Three Challenges of Korean Language Localisation

Last week we wrote about some of the challenges we faced while translating a user guide from English into Swahili, Uzbek, Turkish, and Korean. This week’s theme is related. We will look at three challenges most translators have to overcome to localise websites, apps, and other products for Korean speakers. These difficulties were the subject of a column in the July-August issue of Multilingual Magazine. It was written by Hyelim Chang, a senior language specialist at Google.


The English language has registered. You don’t speak to a judge as you would to your spouse or children. The structure of the sentences and the words coming out of the mouth acquire an attire of formality when you find yourself in a high-stakes situation; with your boss, in a courtroom, or with a policeman. Korean takes registers to the extreme.


The language has six levels of formality. If the choice between a doctor, physician, and healthcare professional seemed daunting to you, imagine the plight of a Korean translator for whom the confusion has doubled. It’s always a challenge to choose the appropriate level of formality. You don’t want your app to speak in a dialect most Korean consider unrefined, or in such high-brow speech that most millennials feel alienated.


English is a Germanic language. German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Swedish are its siblings. French is cousins with Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Together they are part of the Romance languages family. Most of the world’s languages are related to other languages. Korean is one the few exceptions. It’s borrowed words from Chinese and superficially its grammar is similar to Japanese but in a world populated by 6,000 languages, Korean has no kith or kin. It’s alone.


Because Korean is different, it presents unique challenges to translators. All of us have received emails that start with “Welcome to XYZ” or seen messages of the type “XYZ likes your image.” Thanks to Korean grammar, translating even such simple phrases with place-holders into Korean is not easy.

English employs word order to differentiate between the subject and object. In “Kim loves Anna.”, “Kim” is the subject, “Anna” is the object and “loves” is the verb. Change the word order and you will have an entirely different sentence; “Anna loves Kim.”

Korean marks subjects and objects with participles. So “Kim loves Anna.” is “Kim은 Anna를 love.” and “Anna loves Kim.” is “Kim을 Anna는 love.” The particles tell readers the grammatical function of a word. There are more than a dozen of them in Korean; and almost all of them have two forms: one to be used with words ending in a vowel and the other to be used with words ending in a consonant.

So you can’t translate a sentence like “XYZ likes your image.” into Korean because you don’t know if XYZ ends in a consonant (Kim, Park) or a vowel (Hyuna, Geoni). Google solved this dilemma by adding 님 (nim) to people’s names. It’s a marker of respect that can be used for both genders and it always ends in a consonant.

Such challenges abound in Korean.


English has the Roman alphabet, Chinese has its characters, and Korean… it has Hangeul, an alphabet that behaves like Chinese characters. It’s so unique that it forms its own category: a featural writing system.


Hangeul is probably an interesting curiosity for language learners; but for professional translators it creates all kinds of problems. For instance, text wrapping is a huge issue. To the untrained eye, 한글 (hangeul) will seem to be composed of characters when it’s actually a word of six letters: ㅎ (h), ㅏ (a), ㄴ (n), ㄱ (g), ㅡ (eu), and ㄹ (l).

Let’s say an app developer wants you to keep only 10 characters in a line. How will you do that? Break the syllabic blocks and your Korean text will become illegible gibberish. Unicode has made life easier for Overseas DTP translators but the situation is still far from being ideal.


Be respectful to your Korean translator. They are doing a difficult job and will certainly appreciate some kinds words from you. It will even encourage them to come up with creative solutions to the problems facing your project.

Consider us for your next Korean translation project. We do legal, technical, and literary translations from Korean which are used by multinationals.

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