Category: translate korean

High-Quality Workflow Design for English>Korean Translation

It would be great if every project followed a linear, sequential workflow from beginning to end, so that after feeding the source file in at the beginning, the final file at the end pops out as a perfect specimen, with every step having somehow brought the quality closer and closer to perfection. But the real world isn’t so simple and our workflow is designed to take advantage of the linear aspects of the work, while also dealing with the surrounding complexity.

Failure points in the process cause many of the errors. I’ve found some in the software of some of today’s leading companies. Keeping these pitfalls in mind, we bring together the highest-level technical expertise, English fluency and industry experience with the best English>Korean review talent, to maintain a reasonable rate structure across the range of project types and sizes that we handle, while also delivering our best work.

Hybrid CAT-tool workflow

Because we often work with subject-matter experts who are not CAT-tool savvy, I handle most technical processing internally, with the actual translation and proofreading steps processed by my team on RTF files that I prepare with the relevant terminology, context and TM content for their reference. I have been working hard on these processes for several years now and they include proprietary procedures that I have developed and maintain internally to raise quality.

Language pair-specific quality assurance

One aspect that sometimes affects the quality of translation into Korean is the lack of native-speaker fluency in English among the pool of Korean translation resources. This is a lesser concern on technical documents, where standard language is often used, but it does crop up. Yet one more role I perform in the quality assurance process is to review source files at the beginning for potential linguistic issues that could trip up the team, and then spot-check the translations at the end for common problems in the English>Korean language pair. I’ve written about a lot of these in my Korean Translation Tips series, and am increasingly integrating these into my quality assurance work.

Client-side induced errors

Unnecessarily complicated and unclear instructions, work processes and file formats, as well as process disruptions (such as late client instructions, source files changes), lead to a disproportionate number of errors. This also applies to poor client-end translations and layout which we are asked to review and where we end up fixing things that shouldn’t have needed fixing, leaving less available attention/time for productive editing work. This is exacerbated when the budget is not adequate for the effort required. I try very hard to get all this worked out in advance, and to shield my team from distracting factors.

Role specialization

It is important to keep in mind that only so much can be expected at each step of the process, and with two languages as mutually different as English and Korean, this is even more true. While we’d like to believe that a translation performed by a competent translator will be perfect the first time every time, this is simply not the case.

In fact, each step in the process (file preparation, translation, proofreading, automated and manual QA, content-context integration, etc.) adds value… at least, it does if the scope for each step is designed properly and adequate value added by each participant.

Our process lets the translator and proofreader focus only on linguistic issues by separating out the technical file handling, project management and context integration into discrete steps that I manage at the beginning and end of the project. Furthermore, creating conditions for high linguistic quality from the translation and proofreading team means that QA can then focus on final polishing, while also resolving other technical complications.

In our process, the translator is the lowest function and this person not take any leadership role. My colleague who does nearly all of my proofreading (and selects the translator, thus having a motivation to keep the translator in line) would be closer to this role. But frankly, in the end, it's me doing the dictating of terms and ensuring adherence with instructions, style guides, glossaries, etc. and ever so occasionally, going back strategically with mistakes I've found to let my colleagues know I'm still paying attention. We don’t generally send edits back down the ladder for review and approval, nor do we rub other team members' noses in every single mistake that we can fix at a higher level.

Korean Translation Tip: Solving Spacing Issues Between Korean and English Text in MS Word

There's a nasty feature in Microsoft Word as it applies to Korean; I have no idea why it's there. My best guess is that it's only supposed to be used with Japanese and Chinese but that Microsoft mistakenly included it for Korean, too. I'm not really sure, though.

Perhaps Microsoft could contact me and explain so I can let you know if I'm missing something here. After all, I already pointed out several mistranslations in Windows which they've told me they fixed! (BTW, I stopped writing about Korean translation errors in Windows and Office… There are plenty more, but it got boring to keep going on and on about them.)

Anyway, the issue here is that when English and Korean characters sit side-by-side in a document, sometimes a space is placed between the English and Korean. This is done regardless of whether a space should actually be there or not. Here is a short excerpt from my master's thesis to illustrate:


Do you see those spaces indicated by the arrows? They aren't supposed to be there, and I certainly didn't add them when typing the text.

It turns out there's a simple solution. Special thanks to my genius layout guy, Xiang, for teaching this to me awhile back.



I'm not aware of any situation where the above boxes should be checked in a Korean document; they should always be unchecked. To fix, simply select all text in a document and then uncheck those boxes to produce properly formatted text like the following:


Korean Translation Tip – Sometimes there should be spaces between Korean and English text in a Korean document. However, these should only be added with the space bar. If you have a Korean translation where spaces cannot be removed because they can't be deleted, then following the above procedure will "fix" your document.

Korean Translation Tip: Don’t Just Use a Dictionary to Translate Job Titles into Korean

If you’re translating English business cards into Korean, work with a professional who understands the intricacies of the task and asks enough questions to be able to translate job titles correctly.

For example, here are many (but not all) of the possibilities for translating “director” and its variants:

  • 이사
  • 전무
  • 전무이사
  • 상무이사
  • 대표이사
  • 원장
  • 회장
  • 실장
  • 소장
  • 센터장
  • 협회장
  • 부장
  • 국장
  • 청장
  • 총장
  • 사무총장
  • 사무국장
  • 감독
  • 디렉터
  • 지휘자
  • 중역
  • PD
  • 심의관 

Some of these correspond with other possible English job titles, too. For the full run-down, check out “How Do You Write ‘Director’ in Korean?

“Director” is not the only confusing job title (admittedly, it is one of the harder ones though). This is not just because Korean organizations are structured differently than Western ones; you’ll also find that even the same jobs at the same level in the organization can sometimes imply different responsibilities.

I’d like to point out too that Koreans aren’t always helpful here since they tend to inflate their English job titles. I was at a (very well-known!) company recently where, of the ten business cards I was given by my Korean counterparts, every one but the president’s card listed him or her one rank higher in English than his/her card in Korean! It takes an honest broker to work through all this sometimes.

Korean Translation Tip – Don’t consider a business card translation a throw-away job just because the job title is only one word. Get professional help (such as from someone with a masters degree from a Korean university in management strategy).

BTW, I’ve even written a guidebook for this, which can be downloaded free: The Definitive Guide to Business Cards in Korea

Korean Translation Tip: Watch Out for Verb Ending Inconsistencies

If you're expecting identical English text to be always translated the same way into Korean, you're in for a big surprise.

There can be meaning-related factors involved too, but this tip explains how structural context influences the verb endings used in written Korean. This means that occasionally, the same English source sentence may even need to be translated different ways at different places within the same document!

I'd like to share a (very) short grammar lesson to introduce this and then I'll get on to the practical applications quickly.

In modern, formal, written Korean, there are three standard ways of ending sentences. The following examples show sentence endings with the "do" verb in declarative, interrogative and imperative cases, respectively.

  • Personal (합니다./합니까?/하십시오.) – This form is often used in marketing pieces, business letters and other written communication where the writer is trying to create a personal connection with the reader in some way. 
  • Impersonal (한다./한가?/해라.) – The impersonal approach is common for technical manuals, contracts, legislation, patents, academic papers and newspaper articles where the connection between the writer and reader is not relevant to the content. In this form, when instructions are given, such as in manuals, the declarative form is typically used rather than the imperative form. There would also be few question marks in this type of writing.
  • Abbreviated (하기/한가/해라) – Bullet points and subjects lines frequently use this form. Ending punctuation is often not required, even for questions.

Of course, the above run-down skips over many nuances, complications and exceptions. It doesn't include verb endings that imply a more oral tone, nor does it cover honorifics and other tags and techniques to show respect, not to mention old forms of Korean that are still commonly found in religious texts and historical dialogue.

The decision between personal and impersonal writing styles is often made at the document level and the choice is somewhat subjective. The most important point here is that it should be applied consistently throughout.

However, occasionally a document is composed of an alternating mix of impersonal information and sets of personalized instructions for the reader (such as a collection of medical marketing brochures we translated recently). In this case, it may be necessary to confirm the context of each sentence before choosing which ending to use, in order to maximize the impact on the reader. Also, sentences that appear both as subject headings or bullet points and within the main text may need to be written differently within the document, depending on the structural context.

Korean Translation Tip #1 - Don't expect absolute consistency of verb endings in documents, especially those with a mix of prose, titles/subtitles, bullet points, tables and/or diagrams. But do expect consistency within and between sections of each written form. 

Korean Translation Tip #2 - When working in Korean, it is often a good idea to allow multiple target translations for a single source segment when setting up a translation memory in a CAT tool (e.g. Trados Studio, memoQ).

Korean Translation Tip #3 – This lesson also provides a basis for dealing with some types of client feedback. If a client reviewer complains that a Korean translation is too "stiff," changing to the personal style can often solve the problem. Likewise, a translation rated as too "friendly" can be made more impersonal by switching back the other way.

Korean Translation Tip: Korean Letters Look Different in Different Fonts and Positions

The following point may seem obvious: Korean letters don't appear the same in each font. For some reason though, this confuses clients from time to time.

Here's the Korean letter chi'ut written in five different fonts:


Notice how the line/dot at the top in #3, #4 and #5 is disconnected from the rest of the letter, whereas, in 1 and 2, it's connected. Do you see that the bottom-right line in #2 and #3 comes up and connects midway to the line that runs from the bottom left? But in #1, #4 and #5, this line goes all the way up to the base of the long horizontal line. And in #2 and #3, the line from the bottom left connects to the horizontal line on the right side, even though in the other examples it connects in the middle.

Regardless of these differences, it's the same character in all five fonts.

Not only this, individual letters look different depending on where they are positioned in a character. Here are more examples showing the Korean letter chi'ut in various fonts and in different spots within characters.


In English, we don't face the issue of letter differences based on position within a character, but we do have plenty of variation between fonts. Take the letter "a" for example. It's usually rendered much differently when handwritten than when typed. But of course, it's still the same letter in both cases.

Korean Translation Tip – If you're really curious about why a Korean character looks different in a translation from your translation provider than it does in some other document you have on-hand (such as a hand-written or printed example used on a previous job), feel free to ask about it. But don't be surprised if you hear back from your translator that it's just a minor font difference.

On Handling a Post-MT Editing Project Request for Translation to Korean of an English Document

A client recently sent me a translation request for a technical user's manual where we had already worked on another manual for the same manufacturer. The client put the translation memory and termbase from our first delivery through a machine translation solution to translate the second manual. He then asked us to "post-MT edit" the new job, with the expectation (or at least, hope) that we'd be able to offer a lower price for the same quality of work.

Here is my response to him after checking with my team.


"I discussed this with my team; I even presented the machine translation in as positive a light as I could (emphasizing how it leverages our TM and terminology and isn't just raw out of Google Translate) and simply asked what rate we'd need to charge to do it (without suggesting a steep discount).

My colleague acknowledged that there are a few segments where the machine translation can help, but by the time he puts in the effort to understand the English and sort through the many more segments that don't help at all and/or to re-craft the sentences around a natural writing style, the result is that the machine translation is no help at all, and is actually a hindrance if using it for anything more than terminology mining (which we can do in memoQ anyway without bringing in MT).
His feedback mirrors my opinion on a project I'm working on now where the client actually provided me with the translation of a previous version of the same document done by another human translator to use as reference. Even on segments with 100% matching, I don't think the other translation helps at all if I'm expected to deliver my best work. That's because I still have to understand the source and put together an English sentence that I am satisfied with. Even where the other translator's translation is fine, it's usually not the phrasing I would have used and/or doesn't match the style I used to translate other segments from scratch, not to mention various mistranslations that need correcting. The result is that the existing translation is of marginal, if any, help to me.
Furthermore, I don't know how other translators see it, but for me, building onto an existing translation is unpleasant work compared with having a clean slate, so everything else being equal, I'd still rather just handle a regular translation job. I suspect that this because the act of composing and reworking my translation is part of the process I go through to understand the source text deeply and that having a pre-existing translated text interferes in this exercise, forcing me to work in a way that feels constraining. I also prefer an approach that lets me go through a document with a draft first and then come back for a second editing to correct, but I find that I'm not able to do this when I have to press my translation into an existing text, once again pushing me out of my comfort zone. It would be interesting to find out if I'm unique in this regard or if this is a common translation mindset.
Working off a machine translation would be even more challenging than this. Therefore, if the client's objective is to receive work on par with what we usually deliver, then I would only be able to handle that at standard rates (applying volume and gold text discounts).
At least for the English/Korean language pair, I'd say that the only way to make post-MT editing work is if the client is willing to accept a "good enough" delivery. In this case, there'd be no point in an extra proofreading step or in using subject-matter experts like we usually do. The translator would only need to focus on delivering something understandable and not have to worry about being held accountable for a publishable final version. This is still more than MT often delivers, but is not what our clients usually pay us to provide.
I'd be willing to check with another resource for this kind of post-MT edit workflow and target a price at about half of our standard rate. Would you like me to try that and get back to you on it tomorrow?

Korean Translation Tip: Koreans Don’t Write Numbers Out Very Often

In a previous tip, we covered the fact that some Korean number units don't jive with English. The following tip points out that the way numbers are written also differs between the two languages.

In English, we generally spell out numbers through 100 and then use numerals after that. Here are a couple examples.

  • Materials prepared by third-party agencies are copyrighted.
  • Apnea occurs when you stop breathing in your sleep for ten seconds or more at a time.

However, this is how we might translate these into Korean.

  • 제3자 기관에서 준비한 자료는 저작권의 보호를 받습니다.
  • 수면무호흡증은 수면 중 한번에 10초 이상 호흡을 중단할 때 발생합니다.

This is not to say that Korean cannot be written out long form (it can!), or that English writers always follow this rule (they don't!). In fact, in technical English writing or for dates, dollar amounts, bullet points and plenty of other situations, numerals can be found in abundance in English prose.

But in general, you'll find that written Korean uses more numerals than English.

This causes trouble with quality assurance in the latest CAT tools (e.g. Trados Studio, memoQ) when setting things up to check for congruity of number units between source and target segments. Not only do the differences in Korean numbering units create confusion (see link in the first sentence of this article above) but the use of more numerals in Korean writing generates a lot of false-positives for potential errors and can be cumbersome to work through at the QA stage.

Korean Translation Tip: When checking for number congruity between a source English text and a target Korean translation, be ready for a lot of warning that don't mean anything. Or, if you just want to save time, set the QA checker to ignore these mismatches.

Even Google Can’t Keep the Korean Version of the Chrome Browser Free of Mistranslations

If you use the Google Chrome browser, you're sure to have come across this message at the top of the browser window:


Here's what Korean users have been seeing here:


The indicated Korean says, "Not Completed"…. Hmm… So Google asks if you want your password saved and Korean users can choose from "Not Completed" and "Yes"? There's a Korean saying for situations where the answer doesn't match the question: 동문서답, "East question; West answer".

How did "Never" get translated to "Not Completed"? It's probable that the word "Never" appeared in a long list of words and phrases from the Google Chrome interface which was then provided to the translation team for localization to Korean. I bet the translators were not even told that "Never" was one of the possible answers to the above question.

Without context, the translators just guessed at how "Never" would be used. It's hard to think of any situation in which "Never" could be translated as "Not Completed" (and the translators were probably not selected or compensated in a way that would have resulted in more than a split-second of thought about this). Perhaps they supposed this to be the answer to a question about whether someone had completed a particular study course or something…

Even in English, "Never" is a bit of a strange response to this yes/no question. Just translating it as 아니오 ("No") would not have been bad, but to catch the emphasis of "Never", I'd recommend this be changed to 절대 아니오 ("Absolutely not"). Unfortunately, to cover in Korean the full implied English meaning of "No, and don't ever save it… and don't ask me about it again either, dammit" would take more space than is available for the button.

Interestingly, the Korean translation of the question is phrased badly, too. It's not completely wrong, but the grammatical tags in the text personalize the Chrome Browser in a bit of a quaint way and the text asks if the user wants to save the password "in" the website. That's not right… (Just in case Google's listening…), here's a better translation: "Chrome에서 이 사이트에 해당하는 비밀번호를 저장하도록 하시겠습니까?". 

Korean Translation Tip – In a recent article, I identified five common failure points in localization projects. The above mistakes were caused by not following my advice for the following three.

  • Failure Point #2 – Attempting to translate long lists of words and phrases without adequate context
  • Failure Point #4 – Focusing on budget and turnaround without considering the ROI
  • Failure Point #5 – Wasting resources on inefficient review steps and ignoring vital Q/A tasks and processes

* For the full article, see Rethinking Korean Translation and Localization: Process Failure Points.

* For lots more translation errors: A Collection of Korean Translation Errors in the User Interfaces of Leading Software.

With all the hullaballoo about Google's technical prowess, including online/statistical translation that supposedly leverages crowd-sourcing (they even provide their own free online translation platform in order to mine the work of a gazillion professional translators for insights!), how is it that years after the Google Chrome browser was introduced, this very common user message is still in such bad shape? It reminds me of the Windows 7 error that I found about three years after Windows 7 had been released…

Many mistakes, once made, never get fixed… Considering this, you'd think more effort would go into getting things right the first time.

Applying Best Practices to the Translation of Korean Survey Responses to English

How do you create a good translation of responses to surveys and questionnaires? With smooth target-language sentences and phrases that convey the rough meanings of the source? Or with translations that accurately and consistently represent the way the original writers expressed themselves, including as many nuances as possible between terms and writing styles, and even mistakes and truncated phrasings?

I know these are leading questions, but I find it necessary to explain. If a customer is unable to read the Korean source, they may not realize that an excellent English translation will likely include funny punctuation, broken sentences, awkward phrasings and other apparent blemishes in order to communicate the source meanings more accurately. In fact, these unexpected variations in the translation can actually make it appear that the translator was careless.

Many decisions in translating this type of content require that the translator strike a balance between accuracy and readability. I usually put more emphasis on readability for survey responses than, say, for legal text. But I still make an effort to stay as close to the source as possible.


I recently translated several hundred responses from consumers to a survey question about why they chose one of two specific technologies. There were a lot of similarities between responses and, in particular, three particular words were used to describe the advantages of the technology that each respondent chose. 

  • 간편하다 – simple, convenient, easy
  • 편하다 – comfortable, relaxed, easy
  • 편리하다 – convenient, handy, easy
  • There were actually two more which came up one time each (편의하다 – also "convenience"; 편안하다 – more like "peace of mind") but I won't include these below in the discussion.

As you can see, there is considerable overlap in the meanings of the words; they are almost interchangeable. However, while it would have been easy just to translate them all the same way (such as "easy" or "convenient") or to not bother to use the same word each time, I decided to assign each a specific English translation and use that consistently throughout the project as follows.

  • 간편하다 – simple to use
  • 편하다 – comfortable to use
  • 편리하다 – convenient

Strictly speaking, the Korean didn't generally include the word "use" in the source, but because "simple" and "comfortable" can have other meanings when written on their own, I added "to use" to maintain fidelity of meaning. 

Sometimes "comfortable to use" seemed a bit awkward in context, but in keeping with my desire to give the client as nuanced (but consistent) a delivery as possible, I stuck with my phrasing. However, in one case, I translated 간편하다 to "tidy" rather than "simple" because it was clearly the more proper translation.

Verb and Sentence Forms

Another issue that comes up in Korean survey responses is related to inconsistency of grammar used. Respondents generally write in as quick and easy a manner as possible and often don't use complete sentences or check their writing, and each person has their own style and terminology. So, as just one example, when responding to the question of why they chose a particular technology, there were various ways that respondents expressed "convenient".

  1. 편리 – This is the shortest way to say it and so my translation here was just "convenient".
  2. 편리성 – The last character converts the adjective to a noun, so "convenience" is the closer translation.
  3. 편리하다 – This is the root form of the word but can also be used as a complete standalone sentence in the short form. Although the Korean doesn't include the words "It is", in English we would say "It's convenient", and so this is how I translated it.
  4. 편리합니다 – This is the formal form of #3. In these cases, I made sure to write "It is" rather than just the contraction "It's", which would be about as close as we can get in English to representing the difference between these two versions.
  5. 편리함 – The last character converts the adjective to a noun, but the nuance is a bit different than #2 above. It's basically an abbreviated form of #3 (편리하다) and so I translated this in an abbreviated way too, by not adding "It is" or "I" as a subject and just using "Convenient" (same as #1).
  6. 편리해서 – This one and the next four all include implied causation: "Why did you choose it? Because it is convenient." But "because" is a long word; in this case, the form of "because" in the Korean is short (just one character) and the shortest way to express the same in English would be "as it is convenient".
  7. 편리하니까 or 편리하니 – I chose "since it is convenient", not because ~니까 or ~니 specifically mean "since", but in order to distinguish it from the others.
  8. 편리함으로 and 편리하기에 – I couldn't think of another way to express either of these without getting really long (e.g. "due to the fact that it is convenient" or "due to it being convenient"), and since these only appeared once each, I broke my rule of insisting on a unique translation for each version and went with "as it is convenient" (same as #6).
  9. 편리하기 때문에 – The ~기 때문에 is nice and long, so "because it is convenient" was the suitable variant since it uses "because", a long word.

This is a cultural matter, but Koreans often avoid giving responses that would seem too direct. Rather than write "It is convenient", they might say something closer to "It would probably be convenient". At the risk of the translation sounding a little different than what American survey respondents would have written, I attempted to reproduce this nuance also. As there was more than one version of it, I came up with set-piece wordings that I used throughout, even though the meanings are basically the same.

  • 편리할 것 같다 – It would probably be convenient
  • 편리할 듯하다 – It seems it would be convenient

Other Issues

As far as punctuation goes, in cases (such as full stops) where Korean uses the same punctuation as English, I included it if it was in the source and left it off if not. For punctuation expressed differently between English and Korean, I tried to translate in a way that gave the English the same "flavor" as the Korean. (e.g. Korean's like to put a tilde (~) after sentences and phrases to give an informal feeling; ellipsis marks (…) might be a good way to communicate the same thing in English.)

In nearly every Korean response that would have been translated as a full sentence, the subject was left out. That's normal for Korean, especially in this situation where the subject is particularly clear from the context and/or not particularly relevant. As shown above, sometimes I just used "It" as the subject to represent accurately the meaning in English. In other cases, the subject "I" is implied, and so I added this, even though it was not in the source. A few times I guessed.

There are plenty of other small ways to maintain precision and consistency in a task like this. For example, some responses use the word 차량 and others 자동차 or 차. While the words may be very similar, "vehicle" is clearly the right translation for 차량, "car" for 차 and "automobile" for 자동차. Picking a term and sticking with it throughout may not normally be a big deal but it is still a best practice.

How about misspellings in the Korean source? If they didn't impact the translation and the meaning was clear, I just translated those into correctly spelled English as it's not possible to recreate the same mistake with English letters and explaining these individually to the client would not have been worth anybody's time.

Ever so occasionally, the Korean used a term that implies a somewhat longer meaning in English but didn't come out and say it explicitly. For example, in this job there was a phrase about not using data, but what it really meant was not using up the monthly allocation of data under one's phone rate plan. I translated this as "without using [one's] data [quota]" to show what was in the original and what was implied.

Alas, these rules aren't always hard and fast because of the language differences. I've been known to compromise consistency in order to increase readability if it doesn't detract from correctness. In this job, the adverb 별도의 seemed to be better translated as "separately" sometimes, but "additionally" in other cases, and so I tried to match this translation to the situation.

Translating survey responses may often look easy since the responses can be so similar to each other. However, making the extra effort to translate in the way I've described above helps to give the client a better final product, even though it requires more effort by the translator.

Rethinking Korean-Language Translation and Localization: Process Failure Points Demonstrated with Examples of Korean Mistranslations from Microsoft, Google and Instagram

I'm seeing a steady increase in the number of software and online translation projects we handle for the English to Korean language pair.

At the same time, I've noticed that client and translator expectations about budgets, processes and client-vendor involvement are not always in sync with the difficulties these projects present. In addition to lack of context, programming codes embedded in text and other technical challenges of the translation process, differences between languages in terms of structure and cultural and grammatical interpretations of the written word can easily confuse matters and introduce serious errors that impact the final product. Since the differences between English and Korean (both linguistically and culturally) are much greater than those between Western languages, the translation and localization of English to Korean is particularly challenging. 

Typical inquiries for software localization work often sound like the following: “Translations must be completed in our online interface within six hours. There’s no guarantee of volume or minimum fees. The material would be tech in nature (software).” or "We've got an Excel spreadsheet of phrases here for translation by tomorrow morning and our budget is $XX. Be careful not to mess up the coding in the text. And make sure you check your work."

Amazingly, the first project request mentioned above came in for work that was to be provided to a large software company. And is a final exhortation to "check your work" a way for the client to try to get something for nothing? Does that mean we don't check our work otherwise?

When translation is regarded as an afterthought to be taken care of as fast and cheaply as possible by whoever happens to be available at the time — and sometimes in as few steps as possible — is it any wonder that I keep finding errors in the Korean versions of leading software and online interfaces from tech names like Microsoft, Google and Instagram?

The standard localization process involves three basic steps. The source text is first translated into the target language by a single translator. Then, a second linguist proofreads the translator's work. Finally, the proofread translation is placed into the software or online interface (or if printed materials, then a design program, such as Illustrator or InDesign) and reviewed in-context by a linguist (possibly the original translator or proofreader) to catch final errors.

There can be slight variations in this workflow, such as the inclusion of reference files and special localization-related instructions at the beginning, translator questions along the way, sending back of the proofreader's changes to the translator for re-verification and/or a second post-layout proof. But these three steps remain as the underlying workflow in most translation processes we work on.

I've identified a number of key failure points in this workflow though, and I believe the explanations and examples presented below demonstrate that the standard process is not up to the task of producing the highest quality work on a consistent basis for English to Korean localization work.

Some of my recommendations demand higher budgets, but new approaches with the latest software can also achieve enhanced efficiency through proper up-front preparation, more (and more effective!) ongoing communication between the client and translation team to work out issues, redesigned workflows with a new linguist role (that of the Korean-speaking tech-savvy English native-speaker who functions as the central point around which the process runs) and a longer schedule for all the back-and-forth.

Failure Point #1 – Ignoring the impact of inter-language sentence structure differences on translation

Software often includes text with embedded variables for which values are to be inserted dynamically to create complete sentences that are then shown to users during use. Here's an example of what we might be asked to translate:

Segment 1: <b>In any given single month over the coming one year, how likely are you to buy at least ^f('X5').

Segment 2: toNumeral()==23?"Y300":"$10"^ from an online store, such as ^pineOrp()^?</b>.

* Text altered to protect client confidentiality.

When translating from English to Korean, more often than not, the sequence of variables may have to be moved around (assuming the translators even know what the variables mean). Also, when sentences are broken into segments like this, it's seldom possible to translate the parts individually; they have to be translated as a whole and then resegmented.

In some cases, the spellings of words can impact other text in a sentence, too. For example, in English, inserting a person's name can affect the gender of pronouns elsewhere in the sentence. And a variable for a noun may require either an "a" or "an" before it, depending on whether the first letter is a vowel or a consonent. These issues have to be taken into account when writing the English sentences but this effort does not necessarily transfer in translation as there are completely different complications that might crop up in Korean, such as the impact of spellings on surrounding grammatical tags. (See Here's Why You Can't Blindly Search-and-Replace in a Korean Text.) Even just asking for someone's first name and last name on a Korean form will get everything backward from the English!

Here is a sentence from my Korean Translation Buyer's Guide to illustrate just how different the sentence structures are between English and Korean:


What all this means is that the effort to get things right when variables are embedded in the text can be significant. It requires adequate budget for the time taken, as well as responsiveness from the client, and a translation team that is attentive and patient enough to identify and point these issues out and consider solutions, even at the cost of interrupting the workflow.

The translation of texts that consist of fragments of English sentences to be translated individually should be avoided at all cost. Without proper advance planning and ongoing effort, these texts usually result in nonsensical translations since it's not always possible to identify word-for-word correspondence from language to language. Here's an extreme example (with the text altered to protect client confidentiality) we were asked to translate recently. 


Example Error from Google

Recently I discovered an error on the Google Android phone which illustrates this very problem. When uploading photos from the phone, I got the message (in Korean), "uploading 344 of a total of 200 [photos]” when it should have said something like “Uploading photo 200 of a total of 344 photos.” In other words, the numbers were switched.

The mistake would have occurred when the English source provided to the translation team consisted of the GUI text with coded variables embedded for the numbers. The translator should have switched the variable sequence to match the Korean sentence structure, but for one reason or another (possibly because of software limitations), the English order was maintained in error. Even when sequencing can be maintained, it frequently results in awkward wordings or confusion for the end user.

Rethinking the Process

Every sentence which contains variables needs to be reviewed to check for issues. If the meaning is unclear or if there are word order or other considerations, such as potential changes to the surrounding text caused by certain potential variable values, the translation team should discuss with the client about the impact this has on the translation.

In my experience, these issues are not always obvious before starting the job; it is only after much work has been done that awkward translations become evident. Therefore, while an initial review of the document should take place to be sure the issues won't be excessive, the really careful check can be part of a later review by a native speaker in the source language who also knows the target language.

Some jobs just aren't doable. The London fog example above was part of a huge project to localize an ESL program to Korean. There were so many issues with the job (even beyond the example provided) that I had to refuse the work as, to do it right, would have required a translation team to be embedded in the client's office for weeks to work painstakingly through the text. Some projects just aren't conducive to an outsourced approach, even though an in-house approach is unworkable or cost prohibitive.

Failure Point #2 – Attempting to translate long lists of words and phrases without adequate context

Translators need to work from context and it is not realistic to expect a perfect translation of just an Excel spreadsheet or Word document with nothing more than long lists of words and phrases to be translated. Without context, even the best translator will not always be able to figure out how a word or phrase is to be used.

Just telling a translator to send back a list of questions for clarification may also not be enough because there's no guarantee that a translator will know that he or she has misunderstood something. And (to be really frank here), translators hate to interrupt their workflow with this stuff, and so the temptation to just translate and move on can be compelling.

In fact, even though translations into Korean should be done by native Korean speakers, I've found that as a native English speaker, I'm often in a better position than my Korean team to grasp the nuances of the English source text and detect mistranslations or identify questions to ask the client. I also find that these issues jump out at me more vividly after I've received the translation from my team, not before the work starts, since I can see how the text was understood (or misunderstood) by my team and make a comparison.

And finally, I am often dismayed to see that clients do not recognize the challenges non-native English-speaker translators face and are not interested in getting involved. For example (to take an actual issue we encountered not long ago), it takes a pretty nuanced understanding of English to know that "property" can refer to real estate or the sum of one's assets; but "properties" is only real estate. Fortunately, by adding my additional role to the process, I can take care of many issues myself without going to the client for clarification, helping to reduce the burden on both the translators and the client.

Example Error from Microsoft

Here’s another example of what can happen without context. The following phrase in the Korean version of Windows 8 appeared when trying to use the camera app while a camera was not connected to the computer:

“카메라를 연결합니다”

When I first saw this message, I thought the computer was telling me to wait while it connected to a webcam (although the Korean text used here isn't exactly right for that situation either). However, based on the context (which is made doubly clear because the options on the screen are grayed out pending a camera connection), the Korean text should be a command telling the user to connect a camera in order to use the application. 

In this case, the Korean text has a meaning more along the lines of a declarative sentence describing the action of connecting a camera because the translator understood "connect a camera" as an infinitive phrase (e.g. the phrase "to connect a camera" in English) rather than a command.

Rethinking the Process

Translating word and phrase lists properly takes considerably longer than working in normal prose. That's because word and phrase lists don't serve as their own context like ordinary text does, and so a careful translator referencing client explanations, screenshots and other materials will spend longer than normal on the work. Sure, a translator can rush through, but without having and using additional reference information, there are likely to be some mistakes, possibly many.

In my experience, issues with a lack of reference material can be greatly alleviated through a careful review by a native English-speaker Korean translator (i.e. someone like me) after the translation has been completed by the Koreans. This is an important value-add for identifying problems and potential issues to be discussed with the translation team and/or the client; or even for solving problems without bothering the client. However, while this additional review step can reduce the requirements on the client to provide context and respond to questions, it takes a lot of time to manage the communications with the client and translators. 

Failure Point #3 – Focusing on budget and turnaround without considering the ROI

In addition to support from the client and effectiveness of the workflow, the quality of a translation project rests also on the basic translation skills of the linguists, their fluency with the subject matter, their ability to work in the tools and their effort and aptitude to do a good job. When you consider that even a premium translation effort represents only a fraction of the total cost that an end client puts into developing their materials and the fact that the accuracy of a translation can ultimately make or break the ROI of a localization project, it would seem that cost should only be one factor in the decisions about resources and workflow.

Unfortunately, I get, on a daily basis, BCC emails sent out by agencies to umpteen translators at a time offering texts to be translated or proofread on a rush basis and at rates that don't attract my attention. Furthermore, the fragmented way these jobs are sent out means there's little to no continuity between tasks and this compromises the final output in various ways, particularly in terms of consistency.

I will also use this as an opportunity to point out that hourly rates for editing and proofreading fall below what skilled Korean>English translators can earn on per-word translation work. This means that review work is often handled by lesser or beginner resources and avoided by veterans. I haven't figured out the entire dynamic here, but there seems to be a lot more client tolerance for proper rates at the early stages of the process than the end, especially when the rates can be expressed in units of word output rather than units of time input. (For a bit more of my soapbox here, see Ten Reasons to Avoid Proofreading, Editing and QA Tasks on Korean Translation Projects.)

Example Error from Google

Consider the following awkward Korean phrase I discovered on the camera help screen of my Android phone and what it would convey if written in English:

“인물 단체는 베스트페이스 모드를 이용합니다.”

“Use Best Face mode for [taking photos of] groups of humans.”

Humans? How about "people"? In fact, the problem is even worse than this because the rest of the Korean translation is poorly written, too. The English on-screen documentation had gems like the following: “It provides best picture automatically changing scene mode in according with the environment”.

Either the Korean was poorly translated from bad English or both were translated from a third language by the camera's supplier and the translators or writers working on the project were not competent in either language.

Rethinking the Process

Putting together a good localization team means working with translators who can and will make the effort required. But it's not just about more money. Translators skilled in CAT tools (such as Trados or memoQ) and other technical skills to use the software, as well as experience in the field, are able to bring higher efficiency to the process and often deliver large jobs at lower rates than expected after considering volume and fuzzy/rep/match discounts. They also meet deadlines. This means that focusing on the base rate quoted for a job does not always take into account the real costs.

Furthermore, improved workflows can extract more value from less effort. But even the best translators may still slide into "good enough" workflows if better ideas and structures are not provided. Unfortunately, many client-imposed structures are so fragmented and cumbersome due to a lack of Korean-language skills at the project management level that efficiency, quality and consistency are all compromised. I believe that smooth end-to-end outsourced workflows from the Korean provider would add value in many ways. Those are the processes I am working to develop with my team to deliver even better quality to clients, even while cutting out the fat of inefficiency.

Failure Point #4 – Not considering the importance and difficulty of maintaining consistency

There is almost always more than one correct way to translate the same text, but if a project is handled as a sequence of independent sub-projects, if multiple translators are working simultaneously on different sections of the same job (even if accessing an online TM together), if a translation team is switched in the middle of a project — or even if a translator working alone doesn't make the effort to use the latest tools diligently throughout a single project — inconsistencies can creep in, both in terms of terminology and style, especially if the client isn't in a position to to demand rigorous accountability. These inconsistencies can be hard to prevent, difficult to find and nearly impossible to remove later on.

A project style guide is good, as is a glossary. Both should be prepared at the beginning of a project. And translators should always be provided with previous translations handled for the same client or project as reference. But with today's tools like Trados Studio or memoQ, there are also lots of other ways to improve consistency, such as with a proper termbase, use of the concordance function, LiveDocs (in memoQ) and the built-in Q/A checkers of the various CAT tools. (At this point, I don't know if machine translation plug-ins can make constructive contributions to the process for Korean and English.)

Unfortunately, at least with the English to Korean language pair, there are very few translators who have the software AND know-how to use it beyond the basic functions AND are all that interested in working through the complicated processes of setting up and using all those extra files and windows while translating. You can clearly see how unimportant Korean is to the CAT tool makers by counting how many of these software interfaces and help files are available in Korean: zero, as far as I know. The resistance I get from my resources when it's time to upgrade and learn new ways of working shows me that the local Korean translation market does not demand proficiency in CAT technology.

Example Error from Instagram

What happens when consistency is lost? Consider the following sequence of Korean text in the Android Instagram app: “공유하기”, “삭제”, “사람 추가” and “복사 공유 URL”

The first of the four items was translated into Korean using a style that is different from the other three. In the English interface, the four phrases appear as "Share," "Delete," "Add People" and "Copy Share URL" in the imperative form, each line starting with a verb. In other words, the grammar of the English text is written consistently and correctly while the grammar of the Korean text is not. 

Rethinking the Process

It has become clear to me that I'm not in a position to expect high levels of CAT-tool competency from the full field of English to Korean translators I work with in Korea. But limiting our work only to those who are skilled in Trados means missing out on some of the very best linguists for the technical fields we handle. 

Fortunately, I am also realizing that everybody on the team doesn't need to know how to use the advanced tools of our trade. One central player in the process who is proficient in the tools can cover for a team of competent translators who utilize just the basic CAT-tool functions (or don't even use them at all, sometimes).

This person (a native English-speaker) can start things off with a good glossary, prepare the files into packages for use by the translators using the professional version of the software so that the translation environment is set up in advance for the translators, review the translation with a native English-speaker's eyes, communicate with the client on all matters for clarification, and run the Q/A checks (including analysis and leverage of internal fuzzies), making final changes as necessary. 

This is perhaps even the most efficient way to run a process that focuses on and maintains consistency during the job since one person stays responsible for these aspects throughout. A client's project manager can conceivably do this too, but without Korean skills, that person will struggle to fill in all the cracks along the way, even if skilled in the CAT software and efficient workflows.

I also believe that style guides and glossaries should be viewed as living documents, to be finalized at the end of the project. Just because a particular term seems right when setting out doesn't mean one won't get better ideas while working on the job. Sending out lists of high-frequency translation units at the beginning of a project is a good way to support consistency in later work, but only if these can be reconsidered at the end of the project and updated as necessary. Everything can't be set in stone at the beginning; a final consistency review and update at the end will help to tie things together. This is an extra value-add, though.

Failure Point #5 – Wasting resources on inefficient review steps and ignoring vital Q/A tasks and processes

Translation errors can crop up anywhere. In fact, it often takes multiple sets of eyes and an adequate in-context review effort to spot these mistakes. However, even with competent and properly compensated resources at this stage, the process can make all the difference.

I find that some clients introduce an additional review step the sneaky way… by demanding additional work without paying for it. This is done by sending a proofread job back to the translator to be "validated", meaning that the translator checks each of the proofreader's changes and prepares a final version. I generally insist on billing for this review (See On Charging for Additional Translation Reviews.) and it loses me business sometimes. But I also don't think this is an efficient way to handle the review process anyway, especially if there are more steps to go, such as layout.

It has become clear to me that the differences between Korean and English are so great that true fluency is virtually unachievable if second-language learning begins later in life. I've also found (at least with Korean and English) that those born into a bilingual environment and who don't go through the pain of learning a new language the hard way often don't appreciate the necessity of achieving translation precision through careful text analysis. This is further exacerbated by the low opinion Koreans often have of translation as a profession (See About Koreans and Their Attitudes Toward Translators.), leading some who might thrive in this field to move on to more "respectable work".

How many times have you scrutinized the same text several times and overlooked an obvious error that someone else would notice right away? (That's sure to have happened to me several times in this article!) This is, of course, why multiple linguists are brought into a project. However, if the translator, proofreader and quality-assurance professionals are too similar in certain ways (such as by being native Korean speakers with a good, but not perfect grasp of English), they may all miss the same issues. (BTW, the same problem happens in a different way in translation/back-translation workflows.) In my various translation tips, I've pointed out repeated examples of things Korean translators tend to overlook (including punctuationacronymstildesmore acronymscapitalization). So, just throwing on more layers of review is not a sure-fire way to squeeze out the most quality if the same blind spots remain. 

Example Error from Microsoft

Consider the following Korean translation error on the Windows 7 dialogue box that appeared when cleaning out the Recycle Bin: 


The problematic text (circled in red) says "source copy" in Korean, but this has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the text that should appear there. This is just the familiar dialogue box telling the user about how many items are being deleted from the Recycle Bin and the word "from" appears at that spot in the English version of Windows 7.

How did this unrelated text creep into the dialogue box? Perhaps Microsoft sent off for translation an Excel file consisting of thousands of context-less interface messages without screenshots or maybe the translators were in a hurry because of an early deadline (or just wanting to finish and collect payment). Or maybe the mistake slipped in later and didn’t get noticed because corners were cut in the review steps.

How persistent can these types of translation errors in software or GUIs be? I found this one after Windows 7 had been out for about three years and this isn't even an obscure window. When I posted it to my weblog, Microsoft contacted me to say they finally fixed it thanks to my article.

* For my original article about this, see There's a Translation Error in the Korean-Language Windows 7 Interface, Too!

Example Error from Google

Here is an example of the kind of mistranslation a native English-speaker review would catch easily. My Android phone has the following menu item:


The tab labelled “설정 진입” literally translates as "Settings Entry" because the first word (“설정”) means “settings” while the second word (“진입”) means "entry, penetration, enter, penetrate". But what is this "Settings Entry" tab supposed to do? The tab has a clearer meaning in the English interface as “Settings Shortcuts.” Apparently, the translator couldn’t think of the right word here. But Korean has a perfectly suitable translation for "shortcut" and this tab should be corrected to “설정 단축 키”.

A better translator might have chosen the more accurate choice of Korean words the first time. But even if not, one of the follow-up reviews should have caught it.

* For my original article about this, see I'm Pretty Sure this Korean Translation Error in the Google Android Interface Came from Google.

Rethinking the Process

I have been experimenting recently with adding an additional review workflow to some projects for my best clients where I myself do a word-for-word proof of the entire English to Korean translation my team sends me after they've finished their translation and proofreading. To be honest, I'm surprised how much I have improved our deliveries by making this sizable additional investment of time.

For sure, a second proofreading step can only contribute to improvements anyway. I mean, is it really fair to expect a proofreader to catch every mistranslation, improve styling, check for terminology consistency, notice each and every typo (and not create a couple more while improving styling) and, where applicable, thoroughly consider localization factors, such as cultural appropriateness, even while making sense of phrases out of context and embedded variables, and do it all in one workflow? 

But beyond all that, my English native-speaker eyes catch mistranslations that the eyes of a Korean overlook. (For examples, see English>Korean Translation Errors Discovered Through a Proofreading Step Performed by a Native English-Speaker Translator Who Usually Handles Korean>English Translation Work.) This value-add is in addition to the stylistic matters Koreans tend to let slip by. By dedicating one workflow to issues the Korean team may miss, as well as to intra-team and team-client communications, the communication phase is condensed into a single project stage and allows the Korean team to maintain extended focus during the translation and first proofreading steps.

The extra workflow also takes the burden off the Koreans to even ask those questions. Who wants to interrupt a train of thought to send off questions for later replies in the middle of working on a document? Ideally, translators will ask anyway, but in practice, I've found it rarely gets done, especially if the linguists are afraid of exposing their ignorance on something they should have known. (I can comment on this with confidence because I experience the same thought process on my own Korean>English translations jobs, too!)

This extra proofreading step is a frustratingly time-consuming task because of all the time it takes to work things out, but it can be combined with the various Q/A work in the CAT tool to also take other burdens off the translator and proofreader (such as perfect consistency) who may be subject-matter experts but not fans of the technology. 

I've alluded above to the issue of an inefficient review step demanded of translators by some clients. But rather than creating a new workflow just to check the work of a proofreader, it would be better to integrate this additional check into the final post-layout proof and other quality assurance tasks, which need to be done anyway. Every additional workflow incurs costs (Check out Getting Things Done by David Allen for an excellent book about personal efficiency and the hidden costs of individual tasks, even small ones!) and each step is an opportunity to get files confused, introduce new errors or miss deadlines. Combining work here is surely recommended, especially as the post-layout environment is different than the translation environment (it's a different screen) and so helps to bring a new perspective on the text rather than just going back to the same document with the same blind spots again. Having all this done by someone other than the translator and proofreader mixes things up yet again, to avoid these blind spots.


As shown above, even leading companies don’t always get the localization process right and I can tell you that the Korean translations of many of the mobile apps on Google Play created by smaller providers are almost incomprehensible when handled through Google Translate or some other cut-rate approach. 

There are so many subjective aspects to translation that it may not be realistic to talk about a "100% perfect" translation; what one person considers a bit stilted may be what another views as a very precise and correct rendering. And even if we can get away with using numbers, 100% on a large project may still be out of reach. But getting from 98% to 99.5% is a worthy improvement that can be achieved by thinking outside the box and applying more effective and realistic roles and workflows.

Of course, it's worth asking if a client is willing to make the investment to achieve this level of improvement, especially considering that many errors remain invisible to the end without causing any grief to anyone (case in point: that translation error I mentioned above that remained in Windows 7 for three years before anyone bothered to fix it). In fact, the current three-step workflow has worked fine for us over the years, too.

Still, I'd like to think that we can do better and my goal is to develop workflows with my team that take advantage of all the resources at our disposal to deliver even better work than ever before and to do it without putting undo strain on clients and their budgets. I hope to release new workflow designs soon.