Language Comparison: English vs Korean

Localization, or L10n, (or translation), may not be the most glamorous of topics, but it is an important one. After all, even the most gloriously minimalist UX will still require some sort of help text, and heaven help the RPG game that suffers from a poor translation job. With that in mind, we’ve decided to introduce a new Translation Tips series that draws from our 10+ years of experience as a localization firm. Today’s post covers a particularly ornery language pairing, Korean to English.

Some things to realize about the Korean language:

Characters are extremely dense compared to English. Each character in Korean can contain up to 3 consonants and 1 vowel. Often, 1 single character is sufficient to serve as a word, or at least carry over a meaning of a word.

Upshot: that you’ll find that KR games have menus and other UI that are packed with meaning, even though they don’t take much space! When translated to English, you’ll get a lot of text that “spills” out of their designated UI boxes.

In Korean, a single character can be taken from an adjective and smashed together with a character from another adjective, then fusing them into a single word. As an example, let’s take two adjectives — ‘beautiful’ and ‘frightening’ — and see how English and Korean combine them, respectively. In Korean there are many cases where the two words are split in half, and then combined together so that it would form a new word, ‘beautfright’. Meanwhile, in English a suffix is added to ‘frightening’ so that it modifies ‘beautiful’, and the two are used together like so “the view from above is frighteningly beautiful”.

Upshot: For Korean games, this allows for a ton of depth to be added to something as simple as item names. You’ll often find 3 to 4 adjectives describing something like a sword in the case of an RPG. When translated to English, it’s very possible that a word that only took 5 characters in Korean can turn out like this: Radiant Shimmering Glory Valor Sword. 

Finally, Korean is a language that has an abundance of adjectives but a shortage of verbs. Korean’s verbs are, for the most part, very simple, and on their own do not connote much more beyond a simple action. To add depth, adjectives are used as adverbs to modify the verb. As an example, let’s take the word “strive” from English. In Korean, the best way to say “strive’ would be to take the verb “do” and combine it with “mightily”.

Upshot: Many times, a KR>EN translator will have trouble finding an English verb that encapsulates the meaning of the adjective + simple noun combination that shows up in Korean. Thus, they will translate it just as they see it, which can cause for some clunky sentences. AND once the text has been translated from KR to EN, there will often be length issues since Korean is much more condensed than English. So to make the translated EN text fit in its designated box, a translator may go back and remove the verb modifiers. This makes sense in terms of UI, but it can cause for some extremely boring phrasing!

What can one do to remedy these issues? We’ll go into this in more depth in later posts, but here are some quick, actionable steps for KR to EN translation projects:

  1. Get your developers and UX people ready, because there’s gonna be a lot of enlarging that needs to take place.
  2. Give you translation partner the license to be creative. There will be many times when an adjective or three will need to be deleted, and an editorial decision needs to be made as to which remains.
  3. Check for boring verbs!

That’s it for today. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at dan.seo@latisglobal.com.

Daniel So