Korean Translation Tip: The Two Styles of Technical Korean Writing

There are two styles of technical Korean writing and these are primarily expressed in sentence endings.

In terms of the language as a whole, this is a simplification, since there are any number of local dialects that complicate things, written endings that can also be used in spoken language to add formality, written endings to show informality, endings that can be switched out in spoken language to show affection or relative status, and even a whole other antiquated style (i.e. "Shakespearean" Korean) used today only to address God.

But from a practical standpoint, in the technical translations that we deliver in Korean, unless quoting spoken speech, we only use two styles. Furthermore, since standard Korean sentences always end in a verb, this means nearly every complete sentence in formal written Korean uses one of the two sets of endings.

The following is a simple table showing these endings. For the sake of simplicity, I've removed all the nuances you'll find in a Korean grammar book and just stripped it to the basics.

Sentence Endings in Formal Styles of Written Korean













Go ahead and take a look at a recent Korean translation your Korean translation team delivered to you. Do you see that every sentence ends in these characters?

(If you're seeing sentences ending in 요 or that don't have any of these endings, it means it's probably a spoken style.)

So when are these mainly used?

The personal form is most common in translations addressed to readers, such as marketing materials and official letters. The impersonal form is mainly used in writing without specific readers in mind, such as news articles, academic papers, software interfaces and legal contracts. In addition, the impersonal form is commonly applied to titles and bullet points within documents otherwise written in personal style.

There is room for flexibility here and so you may find variation from translator to translator. The key point though is consistency. In most cases, a translator should use the same style throughout a document.

Korean Translation Tip - A good translator will use styles correctly and consistently. This doesn't mean a client reviewer won't occasionally ask to change. As long as your translator has been consistent with one or the other style above and can provide a proper rationale for that decision in line with my guidelines, the use of styles in the translation is probably correct.

BTW, this fancy and complicated system of styles is nearly completely lost in translations from Korean to English. We have ways in English to express levels of formality and closeness (e.g. "Hey John!", "Dear Mr. Smith", "Yo!", "To whom it may concern:", etc.) but the rules aren't as systematized as in Korean and the differences must often be left out when translating to English. Otherwise, you'll get awkward translations as described in my previous My Esteemed Translation Client Reader tip.

An Unfortunate Machine Translation Error in Facebook

We were in San Antonio recently dropping Treasure off at university and while we were there, we met a friend of Myunghee's. After dinner, Myunghee's friend posted this photo on Facebook.


An old friend of Myunghee's in Korea saw the photo and added the following comment in Korean.


The comment was a bit odd, because she mistook Myunghee's friend for Myunghee's daughter. But her comment was still nice, and here's a correct translation of what she said:

"Your daughter's really turned into a fine lady."

Unfortunately, anybody who clicked the "See Translation" link saw this:



The latest approach to machine translation (called "neural MT") generates translations that sound much more natural than previous "rule-based MT" and "statistical MT" approaches. However, though the translations sound good, you can't trust them. I've been amazed at the incorrect and incomplete translations I've come across from this technology. Sometimes it even adds in unrelated information from its neural database. I once saw a CNN byline (complete with date) show up in the English MT output of Korean content that had nothing to do with CNN.

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?