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

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

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


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

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

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

새해 복 많이 받으세요!

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

새해 福 많이 받으세요!

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

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


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

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


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


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


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



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

Korean Translation Tip: When a Korean "Yes" Means "No", and a "No" Means "Yes"

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not how a Korean would reply.

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

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

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

Is my explanation clear now?

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Bringing the Kids Back to the US for High School

An American acquaintance in Taiwan recently asked me for my thoughts on whether to bring his daughter to the US for high school. The following is most of my response to him.

When we returned to Korea in 2008, we only planned to stay for a couple years, and two years in a Korean school seemed like a great thing for the kids. While they were in elementary school, I thought they were getting a great education, too.

However, as the years in Korea stretched on, the kids wilted in school, and especially when they hit middle school, they were frustrated and disinterested. As you know, they only teach to one type of learner in Asia (the same type of learner that created the system), and so if you're not that kind of learner, then you're pretty much out of luck. I was dropping hundreds of dollars a month on private tutoring and they were still not learning properly, and worse than that, didn't care (especially Cauvery). 

I've turned negative in my opinion about the Korean education system and cringe every time I read or hear someone on this side talk about how great Korean students are compared with their US counterparts. This only reinforces Korean perceptions that they've got a superior approach, unable to figure out why their system doesn't get them the dynamics outcomes they see in other places. So any efforts at reform are only at the edges, and I doubt they'll do anything to change anytime soon.

Treasure is two years ahead of Cauvery and we sent her to live with my mom a couple years ago so she could start sooner, and we also got lucky in finding a good charter school, rather than the main high school in town. There was a bit of a learning curve, but Treasure immediately blossomed in the new learning environment, and by this year, she's getting all As in honors classes. Since Cauvery and I returned from Korea last summer, he's also done well, though is not as naturally motivated. He's still at Cs, Bs, and As which is tons better than what he'd gotten used to in Korea, and if he can get to Bs and As next year without honors classes, then that will be a huge improvement over anything he was doing before.

I think letting your daughter have a US high school experience could be a very good idea. If you're planning to bring her back to the US, I would suggest you do so before her first year of high school. Treasure started here in 10th grade, and they made her go back and re-do a bunch of classes from 9th grade in summer school, even 9th English after she'd finished 10th grade English. Cauvery, on the other hand, just started right into 9th grade without having to do anything, even though his English ability and grades in Korean school were not as good as Treasure's. Basically, neither of the schools we talked with cared a whit about the school transcripts I brought back from Korea.

You asked about our living situation. We're renting a house in a very ordinary neighborhood and this is working out very well as I have no interest in the hassles of home ownership over the next 3-4 years. When Treasure heads off to college, we may try to upgrade to a nice-ish apartment, but my kids are enjoying the sports options at school and we use the backyard and driveway for lots of ball throwing, and that's a good thing.

I think the kids are benefiting from the cultural aspects of a US high school. Treasure loved going to prom on Friday, and everything leading up to that. She's looking forward to a senior trip and participating in student government next year.

Cauvery didn't originally want to come to the US and I gave him the option of going back to Korea next summer to attend an international school (after Treasure graduates and is on to college), but I don't think he's going to take it as he's making a good adjustment here. 

Other than for cost reasons, I don't want to take him back to Korea now since international schools in Korea are mostly full of Korean kids whose parents were forward thinking enough to get them a foreign passport. This is the same problem you mentioned in Taiwan, and means that even if the curriculum and teachers are American, the school culture is infused with the same Korean educational thinking that you and I don't like. It's simply impossible to get the kids a US-culture-based high school experience outside of the US, and those memories of US high school may be important to them as they move on in life. It also means they don't have to go through the cultural learning curve in their first year of college, since they will have already fully adapted during high school.

As you can see, I feel good about having moved the kids from Korea to the US. I see it as one of the last gifts I can give them before they move on to the rest of their lives.



Korean Translation Tip: Ornery Koreans Write Things Backward

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

Here are some examples.

Fractions and page numbers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Whew… That was a mouthful!

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


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

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

#2406 Chungang Heightsville, 23, Ansancheonseo-Ro

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

This is the English rendering of it from Korean:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sentence Structure

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

Korean Translation Tip: Handle Korean Line Breaks Like a Pro

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

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

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

But line breaks are also a point of concern.

Suppose you've got this source text:


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


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


Or like this:


Or even like this:


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

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

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

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