Another 10 Korean Words You Should NEVER Translate to English

Learning a new language is hard… REALLY REALLY hard. On top of all these new sounds you didn’t even know were associated with speaking,  context is key. My Korean language studies have been a bumpy ride of miscommunication and mishaps. Here are another 10 words and phrases where it’s best to ditch Google Translate and read the long form explanation before you cause an international incident.

My first list is here.

10) MMM

Direct Translation: Eung / 응

If you are the kind of learner that likes to play it by ear, good luck getting that into a translator! The seemingly meaningless sound that is acting as filler while you are telling a story is actually the Korean word for ‘yeah.’ Romanized as ‘eung,’ this word is incredibly handy if you know how to use it. However, even the correct translation can be confusing. ‘Eung’ can also show you are following along, you understand, ‘oh really?’ and so on. Think of it as an informal “Ne / Ye,” which was covered in the last list.

 

 

9) You

Direct Translation: Dangshin / 당신

For this one, I imagine myself referring to a shop keeper I don’t know with the word ‘tu’ (Spanish for ‘you’) and am horrified. In Korean, it is even more impolite to use ‘dangshin.’

The dictionary translation is literally ‘you,’ but it is actually very tricky to use and only under specific conditions should it even be attempted (such as:  actually trying to insult someone). The vast majority of people should never be addressed as ‘you,’ and instead, should be called to by given name + ssi (씨) or their title (teacher, doctor, auntie, etc). This word is so confusing, Talk to me in Korean actually dedicated an entire lesson to ‘dangshin.’

 

8) Strange (referring to a person) / Unusual

Direct Translation:  Isanghan / 이상한

To be thought of as ‘unusual’ or a little ‘strange’ is not really an insult when speaking English. In Korean however, ‘strange,’ especially if a man calls a woman ‘isanghan saram’ (a strange person), is similar to calling them a weirdo, and not in a playful manner. There are a ton of other compliments you can use such as calling someone unique or pretty, but don’t say ‘strange.’

 

 

7) Panties

Direct Translation –  Penti / 팬티

I have a confession to make, and I think it is best I say it now. I am a man, 29 yrs old, and I WEAR PANTIES. At least, in Korea I do! This is getting weirder by the minute, so let me explain.

‘Panties’ or ‘penti’ originally came from English, but took a surprise fate. In Korean, it is unisex, and describes both men and women’s most intimate undergarments. So, if you find yourself in a clothing store looking for new underwear in Korea, hold back your laughter, be a little mature, call the nearest attendant and proudly ask, “Where is your panties section?”

 

6) Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, Liancourt Rocks

Direct Translation: Ilboneui bada, Hwang Hae, Dokdo / 일본바다, 황해, 독도

I have added these three as a single entry because there are here for the same reason. Take a second to memorize the English names and I’ll wait here. Done? Okay, now never utter those words in front of a Korean. EVEN IF THEY BRING IT UP, claim absolute ignorance. If they point at an non-Korean map or load Google maps, claim you can’t read. TRUST ME, you’ll thank me later.

The Sea of Japan is how I had the body of water between Japan and Korea labeled on my world map growing up. The Yellow Sea is how I had the body of water between China and Korea labeled. Finally, the Liancourt Rocks are so insignificant and small, I had never heard of them, and if you haven’t either, absolutely no one can blame you. We don’t even consider them islands!

Korea calls these places the East Sea (동해), the West Sea (서해), and Dokdo (독도) respectively. Calling them anything else is a reminder of centuries of Chinese dominance and (more extensively) Japanese imperialism in the region. Dokdo is also referred to as Takeshima in Japan, which might get you killed if you say it out loud in front of a Korean. Quite frankly, I think I speak for the world in saying we don’t really mind what Koreans choose to call them and are happy to appease. East Sea, West Sea, and Dokdo it is!

Note – Since I now fear for my safety, I feel the need to point out that I plugged in those names directly on Google Translate and that’s exactly what I got. Don’t blame the messenger!

Note 2 – Originally, I typed a lengthy explanation about each one of these, but got so caught up,  it turned into another pointless Dokdo argument. Just remember, you CAN’T READ!

 

5) How Are You?

Direct Translation: Otteoke Jineseyo / 어떻게 지내세요

The common English greeting has a translation, or so I thought. There it was in my trusty phrase book’s first page, and I couldn’t be happier that I had a replacement for the tired out ‘annyeong haseyo.’ I went to work the next day and was all “otteoke jineseyo” to every Korean teacher, which in turn, gave me a confused look. “I saw you yesterday” was the response.

This Korean phrase does mean “how are you” literally, but in reality, it is more like “how have you been as I haven’t seen you in quite a while?” As you can see, it is a far less useful phrase. Who the hell wrote this book?

 

4) Bar

Direct Translation – Jujeom / 주점

On my first trip to Jeju, I hit a bit of a snag as my travel buddy Mark started feeling a bit under the weather and stayed back in our hotel. I decided to hit the town and check out the ‘bar scene’ on my own. I came across a place labeled ‘주점’ which Google Translate assured me was just a ‘bar.’ Boy was I in for a surprise.

Jujeom fits one of the many variations of places of female (or male) companionship located all over Korea. This particular one is the type where you pay $200-$300 for a bottle of whiskey and a scantily dressed girl from the bar makes sure you have a good time. How far you take it varies from establishment to establishment. Needless to say, not what I was looking for.

I walked in, and no one was in the front. Something was weird as it was empty, but I assumed it was just a dead night. I just wanted a beer anyways and figured I’d shoot the shit with the bartender or something. Still waiting, I grabbed a menu, and realized it was a bit over my price range, so I showed myself out. As they heard the door, a lady a solid 15 yrs my senior came out rushing to chase me down. She noticed I was not Korean and started considering her options. I noticed what she was wearing and cued in to what was going on. She made one final motion asking me to come in, but I politely excused myself and vowed to never trust Google Translate again.

 

 

3) Excuse Me

Direct Translation: Shille Hamnida / 실례합니다

The phrase “all right” is quite diverse in English. ‘I’m all right’ can be used in a restaurant (as in ‘I don’t need anything else, thanks’), to explain your status (‘I’m okay / well’) or to say something is acceptable. For this, the Korean word “Kwenchanayo / 괜찮아요” translates almost identically.

I made the mistake of assuming the same could be done with ‘excuse me.’ The problem is, in Korean, while ‘shille hamnida’ might work for some cases, many other words are far more common, leading to lots of confusion.

In a bus, “jamshimanyo / 잠시만요” is more mainstream if you want some space to pass by. While in a restaurant, “jeogiyo / 저기요” is the way to get your waiter / waitress’ attention. Even yelling it loud is acceptable. Finally, if asking a question or directions, you are better off with “hokshi / 혹시” which literally means “maybe” but is used to preface a request. Think of it like “would it be possible if…”

2) I never …

Direct translation: Jeoldae … / 절대…

This one is very tricky, and it has more to do with the English rule of ‘double negatives.’ Take for example, the sentence, ‘I will never do it.’ ‘Never’ is negative, and our rules demands the following verb be positive to keep the whole sentence negative (like multiplication). When you need to make a negative sentence in Korean, the entire sentence must agree and be negative. Not doing so will make the meaning unclear.

(I will never do it.) =/= (Jeoldae halgoyeyo / 절대할 거예요.)

(I will never do it.) = (Jeoldae an-halgoyeyo / 절대 안할거예요.)

I used to run into a lot of trouble explaining to people that I have never seen a certain movie. What was worse is that I didn’t realize my mistake for months, so people just thought I was contradicting myself all the time.

 

 

1) Coke

Direct Translation – Cock / 콬


Coke is generally translated as ‘cola’ which describes the drink rather than the brand. However, there was a video a few years back (above) that deserves some explanation, and if you must, a mild chuckle. The long ‘o’ sound in coke is the diphthong ‘ou,’ that is to say, a double sound. From my time teaching primary grammar, it became clear that Koreans have an incredibly hard time pronouncing diphthongs in English. In Korean, vowels (except for double vowels) typically have one sound, so when one sees ‘coke’ is is natural to think 콬 instead of 코우크. Despite the latter being three syllables instead of one, it sounds closer to the correct pronunciation. While this is one word that Koreans should be careful translating, and not foreigners, Sidney insisted I share the video, and indulge you with this lady accidentally asking you whether or not you have male genitalia.

 

Any other words or phrases you have noticed that don’t translate well? Leave em’ in the comments!

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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10 thoughts on “Another 10 Korean Words You Should NEVER Translate to English

  • June 8, 2015 at 5:09 am
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    Really enjoyed reading this list, oh so very true!!!

    Reply
  • May 21, 2016 at 9:24 am
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    Wtf 일본바다?sea of Japan? It must be 동해 that means ‘sea of east’
    It is KOREAN PROPERTY not Japan’s

    Reply
    • May 21, 2016 at 9:35 am
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      Directions are relative to your perspective. It is not “east” to Japan, or Mexico, or the US, or to anyone in the western hemisphere. It is only directly east of Korea, so the name “east sea” is only useful if you’re Korean.
      I would argue, that the term “east sea” is as possessive term than “Sea of Japan” because the latter could also talk about the nearest land mass that makes the body of water, which is not an uncommon way of naming a sea anywhere in the world.

      Reply
      • August 14, 2016 at 6:27 am
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        Lol. I truly enjoyed reading this article. Though I came here on accident, it was very helpful. 감사합니다!

        Reply
  • August 21, 2016 at 1:38 am
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    About the double negative. It exists in many languages. The sentence “I have never seen this film”
    in Italian: “Non ho mai visto questo film”. (non=not and mai=never)
    In French:”Je n’ai jamais vu ce film” (n’=not and jamais=never)
    in Greek: Ποτέ δεν είδα αυτή την ταινία “Pote den eida aftin tin tainia” (den=not and pote=never)

    It seems strange to you because I understand that in Spanish it’s not used.
    (Nunca he visto esta película) Neither in German (Ich habe niemals diesen Film gesehen)
    Neither in English, of course.

    Reply
  • October 8, 2016 at 5:40 pm
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    Actually the “sea of Japan” is just wrong one

    Reply
  • August 16, 2018 at 7:44 pm
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    Oh, the 6) is quite danger one to post. Haha. As you can see above, it’s REALLY historical and national thing to be dealt by non-Koreans. Koreans are strongly strict and sensitive when it comes to their national & historical controversy. I think it would have been better if that 6) had been about the information that you never translate those “Sea of japan,” etc. into Korean directly.

    Reply

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