Applying Best Practices to the Translation of Korean Survey Responses to English

How do you create a good translation of responses to surveys and questionnaires? With smooth target-language sentences and phrases that convey the rough meanings of the source? Or with translations that accurately and consistently represent the way the original writers expressed themselves, including as many nuances as possible between terms and writing styles, and even mistakes and truncated phrasings?

I know these are leading questions, but I find it necessary to explain. If a customer is unable to read the Korean source, they may not realize that an excellent English translation will likely include funny punctuation, broken sentences, awkward phrasings and other apparent blemishes in order to communicate the source meanings more accurately. In fact, these unexpected variations in the translation can actually make it appear that the translator was careless.

Many decisions in translating this type of content require that the translator strike a balance between accuracy and readability. I usually put more emphasis on readability for survey responses than, say, for legal text. But I still make an effort to stay as close to the source as possible.


I recently translated several hundred responses from consumers to a survey question about why they chose one of two specific technologies. There were a lot of similarities between responses and, in particular, three particular words were used to describe the advantages of the technology that each respondent chose. 

  • 간편하다 – simple, convenient, easy
  • 편하다 – comfortable, relaxed, easy
  • 편리하다 – convenient, handy, easy
  • There were actually two more which came up one time each (편의하다 – also "convenience"; 편안하다 – more like "peace of mind") but I won't include these below in the discussion.

As you can see, there is considerable overlap in the meanings of the words; they are almost interchangeable. However, while it would have been easy just to translate them all the same way (such as "easy" or "convenient") or to not bother to use the same word each time, I decided to assign each a specific English translation and use that consistently throughout the project as follows.

  • 간편하다 – simple to use
  • 편하다 – comfortable to use
  • 편리하다 – convenient

Strictly speaking, the Korean didn't generally include the word "use" in the source, but because "simple" and "comfortable" can have other meanings when written on their own, I added "to use" to maintain fidelity of meaning. 

Sometimes "comfortable to use" seemed a bit awkward in context, but in keeping with my desire to give the client as nuanced (but consistent) a delivery as possible, I stuck with my phrasing. However, in one case, I translated 간편하다 to "tidy" rather than "simple" because it was clearly the more proper translation.

Verb and Sentence Forms

Another issue that comes up in Korean survey responses is related to inconsistency of grammar used. Respondents generally write in as quick and easy a manner as possible and often don't use complete sentences or check their writing, and each person has their own style and terminology. So, as just one example, when responding to the question of why they chose a particular technology, there were various ways that respondents expressed "convenient".

  1. 편리 – This is the shortest way to say it and so my translation here was just "convenient".
  2. 편리성 – The last character converts the adjective to a noun, so "convenience" is the closer translation.
  3. 편리하다 – This is the root form of the word but can also be used as a complete standalone sentence in the short form. Although the Korean doesn't include the words "It is", in English we would say "It's convenient", and so this is how I translated it.
  4. 편리합니다 – This is the formal form of #3. In these cases, I made sure to write "It is" rather than just the contraction "It's", which would be about as close as we can get in English to representing the difference between these two versions.
  5. 편리함 – The last character converts the adjective to a noun, but the nuance is a bit different than #2 above. It's basically an abbreviated form of #3 (편리하다) and so I translated this in an abbreviated way too, by not adding "It is" or "I" as a subject and just using "Convenient" (same as #1).
  6. 편리해서 – This one and the next four all include implied causation: "Why did you choose it? Because it is convenient." But "because" is a long word; in this case, the form of "because" in the Korean is short (just one character) and the shortest way to express the same in English would be "as it is convenient".
  7. 편리하니까 or 편리하니 – I chose "since it is convenient", not because ~니까 or ~니 specifically mean "since", but in order to distinguish it from the others.
  8. 편리함으로 and 편리하기에 – I couldn't think of another way to express either of these without getting really long (e.g. "due to the fact that it is convenient" or "due to it being convenient"), and since these only appeared once each, I broke my rule of insisting on a unique translation for each version and went with "as it is convenient" (same as #6).
  9. 편리하기 때문에 – The ~기 때문에 is nice and long, so "because it is convenient" was the suitable variant since it uses "because", a long word.

This is a cultural matter, but Koreans often avoid giving responses that would seem too direct. Rather than write "It is convenient", they might say something closer to "It would probably be convenient". At the risk of the translation sounding a little different than what American survey respondents would have written, I attempted to reproduce this nuance also. As there was more than one version of it, I came up with set-piece wordings that I used throughout, even though the meanings are basically the same.

  • 편리할 것 같다 – It would probably be convenient
  • 편리할 듯하다 – It seems it would be convenient

Other Issues

As far as punctuation goes, in cases (such as full stops) where Korean uses the same punctuation as English, I included it if it was in the source and left it off if not. For punctuation expressed differently between English and Korean, I tried to translate in a way that gave the English the same "flavor" as the Korean. (e.g. Korean's like to put a tilde (~) after sentences and phrases to give an informal feeling; ellipsis marks (…) might be a good way to communicate the same thing in English.)

In nearly every Korean response that would have been translated as a full sentence, the subject was left out. That's normal for Korean, especially in this situation where the subject is particularly clear from the context and/or not particularly relevant. As shown above, sometimes I just used "It" as the subject to represent accurately the meaning in English. In other cases, the subject "I" is implied, and so I added this, even though it was not in the source. A few times I guessed.

There are plenty of other small ways to maintain precision and consistency in a task like this. For example, some responses use the word 차량 and others 자동차 or 차. While the words may be very similar, "vehicle" is clearly the right translation for 차량, "car" for 차 and "automobile" for 자동차. Picking a term and sticking with it throughout may not normally be a big deal but it is still a best practice.

How about misspellings in the Korean source? If they didn't impact the translation and the meaning was clear, I just translated those into correctly spelled English as it's not possible to recreate the same mistake with English letters and explaining these individually to the client would not have been worth anybody's time.

Ever so occasionally, the Korean used a term that implies a somewhat longer meaning in English but didn't come out and say it explicitly. For example, in this job there was a phrase about not using data, but what it really meant was not using up the monthly allocation of data under one's phone rate plan. I translated this as "without using [one's] data [quota]" to show what was in the original and what was implied.

Alas, these rules aren't always hard and fast because of the language differences. I've been known to compromise consistency in order to increase readability if it doesn't detract from correctness. In this job, the adverb 별도의 seemed to be better translated as "separately" sometimes, but "additionally" in other cases, and so I tried to match this translation to the situation.

Translating survey responses may often look easy since the responses can be so similar to each other. However, making the extra effort to translate in the way I've described above helps to give the client a better final product, even though it requires more effort by the translator.

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