Category: Korean Learners & Language Practitioners

Exploring Korean business, language and life from Ansan, Korea

Korean Translation Tip: Numbers That Change When Translated

Today's tip comes straight out of three recent projects I worked on and shows that a Korean translation into English (or vice-versa) could mean translating a "1" as a "3" or a "9" as a "1"… 

Here's why…

1. Call 911!….  I mean, call 119!

If you call 911 in Korea, do you know who will answer? 

Nobody… In an emergency, every Korean knows to call 119! 

On a recent project, we translated "This hotline is not a 911 or emergency number" in English to "This hotline is not a 119 or emergency number" in Korean.

Had I not let the project manager know what was going on, she would have thought this was an error in our translation.

2. Lanes 3, 2 and 1…

When you're cruising down the highway in Korea (and assuming three lanes of traffic), the right lane is the first lane, the middle lane is the second lane and the left lane (the passing lane) is the third lane, right?


Even though Koreans drive on the right side, they count the lanes from the left. So (assuming two lanes of traffic this time), the passing lane is the first lane and the right lane is the second lane…

This mattered on a recent traffic accident report I translated. To ensure the narrative made sense, I included a translator's note to explain.

3. "More than one" or "two or more"?

It's possible to directly translate "more than one" from English to Korean. But due to the way this is expressed colloquially in Korean, it's often more natural to translate it as "two or more". As explained in Tip #25, Korean frequently uses numerals even when English writes out numbers in word form. This means that even if the English was written out as "one or more", when you do a technical proof of the Korean, your eyes are likely to notice the "one" translated as a "2" and think it's a mistake.

Korean Translation Tip – Remember that proper localization in the translation process sometimes involves changing numbers in unexpected ways! Even if translations of numbers between Korean and English look wrong, they may be right. If in doubt, check with your translator.

BTW, I've covered numbers in several previous tips, too.

Korean Translation Tip: The Lowdown on Korean Alphabetical Order

I’m occasionally asked if Korean has an alphabetical order.  Yes, it does!

There are officially 24 letters in the Korean alphabet, but here are the 14 used to separate a printed Korean dictionary into sections.

ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

The above sequence is the basic set of consonants. However, five of these can be doubled (called "tense consonants").

That gets us to this new sequence.

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

Are we done? No…

I won't try to explain why, but all of the vowels are filed under the ㅇ consonant and there is an order to those also. The bare-bones order is ㅏ ㅓ ㅗ ㅜ ㅡㅣ.

So, version #3:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ (ㅏ ㅓ ㅗ ㅜ ㅡㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

This is the basic sequence of the 24 "official" Korean letters in Korean alphabetical order.

However, hold on to your seats; we're about to go extreme…

There are two additional ways to complicate things, and these also factor into alphabetical order.

That's because four of the six basic vowels can also be combined with a "y" sound (ㅏㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡㅣ; these are called "iotized vowels"), which results in this new expanded list.

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ(ㅏㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

And then there are 11 more ways that the vowels can be combined with each other (called "dipthongs" apparently).

ㅐㅒ ㅔ ㅖㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟㅢ

Thus, the exhaustive list (of more than 24!) goes like this:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ(ㅏㅐㅑ ㅒㅓㅔ ㅕㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ  ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

If this seems too complicated, just check out the following tip to keep things simple.

Korean Translation Tip – You can quickly alphabetize Korean in Excel if you've got the Korean language support installed. Just put your list of words/phases into a column, select the column, and then choose Sort in the Data menu. It's the exact same process as sorting alphabetically in English. Excel's already got those complicated alphabetizing rules figured out. (Major CAT tools such as memoQ also do a fine job of sorting segments in Korean alphabetical order.)

You might be interested to know that the Korean keyboard is structured in a very simple way: consonants on the left and vowels on the right. Once you've installed the Korean keyboard in Windows, to get one of those double consonants, hold down Shift while pressing the key for the consonant. (If it's not a "double-able" consonant, then pressing Shift won't do anything.)

And one more thing… the names of the first three letters are pronounced "ga", "na" and "da". So, the word for "alphabetical" in Korean is "ganada"!

This tip should help you to mind your "biups" and "kiuks", dot your "hiuts" and cross all of your "tiguts"…

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.


A translation might read as follows.


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:


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:


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:


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.


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

전결 – 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”.

Korean Translation Tip: The Two Styles of Technical Korean Writing

There are two styles of technical Korean writing and these are primarily expressed in sentence endings.

In terms of the language as a whole, this is a simplification, since there are any number of local dialects that complicate things, written endings that can also be used in spoken language to add formality, written endings to show informality, endings that can be switched out in spoken language to show affection or relative status, and even a whole other antiquated style (i.e. "Shakespearean" Korean) used today only to address God.

But from a practical standpoint, in the technical translations that we deliver in Korean, unless quoting spoken speech, we only use two styles. Furthermore, since standard Korean sentences always end in a verb, this means nearly every complete sentence in formal written Korean uses one of the two sets of endings.

The following is a simple table showing these endings. For the sake of simplicity, I've removed all the nuances you'll find in a Korean grammar book and just stripped it to the basics.

Sentence Endings in Formal Styles of Written Korean













Go ahead and take a look at a recent Korean translation your Korean translation team delivered to you. Do you see that every sentence ends in these characters?

(If you're seeing sentences ending in 요 or that don't have any of these endings, it means it's probably a spoken style.)

So when are these mainly used?

The personal form is most common in translations addressed to readers, such as marketing materials and official letters. The impersonal form is mainly used in writing without specific readers in mind, such as news articles, academic papers, software interfaces and legal contracts. In addition, the impersonal form is commonly applied to titles and bullet points within documents otherwise written in personal style.

There is room for flexibility here and so you may find variation from translator to translator. The key point though is consistency. In most cases, a translator should use the same style throughout a document.

Korean Translation Tip – A good translator will use styles correctly and consistently. This doesn't mean a client reviewer won't occasionally ask to change. As long as your translator has been consistent with one or the other style above and can provide a proper rationale for that decision in line with my guidelines, the use of styles in the translation is probably correct.

BTW, this fancy and complicated system of styles is nearly completely lost in translations from Korean to English. We have ways in English to express levels of formality and closeness (e.g. "Hey John!", "Dear Mr. Smith", "Yo!", "To whom it may concern:", etc.) but the rules aren't as systematized as in Korean and the differences must often be left out when translating to English. Otherwise, you'll get awkward translations as described in my previous My Esteemed Translation Client Reader tip.

An Unfortunate Machine Translation Error in Facebook

We were in San Antonio recently dropping Treasure off at university and while we were there, we met a friend of Myunghee's. After dinner, Myunghee's friend posted this photo on Facebook.


An old friend of Myunghee's in Korea saw the photo and added the following comment in Korean.


The comment was a bit odd, because she mistook Myunghee's friend for Myunghee's daughter. But her comment was still nice, and here's a correct translation of what she said:

"Your daughter's really turned into a fine lady."

Unfortunately, anybody who clicked the "See Translation" link saw this:



The latest approach to machine translation (called "neural MT") generates translations that sound much more natural than previous "rule-based MT" and "statistical MT" approaches. However, though the translations sound good, you can't trust them. I've been amazed at the incorrect and incomplete translations I've come across from this technology. Sometimes it even adds in unrelated information from its neural database. I once saw a CNN byline (complete with date) show up in the English MT output of Korean content that had nothing to do with CNN.

Korean Translation Tip: The Use of Chinese Characters in Korean Writing

Around 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese. Long ago, Korean was even written using only the Chinese script. However, the Korean writing system (called "hangul" in Korean) has become the standard in today's world, even though Chinese characters (called "hanja" in Korean) still make frequent appearances in Korean text.

Every Korean is registered in the national family register system and most Korean names and locations have Chinese character equivalents. These are often written in hanja, and older registers that we are occasionally asked to translate are even handwritten in mixed script like this:


As late as the 80's and 90's, the important words in some Korean documents intended for an educated audience would be represented in Chinese characters. Today, it is rare to find a technical document for translation less than twenty years old with this kind of mixed script writing though.

Chinese characters are sometimes used just for the effect. We include hanja on business cards to denote basic words like "city" and "state" since they look fancy. Hanja is found in a variety of common phrases, and ceremonial documents like wedding invitations, awards and envelopes for giving monetary gifts are often written in mixed script.

Here's is "Happy New Year" written only in hangul:

새해 복 많이 받으세요!

This is what it looks like as usually written on greeting cards:

새해 福 많이 받으세요!

Keep in mind that the use of hanja doesn't change the pronunciation or meaning at all; just the way in which the words are written. Korean uses Traditional Chinese characters, not the Simplified Chinese of modern China.

When writing Korean words with homonyms that could lead to confusion or if wanting to provide deeper insight into the original meaning, the writer may write hanja in parenthesis after the Korean to clarify. Here is a segment from a recent newspaper article.


It is not a coincidence that this is from the Chosun Daily, which is a conservative newspaper for educated readers. Many years ago when more newspapers used Chinese characters, I was not able to read them, and so I practiced my Korean reading with the Hankyoreh, a left-wing publication that has never used Chinese characters, presumably to make it more accessible to a wider readership.

You won't find many Chinese characters in our translations. Here are the instructions we follow on page 12 of our Style Guide.


Finally, Windows has a nifty feature for those unable to read Chinese characters. The IME Pad is available on Windows installations that support Korean and it can be reached from the taskbar.


The following shows the IME Pad with the character for "king" drawn in with the mouse. On the right, the user can see various possibilities, and can get the meaning and Korean character to match (and even the Unicode value!) by clicking on the correct one.


Likewise, in Word, by right-clicking on any Korean character, the user can view a list of possible Chinese characters for the respective Korean character.



Korean Translation Tip – If you have a Korean document written in mixed script, you don't need one translator for the Korean and another for the Chinese. Just hire one Korean-to-English translator who can read hanja to translate the whole thing.

Korean Translation Tip: When a Korean “Yes” Means “No”, and a “No” Means “Yes”

It’s been several months since my last Korean translation tip because, well, I’ve been busy translating… and have also spent this time working hard to improve my skills and credentials. I’m proud to say that this effort has resulted in an upgraded resume. Ta-da! – You can download it here.

I’m also proud that this Korean Translation Tips series is pushing four years now. Today’s tip is #38! (Check out my resume for links to the other thirty-seven.)

So, before we start today’s tip, I have a question….

You didn’t stop and look at my resume when you read the first paragraph a moment ago, did you?

If you did, then in English you’d say “Yes, I did,” and if you didn’t, you’d say “No, I didn’t”.

But that’s not how a Korean would reply.

A Korean would say, “No, I did,” or “Yes, I didn’t”.

Confused? This difference happens because I asked a negative question.

When we reply in English, we ignore the fact that the question was negative and pretend it was positive. But in Korean, the answer strictly follows the logic of the question. If I asked you if you didn’t look at the resume and you, in fact, didn’t look at it, then, yes, you didn’t look at it. Right?

Is my explanation clear now?

In translation, this little twist means that “yes/no” responses to negative English questions are translated to “no/yes” answers in Korean (or vice-versa), and a translator must be careful to get this right. In fact, regardless of the translation direction (i.e. EN>KO or KO>EN), sometimes the simplest solution is to just rewrite the question in the target language to get rid of the ambiguous negative construct.

BTW, yes, Koreans ask negative Korean questions ALL THE TIME and this frequently confuses non-Koreans (at least it confuses me!).

Korean Translation Tip – The logic in answering a negative yes/no question is reversed between English and Korean. This occasionally trips up careless translators. A good proofreader will be on the lookout to double-check, but the client can also help in advance by writing the source without negative yes/no questions.

I bet Korean/English isn’t the only language pair with this negative yes/no question reversal. How about the languages you speak? Do you face this issue?

Korean Translation Tip: Ornery Koreans Write Things Backward

In spite of the titles of this article, most Koreans are not ornery, nor do they do things backward. They just write differently than we do in English.

Here are some examples.

Fractions and page numbers

Koreans don’t say “two-thirds” or “page two of three”; they say “of three, two” and “of three pages, the second page”. Fortunately, this only applies when spoken and written out in long form. If you’re just writing  numerals, then nothing changes.

This means the simplest solution when translating is to add a forward slash. In other words, translate both “Page 3 of 5” and "three-fifths" to "3/5". Otherwise, you'll have to write it as "5 페이지 중 3 페이지" and "5분의 3".

Korean Translation Tip – If it’s imperative that numbers from an English source stay in the same order in Korean for fractions and pages, then convert them to numerals. This is especially relevant with codes that auto-update, such as page numbering in Word. Otherwise, you'll find yourself making this Google-esque mistake!


Korean dates are written "year/month/day". It’s not usually a big deal to switch things around during translation, but in some cases, this can get complicated. We recently had to translate the following:

"Dates should be entered as ddmmmyyyy (Example: 14SEP2016)"

Unfortunately, we had no choice but to translate this with a long explanation that reads in English as:

"Dates must be entered in the day/month/year format, where the date is entered with two digits, the month with the three-letter English abbreviation in capital letters and the year with four digits (14SEP2016)."

Whew… That was a mouthful!

Korean Translation Tip – It’s easy to understand and translate Korean dates if you know the sequence, but don’t take it for granted that your Korean audience will be used to the English format for filling out forms.


Korean addresses are written in Korean starting from the largest units (country, province, city…) and moving to the smallest units (…street, building, house or office number), but the other way around in English.

Here’s how our address in Korea looks when written in English:

#2406 Chungang Heightsville, 23, Ansancheonseo-Ro

Danwon-Gu, Ansan-Si, Gyeonggi-Do 15361 Republic of Korea

This is the English rendering of it from Korean:

Republic of Korea, Gyeonggi-Do, Ansan-Si, Danweon-Gu

Ansancheonseo-Ro 23, Chungang Heightsville #2406 (15361)

Kind of weird, huh? Here's an article on it.

Korean Translation Tip – When translating English business cards to Korean, if your client wants the address translated to Korean (and most Western clients do!), then turn the order around.


The Korean for "AM" is "오전" and for "PM" is "오후", but these are added before the number, not after. So "8 o'clock AM" is written "오전 8시" and "8 o'clock PM" is "오후 8시".

Korean Translation Tip – You can get away without translating AM and PM to Korean; they are understandable by many Koreans in English. However, if you do translate them, then you have to put the Korean equivalents IN FRONT of the numbers, not AFTER.

Sentence Structure

Considering how different the sentence structures are between Western languages and Korean, is it any wonder that Korean is written the other way around in the above examples? In fact, sometimes it seems Korean and English are polar opposites. If you need a refresher on this point, check out these two one-minute videos from past tips.

Korean Translation Tip: Handle Korean Line Breaks Like a Pro

With the robust multilingual support in Adobe Indesign and recent versions of other design packages, many clients are opting to handle Korean layout in-house.

Unfortunately, people with absolutely no knowledge of Korean can really butcher a layout job.

My Korean Translation Tips have addressed some of the most egregious mistakes and easy-to-fix issues, including Tip #16 (Cardinal Rules of Layout), #26 (Korean Font Differences), #31 (PowerPoint Tips), #29 (Spacing Issues in Word) and #32 (More Font Handling).

But line breaks are also a point of concern.

Suppose you've got this source text:


And your Korean translation team delivers this fill-in-the-blank translation of it in Word:


Don't lay it out into your design program like this:


Or like this:


Or even like this:


These are not uncommon issues; they happen all the time, especially when Korean text is mixed with punctuation and English.

Korean Translation Tip, Part I – Hire us to do the most professional layout for you, or at least have us do an in-context proof of the text after you do the layout.

Korean Translation Tip, Part II – If you ignore the first half of this tip, be sure after layout to check all lines that start or end with punctuation and/or English to verify that the text matches the way the translation was delivered to you.

** BONUS – Do you see above that there are four fill-in-the-blank lines in both the source English and translated Korean? They aren't in the same sequence in the two languages! Want to know why? Check out this article and you'll understand: Tip #34 (Why You Can't Translate Phrase-by-Phrase Between English and Korean)

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.