Korean Translating Tips (Detailed)

By Ekdud


Hello, this is Ekdud.

The following is a slightly long and detailed guide about how one should approach and translate Korean text. It will mention the main and important parts of translating as well as mistakes one should avoid. It does not cover every part of translating but I made sure to cover as many as I can. Steps 1 and 2 will be general information that can be applied to almost any translator whilst steps 3 and 4 will be Korean Specific. Not everything regarding translations will be covered but I made sure to cover as many of the main and important parts of translations as possible.

 

Step 1: Starting off

Translating is conveying the essence of text in one language into another language. It’s not easy. In fact, many times, it’s hard. Most of the times this is due to the nature of grammatical differences between the two languages as well as the lack of a translation existing for every word in those two languages. There are 4 main things to know when starting off translations, these are core and essence of translation.

First, preserve and maintain meaning. The role of translators is to convey the author’s meaning, not to write a new story. It’s inevitable sometimes that a certain amount of meaning gets lost when changing from Korean to English, however, the main issue is that you, as a translator, don’t add meaning. The authors definitely have their flaws but unless there’s communication with the author, the translator should not change and add details to the English version of the novel.

Second, maintain flow. Sometimes, when the Korean is translated into English, there’s an awkward or even incorrect phrasing issue that arises from the grammatical differences which should be corrected. After all, our target audience reads in English. Even if the Korean text is great, it means nothing if it can’t be translated into English properly. There’s a delicate line between this. I would say that in general, it’s okay to go so far as to delete redundancy in translations and shift around ordering in sentences in order to improve flow. 

Third, avoid repetition. Be aware of the words and structures that you’re using and make sure that you’re not using them too much. Korean authors get away with using the same word such us over and over again because the Korean languages is largely a contextual language. There’s a saying in Korean, 한국 말은 끝까지 들어봐야 한다 which vaguely translates to ‘One must listen to Korean until the very end.’ This is because the essence of the sentence may be altered with the context. This is the same case for repetitive words the authors may use. As a translator translating Korean to English, you should do your best to find adequate synonyms that reflect the meaning of being conveyed.

Fourth and finally, keep things sorted. Translating without the right tools is nearly impossible and one of the best tools to help you is a good, well-maintained glossary. As you translate, you will encounter all sorts of strangely-named items, people, creatures, places, and other miscellaneous terms, and it is of utmost importance that you remember what you translated each of them as. Consistency is key. Conflicting names will confuse both you and the readers.

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Step 2: Attractive writing

In the previous lesson, we talked about what is translating and laid out a couple of guidelines. However, moving forward, we need to talk about the other integral part of translating, the readers. 

The purpose of translating is bringing a work to a new audience who have been limited by language barriers. It would make sense to want to include as many readers into this new audience as possible. So let’s talk about “attractive” translating.

First impressions are an important thing. The first thing that a reader sees is the cover of the novel, the second is the synopsis. On the end of the cover, there isn’t really much to be done on your part, so you are left with other options such as the synopsis or personal opinions of the novel.

Now moving onto the synopsis, this is where you can actually make a difference right now. Although a synopsis means a short summary, what you should be doing is anything but that. From the perspective of the reader, they’re reading the synopsis to see if they would be interested in the novel. From a certain perspective, this synopsis is the only standard of measurement for readers to compare between novels. Your synopsis is an ad, not a summary. 

So enough about why the synopsis is so important and let’s go into crafting a good synopsis. 

First, you need to know your novel. After you’ve picked your novel, you will want to skim through the first hundred chapters, or at least a few dozens in the minimum, to get a feel for the novel and understand some major plotlines. I can’t stress this fact enough, do not assume that you will be able to translate as you read. The end product from that is simply a messy piece of translation that flows incredibly poorly.

The first sentence makes or breaks the synopsis, it is the ‘hook’ of the entire synopsis. You want to put your best shot in that first sentence. So if you have something that would differentiate the series or some awards put that in the first sentence. Another point to use is creating tension. Let the reader know what the problem is in the novel and why the main character must fight to the top.

The rest of the synopsis should read like a third person review of the novel. At no point should it sound like simply facts. It should read like a poem but with the most important part hidden.

There is also the option of creating another section with a personal opinion of the translator from the reader’s point of view. It is good to point out flaws as well as reinforce the strengths of the novel. The synopsis may not always tell enough to the viewers about the novel. This is a great section to fill in the empty gaps between the synopsis you have written with your personal opinions mixed with it.

I cannot stress enough how important first impressions are. The reader will decide in the few dozens of seconds they take to see the cover and read the synopsis to see if they will continue reading the novel or pass onto the next novel on the list. This is the hook, the major factor that draws in the majority of your readers.

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Step 3. Passive voicing.

One of the worst mistakes that a translator can do when translating a Korean text into English is to translate on a left to right basis literally. This is bad because due to the difference of grammar between the two languages, it will often cause the translation to sound awkward or wrong and often results in passive voicing. Passive voice isn’t always something negative but what it does is it refocuses the emphasis on something that shouldn’t be.

It’s just a simple difference between how the sentence itself is structured like the example below.

Passive Voice: Tomorrow, I will drive to work.

Vs

Active Voice: I will drive to work tomorrow.

While the focus is still within the ‘I’, due to the grammatical difference in the language the literal translation causes part of the emphasis to be stolen by ‘Tomorrow’

An example of a Korean Text is below. From the novel Reincarnator.

전신에 청염을 불태워내기 시작한 키리엘이 손을 뿌득뿌득 꺾으며 중얼거렸다.

A left to right translation would be like :

  • While burning up with blue flames all over her body, Kiriel cracked her knuckles and mumbled.

Vs

A well-sorted translation :

  • Kiriel cracked her knuckles and mumbled while her body started to burn up with blue flames.

The difference of sentence structure in the two sentences can clearly be seen.In the first sentence, the reader doesn’t know who is burning up in blue flames until the second part of the sentence comes. This may often cause the reader to read the entire sentence again after finding out the subject or even cause general confusion if a sentence has multiple possible subjects. It is important to keep the sentence well organized and keep the focus on the subject. If there is a chance for confusion to occure, don't risk that chance.

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Lesson 4: Misc issues

 

A common mistake found in a lot of newer Korean Translators are situations where an appropriate translation of a word does not exist.

The most common issues are to deal with the formality, which is easily seen in situations between a 갑 and a 을.

Korean has 2 different languages of formal and informality. Formal speech is often used between strangers, or by the 을 towards the 갑. In this situation, 갑 refers to the one that is in the superior position and 을 is the one in the lower position.

An example would be a teacher and a student. A teacher may address a student informally, and would in most cases as you may know, in ways such as ‘xxx아, 숙제 내.’. A typical response from a student would be informal speech such as ‘네, 선생님’

This is where most Korean Translators struggle. There is no way to translate formal and informal speech into of English unless you completely explain the entire system. A common tactic is to imagine the situation where the participating members only speak English and don't have the idea of the Korean formality culture. For the example between the teacher and the student above, a suitable translation would be: ‘xxx, hand in your homework’, from the teacher and ‘Yes teacher or Yes, Mr/Mrs xxx’ from the student. 

Another common issue is to deal with honorifics between family/ other close members.

Informal honorifics such as 언니, 오빠, 형, 누나 are easy to translate if its a speech or interaction between actual family members.

 

But how should one translate it if those terms were used with a non-family member?

언니, 오빠, 형, 누나, 형님, 누님. There are a few methods to deal with such a situation.

  1. The first and most easy method is to just use the tactic one used for the classroom situation above. Imagine the speech/interaction/description in terms of an English speaking person. It is still okay to use the terms ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ in these situations since certain English speaking members do address their close friends/ others with such terms. This does cause a bit of detail to be lost but it is a common and simple solution.

  1. The second method, which is slightly more literal, is to just translate it as one would pronounce it such as ‘noona’ and ‘hyung’. One would then add an * at the end of these terms and add a note on the bottom of the chapter saying something on the lines of ‘In Korean, noona is a term used by males to describe older female members of close acquaintance. The literal meaning is a direct older sister but many use it to address other close females that are slightly older than themselves'. This helps the readers learn and understand the Korean culture more and allow one to continue using those terms in the future since they have been explained once already.

Make sure to inform readers the relationships between the characters if you plan to not use the tactics written above. If you just leave ‘older sister’ or ‘older brother’ in a translation without any explanation, it may cause a lot of confusion regarding the family status of such characters involved. (It would be weird if the main character had 100 older or younger sisters and brothers right?)

 

Another common part of formal speech that people have trouble with is 님,

님, is a system strictly related to the 갑 and 을 system that is placed higher than 씨.

One could either translate it as a ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ as these are one of few words in the English language that have similar meanings.

In the word 선생님, the 님 is ignored most of the time and is translated as Teacher.

This is the case for 박사님, 부모님 as well and is translated as Professor or Parents.

The 님 isn’t really needed to be translated in situations like this because the whole word is a title and it includes the word 님 and therefore, can be ignored.

But in situations where you use the 님 to direct a name or a title that doesn't often use the 님 and just words that don't include 님 in the title in general. Things do get slightly more annoying.

I will use the random names of ‘정수’ for the male and ‘수정’ for the female examples from this point.

수정님, this is something somebody who is in the 을 level in comparison to her may say when calling out her name. Saying her name outright is rude in formal speech so the 님 is added instead. The easiest method to translating this is adding a nim at the end such as Soojung-nim. Make sure you explain that 'nim' is with an * as well. Do not assume every reader knows every Korean term. You may also opt to use titles such as Miss, Mister, Missus but that may sometimes break the theme of the text.

 

There also exists 씨.

씨 is a bit more complex. 씨 can be added to almost anyone as it is the most common honorific in formal speech. It isn't as powerful as 님 but still carries the air of speaking in a respectful tone. It is mainly used after names because it is rude to just randomly call out a person’s name so an honorific is added on. 정수씨, 수정씨…etc. One can also use Mr and Miss to translate this but make sure you know the right genders of the characters. Since 씨 isn't gendered specific while Mr and Miss are, it is possible to create a large amount of confusion in the translation if you are sloppy.

Often times in Korean, the authors will use 씨, since most of us do in normal speech as well, which can create a lot of confusion regarding the character's gender if his/her gender is not explained right off the bat. This is why it is important to read ahead to gain contextual clues as the genders of such characters will likely be revealed in the future chapters. But in cases where one cannot find clues regarding their gender and their names are gender-neutral, it is better to use gender-neutral terms such as they or them instead of attempting to guess a gender and then later creating confusion. It's a 50-50 chance but like I said previously if there's a chance for something to cause confusion, do not risk it.

 

Author's mistakes

Sometimes when translating, you will encounter something on the raw version of the novel that is clearly a typo or a mistake on the author's part. Often, people will tend to translate the mistake as it is to preserve the meaning and stay true to the raws but in this case, you may want to fix things up. This is only when you're sure that the mistake is indeed a mistake and the fixed version is what the author intended. A good tactic is to leave a note pointing out the mistakes so the readers and the people who have viewed the raws are aware.

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Conclusion 

There are countless other specific examples to list them all on this guide, I have written the most commonly found ones I have personally experienced. Remember, there're resources for help out there for you to use in times of confusion. Google translate, Naver, and any other dictionaries are useful most of the time. Don’t be overly reliant because I repeat, Korean is a contextual language and the meanings of words can differ from the sentence. The machines that may be used for translation have a hard time translating through context and often result in a lot of messy and literal translation if you shove in a huge chunk of text. Just attempt to break the sentences down step by step, take it slow. 

Thank you for reading this guide. If you have any questions regarding anything in this guide or other general translation questions, you may ask me on discord under Ekdud#3232 or email me at [email protected].

Ekdud.