Monthly Archive: January 2010

Book Review: The Koreans by Michael Breen

I came to Korea too late. It's just that simple. I came as soon as I could, of course, which was straight after university graduation in the US, but I missed out on seeing the "old Korea". It was the Korea of anti-Americanism, the Korea of poverty, the Korea of militant student demonstrations and of government oppression. I missed all that.

41GDTA19NFL._SL160_ When I arrived in Korea on December 28, 1993, this was gone. Life in Korea has had it's challenges for me but through it all, I've been treated well at least as often as I would have back home, have never gotten into an argument about how evil my country is, witnessed true democracy from day one and don't know what a starving Korean would look like. As best I can reckon, I arrived in Korea right when the positive political, social and economic trends were coming together for the country.

I have non-Korean friends and associates who lived in Korea in the 1980s. Some of them were gone from or leaving Korea by the time I arrived. So we have very different views about the country; in many ways, irreconcilable. The fact that one country can have changed this much in such a short period of time is astounding and I think a lot of foreigners who first understood the old Korea are unable to make proper sense of or describe the Korea of today. Or perhaps they just had too much fun obsessing about the bad things they saw: typical "expatriate-itis"

Michael Breen got to Korea in 1982; he wrote this book in 1998 (and updated it in 2004). He should have written it ten years earlier because his descriptions of "old Korea" don't ring true to me when I look at Korea today. But more than that, the book's fatal flaw is not that Breen is still trying to describe the Korean of old, it's that he just hasn't looked hard enough to figure Korea out properly for any time.

Breen apparently never got very far out of the international community in Seoul. He let the views of other expatriates color his outlook on Korea too much. And perhaps it's his journalist background showing through, but this cliche-filled book of stereotypes is a bit too sensationalized. To get things off to an exciting start for his non-Korean readers, he begins by running Koreans down every way he can, presumably so he can pick them back up later in the book. (병주고 약주고…)

In the interest of "fair reporting" (I guess!), the author goes to some effort to mix his condescending views with a smattering of compliments. His basic message to Koreans is: "I don't care what everyone else is saying about Korea and Koreans, I still think you're pretty cool." This, in a nutshell is Breen's double-message throughout the book.

One of Breen's main themes is that Korea hasn't yet grown up; they went to hell and back during the first two-thirds of the 20th century and so they are still working through the after-effects of that. Well, yes, there's some undeniable truth in that, but does it warrant quotes like this? "…Koreans came out of a half-century of Japanese domination with such a profound sense of worthlessness that they seemed to have lost any notion of who they were or where they came from." (pp. 4-5) This is a strong statement that overlooks far too many nuances and counter-currents of thought to be useful in understanding Korea correctly.

In fact, the book is full of similar insights (i.e. "nonsense") which are clearly the product of Breen's discussions at dinner parties with ignorant expatriates. Here are some examples just from the preface and first chapter:

  • p.4 – "You need a high-level bullshit indicator to figure out what's going on."
  • p. 31 – "Koreans are more gregarious than we are. They're so into other people that they don't read books much and they tend to fall asleep when they're by themselves." (Huh?)
  • p. 35 – "Korean is not a good language to argue in because there are so many shades of meaning. It is so easy to be misunderstood. English is a language for clarity and logic."
  • p. 36 – "Korean men who are angry… bellow from the pit of their stomach… You can see why men rule in Korean society."

As I read this book, I found myself constantly writing question marks and asterisks in the margin because of all the dubious assertions. Are disputes in Korean society usually solved by force? Really? (p. 142) Are Koreans reluctant to work as hard as they used to? Is it because their companies give them cheap apartments to live in? (p. 63) Can "an astute observer… summarise the main features of a country's political culture after spending a little time on the roads"? (p. 189) Indeed!

Breen spent awhile in Korea and according to the book jacket, is still a frequent visitor (at least as recently as 2004). His wife is Korean. Apparently he did a lot of reporting about Korea for various international newspapers. Good for him. This book shows clearly that he did some time, met many Koreans and has opinions about Korea. A reader wishing to find out what the politically correct opinions of Korea are in the expatriate community could learn a thing or two through this book. 

But readers looking for a thoughtful understanding of Korea and Koreans reached through diligent research and contemplation will not find that this book breaks new ground. The subtitle of "The Koreans" is "Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies". Just the fact that Breen summarizes all Koreans into this "they" and "their" indicates the stereotypical way this book seeks to explain Korea and Koreans.

Translations by the Gigabyte

This is an actual email I received this week. It was broadcast out to me and 30-40 other translators at the same time:

Hi. We urgently need help. Have any of you ever done translations
that are billed in gigabytes? If so, how is this done? How much does it
cost per gigabyte?

Thank you very much. We really appreciate any help you can provide
in the way of this query.

Kind regards,


The billing unit varies by language and location. In Korea, translators often charge by the line or by the page. And in many languages, they charge based on source word count in every case. 

But for Korean in the international market, I’ve found that billing by the English word is the most reasonable. On jobs from English into Korean, it is easy to quote the job price since we have the word count up front. For Korean to English, it is more problematic because we can’t know the actual billable word count until the job is done. 

Oftentimes, if a client wants to know the final price of a Korean > English job up-front, I will eyeball the text, estimate the final word count and give a fixed price quote that won’t vary at the end.

I have, however, never heard of billing by the gigabyte. That is a first!

Mastering Business in Korea with Tom Coyner

This was an exciting week at Korea Business Central (, where we hosted the first interview in our Korea Business Interview Series. Tom Coyner, author of Mastering Business in Korea, was kind enough to give us some of his time and wisdom. 

Here are the links to the interview:

Part 1

Part 2

Each half of the interview is exactly 18:40 in length.

To purchase the book, click here to visit Seoul Selection.

And to join the discussion about the interview, visit Korea Business Central at

The main points of the interview:

  1. Korea is an interesting place to do business because it is a dynamic newly emerged developed economy.
  2. Opportunities in Korea are largely concentrated in one city: Seoul. This leads to some interesting challenges, such as customer expectations of extra quick support.
  3. Many Korean professionals have studied and lived overseas so command of the Korean language is not as important in Korean business as learning Chinese or Japanese are to doing long-term business in China or Japan. 
  4. Westerners should make more up-front investments of time and energy to cultivate personal relationships before rushing into business. This is even more true in Korea than in Japan.
  5. Koreans are open to doing business with foreigners, especially when it will make them more competitive in international markets. Korea is incredibly competitive and some care should be taken about what information is shared.
  6. Koreans believe their country is a great place to do business internationally and many foreign companies are finding this to be the case, even more so than China sometimes.
  7. Korea is going green and non-Korean companies that have green technologies should be looking at Korea as a potential market.
  8. Lawyers perpetrate the myth that doing business in Korea is difficult and expensive, blaming labor inflexibility and the lack of transparency. Attorneys bill more hours than necessary. These issues can often be avoided by managing in a way that preempts problems. XX
  9. If looking for a job in Korea, the most important thing is to get one's feet on the ground and meet people. It's all about the relationships.
  10. Korea deserves credit for both its economic progress, as well as its transformation into a democratic society, in such a short time.
  11. Koreans are the Irish of the orient, meaning they are open, emotional, religious and family-oriented.
  12. "Predominant Korean thinking" can be summed up in catchwords that represent notable aspects of the Korean psyche. One word is kibun, which expresses the sensing, feeling, emotional side of Koreans. Nunchi is the ability Koreans have to ascertain the kibun of another person.
  13. To get along with Koreans, be open about yourself on a personal level.
  14. The Eleventh (and most important) Commandment for doing business in Korea: "As a foreigner, if you've done your homework and are prepared, you don't have to worry about doing a perfect job on the first ten commandments."
  15. Think in the mid- to long-term when entering the Korean market. You can't do business in Korea on an opportunistic basis.

Information on Korean Translation Certification

I was just asked this week when the ATA is going to offer a certification exam in Korean. While it's been discussed in the ATA's Korean Language Division, I don't think much has been done to move the process forward and my guess is that it won't happen soon. Apparently several years ago there was a push for a certification exam in Bosnian (or was it Croatian?) but after all the effort to get things set up, only a handful of people were actually interested. So the ATA is wanting to make sure there's enough actual demand (not just mild interest) before they go to all that effort again.

However, the ATA isn't the only game in town and I am reminded of a discussion awhile back about this. I learned from Sam Henderson (, another Korean translator, as follows: 

"The Korean Society of Translators offers certification in Korean-English, and (English-Korean), as well as Korean-Chinese and Korean-Japanese. Information is here: Certifications are also offered in Australia (and abroad) through NAATI, and have been offered occasionally in the UK through the Dip. Trans. But I would imagine that the KST is responsible for the bulk of Korean-English certifications in the US market."

Good information; thanks Sam.

Business Introduction Provided in the Clinical Trial Field (US & Korea)

I was contacted by a US company looking to expand their business in Korea. They asked what services I could provide them. While my team’s core competency is in Korean translation right now, I forwarded this US company’s information to a recent guest in the Korea Business Interview Series at Korea Business Central. Another associate at Korea Business Central is also discussing support to this US company.

The Elements of Subtitles, the Recent Book by Korean Translator (and my Colleague!) D. Bannon, Gets a Raving Review

As previously introduced here on Korean Translation Perspective, D. Bannon is probably the best Korean translator of literary works today. His latest project was to translate the subtitles for The Great Queen Seondeok, the blockbuster drama by Korean broadcaster MBC

To purchase the DVD set on Amazon:



The Great Queen Seondeok  

Experience like this makes Bannon uniquely qualified to write about subtitling, and here is his latest creation:



Finally, here is a review published this month in Midwest Book Review:

"Language is a hard thing to show through text alone, especially when you have dialogue and nothing else. The Elements of Subtitles discusses translating and subtitling modern media and explains that subtitles need to be more than literal translations, and need to truly grasp the nature of the subject. The Elements of Subtitles is a must for anyone who wants to get into the world of translation or simply gain an understanding of why things are done the way they are with foreign media. . . . Practical, user friendly, and replete with illustrative examples, The Elements Of Subtitles will prove to be of immense and practical value for anyone engaged in translating written expressions from other languages into English."

Midwest Book Review (January 2010)

I strongly recommend this book to translators looking to work in literary translation. Korean translators will enjoy a deeper understanding of his examples, but the book is highly useful for translators in any language.

Multiple Business Introductions Provided in the Gaming Industry (Korea, USA, London, SE Asia and More!)

A long-time associate in Korea asked me to help him find contacts in the US gaming industry as he is representing two Korean manufacturers of casino games. Not only did I get him full contact details for purchasing managers at five casinos in Oklahoma, but associates of mine at Korea Business Central forwarded information to contacts of theirs. My associate is now in London meeting one of them and has been following up with all the others. Furthermore, he asked for and received from another member at Korea Business Central information on the US casino industry.

Back on the Keyboard at Nojeok Hill Following Updates to Korea Business Central

The is my first blog post in about a month, having focused my "content creation" juices on other projects lately, in particular a 25-page university term paper in Korean last month and then some pretty intense site development at Korea Business Central and elsewhere.

As of a few days ago, the site still looked like this:

Old Site

Even the above page hides a tremendous amount of work spent rearranging and adding content, etc., but it was this week with the design upgrade by my fantastic web designer Catalin that helped us reach this:

New Site
Next step is to get a steady stream of original content (in particular, podcast interviews with Korean business experts) into the Korea Business Central site to add to the active conversations between members and automatic information updates currently flowing through the various RSS feeds. This has happened much slower than expected but it is now front-and-center on my priority list.

Though my to-do list has shown "Write blog post" every day for the last month, for better or for worse, I'm finally ready to get back into my previous routine.