Korean Translation Tip: The Lowdown on Korean Alphabetical Order

I’m occasionally asked if Korean has an alphabetical order.  Yes, it does!

There are officially 24 letters in the Korean alphabet, but here are the 14 used to separate a printed Korean dictionary into sections.

ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

The above sequence is the basic set of consonants. However, five of these can be doubled (called "tense consonants").

That gets us to this new sequence.

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

Are we done? No...

I won't try to explain why, but all of the vowels are filed under the ㅇ consonant and there is an order to those also. The bare-bones order is ㅏ ㅓ ㅗ ㅜ ㅡㅣ.

So, version #3:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ (ㅏ ㅓ ㅗ ㅜ ㅡㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

This is the basic sequence of the 24 "official" Korean letters in Korean alphabetical order.

However, hold on to your seats; we're about to go extreme...

There are two additional ways to complicate things, and these also factor into alphabetical order.

That's because four of the six basic vowels can also be combined with a "y" sound (ㅏㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡㅣ; these are called "iotized vowels"), which results in this new expanded list.

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ(ㅏㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

And then there are 11 more ways that the vowels can be combined with each other (called "dipthongs" apparently).

ㅐㅒ ㅔ ㅖㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟㅢ

Thus, the exhaustive list (of more than 24!) goes like this:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ(ㅏㅐㅑ ㅒㅓㅔ ㅕㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ  ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢㅣ) ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

If this seems too complicated, just check out the following tip to keep things simple.

Korean Translation Tip - You can quickly alphabetize Korean in Excel if you've got the Korean language support installed. Just put your list of words/phases into a column, select the column, and then choose Sort in the Data menu. It's the exact same process as sorting alphabetically in English. Excel's already got those complicated alphabetizing rules figured out. (Major CAT tools such as memoQ also do a fine job of sorting segments in Korean alphabetical order.)

You might be interested to know that the Korean keyboard is structured in a very simple way: consonants on the left and vowels on the right. Once you've installed the Korean keyboard in Windows, to get one of those double consonants, hold down Shift while pressing the key for the consonant. (If it's not a "double-able" consonant, then pressing Shift won't do anything.)

And one more thing... the names of the first three letters are pronounced "ga", "na" and "da". So, the word for "alphabetical" in Korean is "ganada"!

This tip should help you to mind your "biups" and "kiuks", dot your "hiuts" and cross all of your "tiguts"...

Overview of My Ph.D. Research at Hanyang University into Self-Employment in the Korean Service Sector

The self-employment sector is often seen as a driver of innovation and economic growth where entrepreneurs incubate and develop new ideas into lucrative businesses. Indeed, virtually every company begins life through an entrepreneurial process and many are born within a framework of self-employment. However, not every self-employed business grows to become an economic powerhouse. In fact, most new companies fail within a few years. Most that continue longer remain small, providing no more than a livelihood for their owners, many of whom are also the main, or only, source of labor, and whose retirement from work signifies the end of the business.

Lucas and others have asserted that self-employment rates fall with economic growth as successful firms achieve economies of scale, allowing those firms to raise wages and hire workers out of the self-employment sector. In line with this, the Korean self-employment rate has fallen from nearly 70% in the 1960s to close to 25% today. However, 25% is still exceptionally high compared with other countries at a similar level of development. For example, the self-employment rate is well below 10% in the US and only slightly higher than 10% in Japan. Only three OECD countries (Turkey, Greece and Mexico) have higher self-employment rates than Korea.*

In Western countries, many express a desire to become self-employed and those in self-employment report higher life satisfaction than wage earners. However, Korean self-employed are characterized not by an awareness of the opportunities they see in their businesses, but in a sense of despair at the lack of alternatives. The self-employed in Korea are concentrated in a few service businesses (e.g. food service, personal and goods transportation, personal services, retail sales), and compared to wage earners, the self-employed suffer from higher household debt and work longer hours. On average, the self-employed are also older and have lower levels of education than wage earners.

A current academic and policy topic is whether the Korean self-employment rate is too high, and if so, why and what can be done to reduce it. Some research has concluded that the Korean self-employment rate should be somewhat lower and has linked high self-employment rates to lower economic growth. Various reasons have been suggested for the high Korean self-employment rate. These include jobless economic growth across the economy as a whole, particularly with a shortage of options for older workers; lack of a social safety net for the unemployed and retired; the combination of early retirement age for most career workers and the large cash severance packages they receive upon retirement and the proliferation of franchising in recent years.

Much self-employment-focused public policy in Korea (what there is of it) is directed at supporting so-called “small merchants” through business consulting, market protection and financial support. The Korean term for small merchants (소상공인) is even defined in laws and regulations supporting them, with this definition of small merchants largely, but not fully, overlapping with the “weak self-employment” definition I propose in my research (which is described below).

Another relevant issue is lagging development of the Korean service sector as a whole. The service sector encompasses most economic activity not part of the manufacturing, agriculture and public sectors. It includes everything from restaurants and retail outlets, to medical, legal and transportation services. The service sector in Korea makes up nearly 70% of total Korean employment and over 80% of self-employed work in the service sector. However, productivity in the Korean service sector is strikingly low. Average service-sector per capita productivity in OECD countries is around 92% that of manufacturing, but in Korea, per capita productivity in services barely exceeds 40% of the level in manufacturing. In certain service industries (especially those with high self-employment rates), productivity levels languish below 25% of the manufacturing average. Furthermore, even from this low base, productivity increases in key service businesses are not keeping up with productivity growth in manufacturing.

I am investigating several research questions related to the Korean service and self-employment sectors. If self-employment is linked to entrepreneurship as a a driver of economic development, why are the high levels of self-employment in Korea not being celebrated? What are some links between high self-employment rates and low service sector productivity. If Korean self-employment levels are in fact too high, is public policy supporting self-employment contributing to the national economy overall or is it undermining development? What meaningful measures can be taken to improve the Korean service sector in the context of self-employment, as well as the lives of Koreans working in the self-employment sector.

A first step in answering these questions is understanding the heterogeneous reality within the self-employment sector. I identify three types of self-employed, each of which exhibits unique characteristics, entrepreneurial motivations and economic functions. The first type is the traditional entrepreneur, someone who invests and innovates to build a business that provides returns to its investors and promotes economic growth through higher productivity and employment. A second type of self-employed is someone I refer to as a “professional-type”. A professional self-employed is a person with in-demand, high personal-capital skills offering a professional service who could find a good wage job in his or her specialty but instead has chosen to work independently to earn more, enjoy better working conditions (such as working from home or while travelling), or to just have more control over his or her work schedule and processes. The professional self-employed fills critical needs in the market and is rewarded well for the value he or she creates. Finally, the third type of entrepreneur is someone without unique skills who becomes self-employed as a way to earn a living, in many cases, due to being unable to find a job. The so-called “weak-type” self-employed does not innovate or successfully grow the company but uses the business mainly as a means of subsistence. Motivation for self-employment is commonly explained by the “push-pull” hypothesis. Under this hypothesis, some become self-employed by being “pushed” into it due to lack of alternatives (the weak self-employed), and others join the self-employment sector by being “pulled” by the opportunities they see (the entrepreneur and professional self-employed).

My research focuses on these weak self-employed in the Korean service sector. I am not so much concerned with the dynamics of their plight, but rather with the negative impact their presence may have on development of the Korean service sector. To focus my analysis effectively, I have defined a new concept, which I refer to as “self-employment congestion” and a new metric called the “self-employment congestion rate”. In contrast to the self-employment rate, which measures the proportion of non-wage earners in the labor force (and thus covers all three types of self-employed), the self-employment congestion rate attempts to capture just the proportion of weak self-employed in the labor force. Weak self-employed are defined (in currently updated form; we used a slightly different definition in 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017)) as non-wage earners with reported earnings less than the average reported earnings of all workers across the entire economy (both wage earners and non-wage earners) in the respective year and who do not report having any paid employees. This definition includes self-employed working with unpaid family workers, as well as the unpaid family workers themselves.

I received inspiration for the concept of self-employment congestion from recent research published by the OECD (McGowan, Müge Adalet and Dan Andrews & Valentine Millet (2017), “The Walking Dead? Zombie Firms and Productivity Performance in OECD Countries,” Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1372, OECD). This paper investigates the negative effects of so-called zombie firms on the economic performance of non-zombie firms. Zombie firms are defined as non-competitive companies kept alive by bank forbearance and other support measures provided to avoid the unemployment that would result from closing such zombie firms. McGowan, et al. defines “zombie congestion” as the proportion of total capital tied up in zombie firms in a respective industry.

Applying a similar logic, my research asserts that weak self-employed remain in self-employment even at low income levels due to lack of alternatives. This is in spite of the fact that, from an overall economic standpoint, it would be better if they were in wage positions or out of the employment market altogether. In 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), we attempt to demonstrate that high self-employment congestion in a particular service business has a negative effect both on the earnings of the weak self-employed themselves and on other participants in the same business. Under McGowan, et al., zombie congestion assumes an unnatural supply of funding, which drives up wages and thus, maintains the demand for labor at an unnatural level. On the other hand, under the concept of self-employment congestion, an unnatural surplus of labor pushes down the return on labor, leading to an unnatural degree of competition, thus reducing overall ROI in the market, and as a result, reduces innovation and drags down economic development in the Korean service sector.

In 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), we demonstrated that self-employment congestion has a negative impact on the earnings of self-employed people working in service businesses. This would seem to be a self-evident and unremarkable finding. However, we also demonstrated that self-employment congestion has a negative impact on the earnings of wage earners working in service businesses with high levels of self-employment congestion (though not in businesses with low levels of self-employment congestion). In addition, we demonstrated that the negative effect of self-employment congestion in low self-employment congestion businesses is focused on lower earning self-employed persons, but that the negative effects of self-employment congestion in high self-employment congestion businesses weigh more heavily on higher earning self-employed businesses, and especially on the very highest earning group.

This last conclusion implies a lack of differentiation (and by extension, ability to innovate) in high self-employment congestion service businesses because high levels of self-employment congestion should not otherwise have such a negative effect under effective quality differentiation. The reasoning being that if providers were able to differentiate effectively at higher quality levels, then regardless of the congestion at the bottom of the market, buyers would simply buy from higher quality providers. However, without differentiation, increased congestion results in higher market encroachment on those with more market share (i.e. the more successful ones). This implies that price competition is the main operator in these service businesses (mainly businesses with low barriers to entry and relatively little opportunity for innovation), preventing even successful market participants from breaking free of the self-employment congestion headwinds and achieving economies of scale.

Our analysis indicates that the effects of self-employment congestion are not just limited to the weak self-employment sector itself and that self-employment congestion has broader negative effects, causing difficulties to both wage earners and more successful self-employed (entrepreneur and professional types), leaving open the possibility that high levels of weak self-employment may be a factor holding back development of the Korean service sector as a whole. This conclusion calls into question the wisdom of government efforts to promote self-employment in Korea, suggesting that stronger efforts to guide weak self-employed into wage earning, unemployment or retirement could free up resources to positively contribute to development of the Korean service sector.

Notably, running the same set of analyses using the self-employment rate (rather than the self-employment congestion rate) does not produce significant results. Therefore, the fact that these results were achieved using self-employment congestion rates, but that the results were not replicated with self-employment rates, strongly supports the concept of important heterogeneity in the Korean self-employment sector, and that efforts to study self-employment should take into account these different types of self-employed (entrepreneurial, professional and weak) in order to achieve more meaningful conclusions about the sector as a whole.

At this point, I see several potential pathways for further research. I would like to investigate the channels through which self-employment congestion negatively impacts the economic results and activities of non-weak self-employed and wage earners. I would also like to further reinforce the concepts presented here by finding other impact channels and comparing results of self-employment congestion with self-employment rate-based analyses using a wider range of data, variables and analytical methods, as well as data from other countries. It would also be interesting to look at the factors promoting higher self-employment congestion, potentially including franchising and employment market dysfunction. These conclusions could then be applied to policy recommendations that productively inform government policy toward the self-employed in Korea and elsewhere.

* This overview is largely based on 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), “자영업 혼잡의 경제적 영향에 대한 분석: 서비스부분 자영업자와 임금근로자의 소득에 미치는 영향을 중심으로,” 산업혁신연구, 제33권, 제4호, pp. 145-174. See 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017) for detailed citations. While the underlying research effort is mainly mine, the paper was a joint effort with Hwan-Joo Seo, my advisor in the Ph.D. program at Hanyang University, ERICA Campus in Ansan, Korea.

Understanding Decision-Making Protocol within Korean Companies and Translating the Related Terms and Phrases in Korean Business Documents

I frequently translate Korean business files for the discovery process in international litigation involving Korean companies. These projects involve translating internal Korean emails and reports of one party to the lawsuit that the legal counsel of the other party needs to understand to prosecute the case.

Sometimes a case rests on who knew what and when, and who gave authorization to do what and when. Therefore, accurate translation of the reporting and decision-making protocol in these documents is critical. A Korean translator without an adequate understanding of how the authorization process works within Korean companies and who doesn’t take a best-practice approach to translating the relevant content can inadvertently leave out important meaning.

Translating an Internal Korean Reporting Document (Example 1)

The following is a typical grid found in many internal documents of Korean companies.


A translation might read as follows.


The empty boxes usually contain at least the signatures of people involved in the process of having the document authorized. Sometimes they also include printed names, job positions and/or times and dates, too. In addition, if only some of the authorization steps are followed, the boxes for the steps not included are left blank. The column with the left-most empty box (under “Drafted by”) is the lowest level of authorization (in this case, it merely indicates who put the document together) and the second (“Coordinated by”) would likely be a direct supervisor involved in the drafting. The next column (“Confirmed by”) would be a third-level authorization, with the person signing the far-right cell (“Authorized by”) being the highest-ranking person in the process.

Translation of an Internal Korean-Company Report (Example 2)

While the basic process and grid layout are somewhat standardized across departments and companies, the terminology and organizational levels involved in the authorization protocol vary. Here’s another example:


In this case there are two levels in the authorization process. The left three columns are for the first-level authorization and the second three columns would be a second-level. Based on having translated “결재” above as “Authorized by”, the following translation might be expected:


However, this would be misleading. At the first-level in the authorization process, the word “authorization” is not really suitable. It’s more of a “sign off” or “check off” step before passing the document up for what we would generally think of in English as “authorization”. Therefore, a preferred translation in this example would be as follows:


The word “결재” is a difficult word to translate because the best English term varies by context. It also possessed a generic meaning that overlaps with the meanings of other words. As indicated above, while the overall authorization (결재) process can be referred to as "authorization" or “authorization protocol”, a word that doesn’t indicate actual authority is more suitable when the word 결재 is used at the lowest level. In addition, if the word is combined in other ways, the English translation might further change. A good translation for 전자결재 is “electronic signature”, not “electronic authorization”. And in a process where 승인여부(“whether approved”) is followed by 결재 (as in “yes, it was approved”), translating 결재 as “approved” would maintain the flow in English. Thus, this term in Korean cannot just be mapped one-for-one to English terms and used rigidly.

Improving the Translation of Korean Business Terms in the Examples Above

Notice how the sequences of Korean terms used in the two examples above don’t match. (Example 1: 기안 > 조정 > 확일 > 결재; Example 2: 결재 > 합의). This is because there is no standardized system for this (unlike the standard hierarchy of job titles, which does remain remarkably consistent across Korean companies). Thus other terms that may be used in the decision-making system include 재가, 승인 and 통보, and suitable translations for these could be “sanction”, “approval” and “notified to”, respectively. “Notified to” clearly has the meaning that the information was merely provided but approval not given. However, the difference between “Consent provided by”, “Approved by”, “Authorized by” or “Sanctioned by” are not as apparent. Further, the Korean terms (합의, 승인, 결재, 재가, respectively) each mean basically the same thing too, so any translation of these terms from Korean to English must be arbitrary at best. Therefore, if readers are to have an accurate understanding of the process, the translator needs to provide another level of meaning.

The key to sorting out this muddle is to recognize that each term in Korean takes on its unique meaning in the context of the specific level of authorization it signifies within the respective company. Thus, translating a Korean term without indicating its level cannot convey all of the meaning necessary for an outsider to understand the process. Here are expanded translations of the above tables that explicitly state the level in order to fully communicate the required meaning.


On a larger project, where the translator is working with enough context to fully understand the situation, the use of translations like “working-level authorization”, “manager-level authorization” or “executive-level authorization” could also help the reader (i.e. the client) understand the authorization levels.

It goes without saying that even though the specific English words used to translate each term may be arbitrary, consistency is very important. Thus if 재가 is translated as “sanction” in one place, it can’t be translated differently elsewhere in the same context.

Phrasing when Translating Korean Business Authorization Terminology

I have seen many translations where “Drafter” is used instead of “Drafted by” or where “Consenter” is used instead of “Consent provided by”. There are two reasons I now follow the latter approach and not the former. The first is that without adding the preposition “by” at the end and referring specifically to the actor of the act, the terms sound a little stilted (e.g. drafter, coordinator, confirmer, authorizer, signer, consenter, approver, sanctioner, notifyee). The other reason is that the former approach does not allow the translator to later distinguish when the actual actor is referred to in the Korean source (e.g. 기안자, 조정자, 확인자, 결재자, 합의자, 승인자).

Translations of Other Terms in Korean Documents

직권 – The dictionary invariably provides “arbitrary decision” as the translation. Besides sounding awkward, this expression doesn’t communicate the real meaning effectively because it carries the negative connotation in English of a “random decision” or some other decision someone makes for no apparently good reason. Therefore, a better translation needs to explain the full meaning of the word. 전결 refers to the authority delegated under the company’s hierarchy to a person in their official position to make certain decisions. Therefore, though a little long, better translations would be either “decision made under official authority” or “decision made under delegated authority”. The version with “delegated” catches the root meaning of the Korean word more literally, but in my mind, it seems to imply the idea that someone is making a decision on behalf of someone else (who might not just be at work that day or something), rather than a decision that is rightfully theirs to make in their position within the organizational structure of the company. Therefore, my preferred translation is “decision made under official authority” or “make a decision under official authority”. Likewise, 전결권 would be “official decision-making authority” and 전결권자 would be “person with official decision-making authority”.

대결 – Though long, my preferred translation for this would be “decision made on behalf of someone else”.

직권 – “official decision”

직권면직 – This refers to taking away someone’s authority to make decisions in their job position that they had previously been able to make. A usable translation might be “revocation of authority”.

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.