be referred to as "authorization" or “authorization protocol”, a word that doesn’t indicate actual authority is more suitable when the word 결재 is used at the lowest level. In addition, if the word is combined in other ways, the English translation might further change. A good translation for 전자결재 is “electronic signature”, not “electronic authorization”. And in a process where 승인여부(“whether approved”) is followed by 결재 (as in “yes, it was approved”), translating 결재 as “approved” would maintain the flow in English. Thus, this term in Korean cannot just be mapped one-for-one to English terms and used rigidly.

Improving the Translation of Korean Business Terms in the Examples Above

Notice how the sequences of Korean terms used in the two examples above don’t match. (Example 1: 기안 > 조정 > 확일 > 결재; Example 2: 결재 > 합의). This is because there is no standardized system for this (unlike the standard hierarchy of job titles, which does remain remarkably consistent across Korean companies). Thus other terms that may be used in the decision-making system include 재가, 승인 and 통보, and suitable translations for these could be “sanction”, “approval” and “notified to”, respectively. “Notified to” clearly has the meaning that the information was merely provided but approval not given. However, the difference between “Consent provided by”, “Approved by”, “Authorized by” or “Sanctioned by” are not as apparent. Further, the Korean terms (합의, 승인, 결재, 재가, respectively) each mean basically the same thing too, so any translation of these terms from Korean to English must be arbitrary at best. Therefore, if readers are to have an accurate understanding of the process, the translator needs to provide another level of meaning.

The key to sorting out this muddle is to recognize that each term in Korean takes on its unique meaning in the context of the specific level of authorization it signifies within the respective company. Thus, translating a Korean term without indicating its level cannot convey all of the meaning necessary for an outsider to understand the process. Here are expanded translations of the above tables that explicitly state the level in order to fully communicate the required meaning.

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On a larger project, where the translator is working with enough context to fully understand the situation, the use of translations like “working-level authorization”, “manager-level authorization” or “executive-level authorization” could also help the reader (i.e. the client) understand the authorization levels.

It goes without saying that even though the specific English words used to translate each term may be arbitrary, consistency is very important. Thus if 재가 is translated as “sanction” in one place, it can’t be translated differently elsewhere in the same context.

Phrasing when Translating Korean Business Authorization Terminology

I have seen many translations where “Drafter” is used instead of “Drafted by” or where “Consenter” is used instead of “Consent provided by”. There are two reasons I now follow the latter approach and not the former. The first is that without adding the preposition “by” at the end and referring specifically to the actor of the act, the terms sound a little stilted (e.g. drafter, coordinator, confirmer, authorizer, signer, consenter, approver, sanctioner, notifyee). The other reason is that the former approach does not allow the translator to later distinguish when the actual actor is referred to in the Korean source (e.g. 기안자, 조정자, 확인자, 결재자, 합의자, 승인자).

Translations of Other Terms in Korean Documents

직권 – The dictionary invariably provides “arbitrary decision” as the translation. Besides sounding awkward, this expression doesn’t communicate the real meaning effectively because it carries the negative connotation in English of a “random decision” or some other decision someone makes for no apparently good reason. Therefore, a better translation needs to explain the full meaning of the word. 전결 refers to the authority delegated under the company’s hierarchy to a person in their official position to make certain decisions. Therefore, though a little long, better translations would be either “decision made under official authority” or “decision made under delegated authority”. The version with “delegated” catches the root meaning of the Korean word more literally, but in my mind, it seems to imply the idea that someone is making a decision on behalf of someone else (who might not just be at work that day or something), rather than a decision that is rightfully theirs to make in their position within the organizational structure of the company. Therefore, my preferred translation is “decision made under official authority” or “make a decision under official authority”. Likewise, 전결권 would be “official decision-making authority” and 전결권자 would be “person with official decision-making authority”.

대결 – Though long, my preferred translation for this would be “decision made on behalf of someone else”.

직권 – “official decision”

직권면직 – This refers to taking away someone’s authority to make decisions in their job position that they had previously been able to make. A usable translation might be “revocation of authority”.

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