Korean Translation Tip: Here’s Why You Can’t Blindly Search-and-Replace in a Korean Text

About Korean search-and-replace

Nobody uses the search-and-replace function in Word more often than translators. Search-and-replace in Korean is a common task in the Korean translation workflow.

When I’m working on a Korean-to-English translation project, I’ll get started using a certain term and later, with more context, decide a different word would be better… It happens all the time! 

Sometimes client reviewers come to us on translations of English documents into Korean with term revisions that need to be applied globally to a Korean document. 

Unfortunately, if you don’t know Korean, you’re playing with fire if you do a global search-and-replace of terms in a document on your own. 

That’s because the spellings of various Korean grammatical markers vary with search-and-replace depending on whether the word they’re attached to ends in a vowel or a consonant. 

Ooooh…. Korean sounds so hard, right? Not really… It’s the same in English! 

A search-and-replace example

“I want to eat an apple.” 

Let’s suppose we need to change “apple” to “carrot”. Here’s what we get, right? 

“I want to eat an carrot.” 

Oops… the “an” needs to be changed to an “a” since “carrot” starts with a consonant… 

Here’s “I want to eat an apple” in Korean: 

내가 사과를 먹고 싶다. 

In Korean, 사과 is apple and 당근 is carrot. 

Alright, let’s make the switch… 

내가 당근를 먹고 싶다. 

Nope… The Korean search-and-replace effort failed! Apple in Korean ends in a vowel but carrot ends in a consonant, so the grammatical marker indicating that the word is the direct object of the sentence has to be changed from 를 to 을. Here’s how it should be written after the switch: 

내가 당근 먹고 싶다.

And it’s not just the object marker; the subject marker changes too, as do other cases that are too nuanced to explain here. 

You can’t even be 100% confident with search-and-replace if you’re merely changing a number in the middle of a Korean sentence, since you don’t know if that number pronounced in Korean ends in a consonant or a vowel. This could affect things, too. 

And get this… Even some English words that end in a consonant in English actually have an added vowel sound at the end when spoken in Korean (such as “bus” and “golf”) and this affects the spelling of grammatical tags as well. 

Conclusion

Have I given you enough reasons not to tamper with a Korean text on your own using the search-and-replace function? 

Best-Practice Tip – If you’ve got to make a change to a term in a Korean translation, you’d better ask your translator (or at least a Korean speaker) to do it for you… and tell them to be careful!

4 Responses

  1. danR says:

    I just want to search for single Korean letters in a text. No can do. How come? Don’t ask why I would want to do something so silly because I’m going to tell you.
    I need to construct a Korean letter frequency table. Nothing is easier to find for English, and some people, like cryptanalysts have the common letters memorized: ETANORISH.
    Why not Korean? So I have to make one.
    Isn’t North Korea cryptanalytically worthy enough? You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with the NSA.

  2. If you mean, characters, then that’s easy. But if you’re trying to analyze at the individual letter level, yeah, that could be difficult. It’ll likely take some careful analysis and programming using the Unicode tables. I really wouldn’t have any other insights on how to go about doing this, I’m afraid.

  3. pocketR2 says:

    With the Korean word apple: 사과
    How come it is pronounced different from its written structure? The ㅗ sound comes before theㅏsound when spoken but is written the other way around with the ㅏ before the ㅗ. Also I thought it must end in a consonant though the last two are vowels?

  4. If written correctly, the ㅗ in 사과 is written before the ㅏ, so the sequence of writing and speaking the sounds is the same. Also, there is no consonant at the end of the word; those are both vowels.

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