Korean Translation Is Hard. Ask Koreans.

Published on April 26, 2019

By Marcos Dinnerstein

Korean Translation is hard?

The English playwright, George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying, “ England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” North and South Korea have a similar linguistic divide.

We talked about the importance of Korean translation in our article, aptly titled “Korean Translation, Why?” Giving that a quick read would be a good idea now if you have not already done so. This article is about a bit more than that.

Defectors from North Korea, having surmounted one barrier, face another when trying to navigate a disorienting form of the Korean language. There are terms in the language in South Korean relating to technology, laws, and culture that North Koreans have never encountered and might as well be Greek. (Yes, MotaWord can do Greek translations. More on that later...)

Much like the variants in species that are found on the Galapagos Islands off of Ecuador, the Korean language spoken in North and South Korea has diverged after seventy years of separation following World War II.

The article, Why Are North and South Korea Divided? gives a thorough and ultimately sad account of the Soviet Union and the US of A’s agreement to divide Korea. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the language from North Korea has integrated some Russian terms while the language from South Korea has adopted American terms.

How does South Korea try to integrate North Koreans into society?

  • 3 months required training for defectors
  • Seoul's Ministry of Unification routinely publishes lists of common words that confuse defectors - a Korean translation of new terms if you will...
  • Private groups teach English to help with those words that have seeped into South Korea
  • There’s even an app, UniVoca that translates South Korean terms into those that can be understood by North Koreans, lets you build a vocabulary list and translate terms by scanning them with the phone’s camera

And there’s a joint initiative underway between the two countries to create a comprehensive Korean dictionary Gyeoremal Keunsajeon, that lists all the words common to both North and South as well as the terms that are different in each country. Funny as it sounds, that will make a South Korean translation to North Korean translation more possible.

For those who enjoy fun videos rather than reading this is a good one explaining the difference between the 2 Korean dialects:



According to the Foreign Service Institute, Korean is one of the five most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Read about their rankings of language difficulty. And given how different Korean is from English, Korean translations must be done by competent translators. The complexity of the syntax, nuance involved and need to understand context all make translating between English and Korean more challenging than between a European language and English.

For businesses looking to have a presence in the South Korean market here are a few facts to note:

  • The economy is the 4th largest in Asia and 11th in the world
  • They have a high standard of living
  • The unemployment rate has averaged 3% over the past 10 years (the US unemployment rate is nearly double that)
  • Their education systems are ranked #1 on many global lists of educational systems by country
This would make a strong argument for having your business enter this market. And once you decide that entering this market is the best course of action, the next step is to have a Korean translation of your content. Let MotaWord handle this important job and you can be sure to enter this market in a way that best represents your company. After all, we do this for many of the world’s top brands (see our Client Showcase)

These previous blog posts can also aid you in selecting MotaWord as your trusted partner for your English to Korean translations:


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